Is Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins a master negotiator?

We read into the hidden meaning behind him saying, “We feel really good about the team that we have.”
Jun 28, 2023; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins talks with the
Jun 28, 2023; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins talks with the / Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

After a rather nonchalant and uninspiring New Year’s presser with GM Ross Atkins on Wednesday, Blue Jays fans may be feeling a little down about the state of their team, and the moves (or lack thereof) to improve the roster so far this offseason. But did we all just witness a masterclass in negotiation?

The AL East rival Yankees traded for a franchise altering talent in Juan Soto, along with 2022 Gold Glover Trent Grisham and Alex Verdugo. The Red Sox acquired Tyler O’Neill, Vaughn Grissom and signed Lucas Giolito. World Series hungry Arizona traded for Eugenio Suárez, re-signed Lourdes Gurriel Jr., and added LHP Eduardo Rodriguez. Atkins’ predecessor added Jarred Kelenic, Aaron Bummer and Chris Sale in Atlanta, all via trade.

After Toronto missed out on opening the bank to give $700M to free agent Shohei Ohtani, the front office pivoted to run back the same outfield by re-signing Kevin Kiermaier, while adding versatility redundancy with Isiah Kiner-Falefa, who at an AAV of $7.5M will cost about three times as much as the arbitration eligible Santiago Espinal for similar right-handed offensive production (2023 OPS of .646 versus Espy at .644) as they both enter their age 29 seasons.

But this team clearly needs more offence. The 2023 Blue Jays were 11th in the majors on OPS at .746 and 14th on runs scored (746). That was a whole 100 runs less than the juggernaut 2021 Jays’ offence scored when they had the league’s third most runs. In 2023, the Jays hit only 188 home runs to rank 16th in baseball; the 2021 team slugged 262 HRs to lead MLB.

So was it just posturing for Ross Atkins to say, “We feel really good about the team that we have,” and that “I don’t think we’ll add three players. I think, most likely, that it’s closer to one”? He also noted on the call that “We are not actively looking to trade away from our major league team.”

How to replace 9 wins?

Using Baseball Reference’s Wins Above Replacement (WAR) metric, the Blue Jays saw 13 wins leave in free agency from the 2023 roster. That includes 47 HRs off the bats of Matt Chapman, Brandon Belt and Whit Merrifield, as well as almost 2 WAR from the arms of Hyun Jin Ryu, Jordan Hicks and Jay Jackson.

The Kiermaier and IKF signings have since added back 4 wins, leaving a deficit of 9 wins that - absent any further additions - would have to come from internal improvements. And indeed, in his presser, Ross Atkins alluded to just that, saying, “We feel like last year was just a blip in terms of run-scoring.”

To make up a chunk of that 9 win deficit internally isn’t an outrageous expectation; assuming the pitching staff enjoys the same extreme good health it did in 2023, when just six starters (including the since-departed Ryu) combined for 158 of the team’s 162 starts, the bats of Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Alejandro Kirk, George Springer and Daulton Varsho could revert to their career averages and score more runs. Atkins also suggested they are still looking to add a left-handed OF or DH bat.

Guerrero is just two years removed from a season when he hit 48 home runs and drove in 111 RBI. He’s going in to his age 25 season, and if he could improve from his 2.0 WAR of 2023 to 4.0~5.0 WAR, or even replicate his 6.7 WAR, MVP-finalist season of 2021, that would set him up for a huge contract extension and add 2~4 wins.

Kirk saw a drop-off from a 3.9 WAR in 2022 to only 1.9 last year; Varsho fell from 4.9 in 2022 to 3.9 in 2023. If they can both get back to their 2022 selves, that’s an addition of 3 wins. Plus any turnaround by starter Alek Manoah, who went from a +6 WAR in 2022 to -1.1 in 2023, would be an added bonus.

Springer fell from being a 4.0 WAR player in 2022 to 2.1 in 2023. He’s starting his age 34 season, and could be on the downside of his career and a far cry from his 5.0+ WAR days with Houston, but if he can stay healthy, there’s no reason he can’t improve upon his .732 OPS in 2023, a full 103 points below his career average of .835. One more win from Springer gets the deficit down some more.

We can dream that Atkins will add a 4.0+ WAR player like free agent Cody Bellinger given likely upside to the 2024 payroll, which as of today is projected to be $32M less than the 2023 luxury tax payroll of $257M. Or a cheaper 1.0~2.0 WAR DH-type in Joc Pederson’s left-handed bat, or J.D. Martinez’s or Rhys Hoskins’ righty swing?

Who was Atkins speaking to at his New Year’s presser?

So what was Atkins trying to say with his “we feel really good about the team that we have” and 2023 “was just a blip in terms of run-scoring” comments? After all, the Blue Jays have season ticket packages to sell following a $300M face lift to Rogers Centre.

Well from a negotiating standpoint, Atkins is probably right to say they are happy with the roster as is. Why would he want to give any more leverage to free agents or potential trade partners? Could he have just been posturing as part of a negotiating strategy, which is probably the right tactic at this stage of the offseason?

Betting on an internal power resurgence is certainly a bold strategy, and one that didn’t work at the 2023 trade deadline when Atkins also bet on a mean reversion from the underperforming bats of Guerrero, Springer and Chapman. Is the second try a charm?

Or have we just witnessed a master negotiator at the height of his powers, working hard to get players and their agents to bend a knee? Because that’s potentially the only plausible explanation for the nonchalance we just witnessed about the current state of the offseason and this team from Ross?!