NASHVILLE — What’s in store for the Toronto Blue Jays?
For most of Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins’ tenure, which began in late 2015, the Jays operated in a mostly conservative manner. They made an exception, signing left-hander Hyun-Jin Ryu for $80 million, outfielder George Springer for $150 million, and right-hander Kevin Guzman for $110 million. But they rarely played at the top of the market.
This offseason, the Jays are pursuing big names in free agent two-way superstar Shohei Ohtani and outfielder Juan Soto in a trade, among notable departures. And the urgency of Toronto’s response appears to reflect a series of circumstances that are pushing the club into win-now mode.
Those situations include:
• The Jays’ disappointing and controversial exit from the postseason when manager John Schneider pulled Jose Berrios from a shutout win in the fourth inning of Game 2 of the Division Series against the Minnesota Twins.The Blue Jays lost that game and were eliminated, after which Atkins assigned sole responsibility to Schneider and then take on greater responsibility. The Jays, 0-6 in the past four postseasons, haven’t won in the playoffs since 2016.
• The fan base’s restlessness over the team’s performance caused ticket prices to skyrocket at a time when Rogers Center was undergoing a $300 million renovation. Teams like the Yankees, Cardinals, Giants and Red Sox are also dealing with fan anxiety, but the problem is perhaps even worse for the Jays, who are trying to sell new premium seats to justify the cost of renovations.
• Shortstop Bo Bichette and first baseman Vladimir Guerrero Jr. are both two years away from free agency and are threats to the team’s future competitiveness. The Jays have been unable to sign extensions with either player, raising questions about each player’s desire to remain. Guerrero has also regressed offensively since his monster 2021 season and may not be as attractive an extension candidate as he once was.
• the potential for Shapiro and Atkins to be at risk of losing their jobs; Shapiro is under contract through 2025 and Atkins through 2026, but the pressure appears to be mounting. Jays owner Rogers Communications has approved construction of a new $100 million player development facility in Dunedin, Florida, along with a $300 million stadium renovation. As a publicly traded company, Rogers certainly hopes to recoup its investment.
The Jays are no longer an upstart team. On the contrary, last season they exceeded the luxury tax threshold for the first time, but underperformed. And now, as they face the possibility of losing third baseman Matt Chapman, outfielder Kevin Kiermaier and others in free agency, they need to keep the team competitive and sell tickets to their newly renovated park. In order to do so, it is necessary to inject human resources.
There’s little guarantee the Jays will land Ohtani, who is also being pursued by the Dodgers, Cubs and potentially other clubs. Ohtani is expected to sign a contract worth at least $500 million. Although the Jays play in Canada’s largest city and represent all of Canada, they typically don’t get into bidding wars with teams from the biggest markets in the U.S., much less beat them.
Soto may also be promising. The Yankees are among the other teams interested in the outfielder, and the Padres understandably want a big package for a hitter with a career OPS of .946 (.844 for Guerrero, .826 for Bichette). I’m here. The problem with Soto is that he costs more than $30 million a year in rental fees. He is represented by Scott Boras and is almost certain to hit the open market after the season.
Add it all up and the Jays are in a dangerous position. Their pitching was strong last season, posting the second-best ERA in the American League, but their offense was decidedly average, and they tied for 14th in runs scored. Springer, who is in the fourth year of a six-year contract, is struggling. And Toronto’s farm system isn’t necessarily full of talent. Baseball America rated the game 6th worst in the world. Midseason Organizational Rankings.
Therefore, you will need a big splash. Without that, the Jays could be headed for decline, especially if Bichette and Guerrero leave after 2025. The prospect is frightening. The Jays can’t afford to rebuild. If they set ticket prices high and enter a losing cycle, fans will be further alienated.
Ohtani, who has said he wants to play as a winner after six consecutive losing seasons with the Angels, may have too many questions looking at the Jays. Or he might be intrigued by the idea of playing in one of the cleanest and most diverse cities in North America, especially if the Jays give him the most money.
Soto will be more of a short-term play, but if he can lead the Jays deeper into the postseason, he could prove to be worth the price in both player and money. It might happen. At that point, perhaps the Jays could sign him to the same type of contract they clearly want to give Ohtani.
Ohtani, Soto, the Jays need something, anything. Their situation is dire. Massive promotion is warranted. In most cases, you have no choice but to make a big swing. And to connect.
(Top photo of Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Shohei Ohtani: John E. Sokolowski / USA Today)