Coming into the offseason, the up-and-coming Toronto Blue Jays were in position be one of the few teams willing to spend significant dollars. They made the postseason last year wasted no time getting down to business this winter. They re-signed lefty Robbie Ray in MLB's very first transaction of the offseason.
The Blue Jays have not done anything since.
Well, they have not done anything except give team president Mark Shapiro a five-year contract extension and finish second in the running for several big-name players who wound up with other teams. Consider some of Toronto's near misses:
- Kevin Gausman: Offered three years and $40 million before he accepted the qualifying offer (per The Athletic's Ken Rosenthal)
- Liam Hendriks: Toured their renovated spring training complex before he signed with the White Sox (per Sportsnet's Shi Davidi)
- Ha-Seong Kim: Offered five years before he took a four-year deal with the Padres (per ESPN's Daniel Kim)
- DJ LeMahieu: Offered four years and $78 million before he re-signed with the Yankees (per MLB Network's Jon Heyman)
- Francisco Lindor: Offered Cleveland higher-ceiling prospects before he was traded to the Mets (per MLB.com's Anthony Castrovince)
- Tomoyuki Sugano: Made a contract offer before he decided to return to Japan (per MLB Network's Jon Heyman)
On one hand, it's good the Blue Jays are casting a wide net and have been in on so many talented players and free agents. On the other hand, being the runner-up in a free agent or trade negotiation is pretty meaningless. It's great you got to the station early, but you're either on the train or you're not, you know?
The Blue Jays have an enviable young core -- I would take Bo Bichette, Cavan Biggio, Lourdes Gurriel Jr., and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. on my team eight days a week and twice on Sundays -- and Hyun-Jin Ryu showed they are capable of reeling in a big fish. It can be done. It just hasn't been done yet this offseason. They're still waiting for someone to take their money.
"(To place) all of the emphasis on a successful offseason on a few names is probably not the right way to focus on it. We need to get better and I'm 100 percent confident we will get better," Shapiro told reporters, including The Athletic's Kaitlyn McGrath, last month. "That could come in the form of four very good players. It can come in the form of two elite players, but we're going to get better."
Trevor Bauer, J.T. Realmuto, and George Springer are all available and Toronto has been connected to all three in recent weeks. (It's been nearly two months since their talks with Springer were said to have "progressed beyond talking," for what it's worth.) They're currently after Brad Hand..
Springer is an ideal fit for a Blue Jays team that lacks a natural center fielder and a veteran hitter with postseason chops. Bauer is an obvious fit and he would slot in nicely alongside Ryu atop the rotation. Signing Realmuto would allow Toronto to trade a young catcher like Alejandro Kirk for pitching. As talented as the Blue Jays are, it's not hard to see how the top free agents fit.
Jays have checked in on Realmuto but seem more focused now on George Springer, as CF is their greater need. Battle on GS is with at least the Mets.— Jon Heyman (@JonHeyman) January 15, 2021
The bad news is the Blue Jays may be (likely are) at a disadvantage during free agent negotiations because it's still unclear where they will play home games in 2021. Canada's quarantine requirements have forced the NBA's Toronto Raptors to play their home games in Tampa, and the NHL had to create a separate division for its seven Canadian teams to avoid border-crossing.
Last year the Blue Jays played home games at Buffalo's Sahlen Field, home of their Triple-A affiliate. They could do that again this year, though there is expected to be a Triple-A season in 2021, so what then? The more likely outcome may be the Blue Jays playing home games at their spring training ballpark this coming season, or at least until the border restrictions are lifted.
Looking at the American League landscape, the White Sox are the only contender to meaningfully improve this winter. Cleveland traded Lindor and Carlos Carrasco. The Yankees brought back LeMahieu and essentially replaced Masahiro Tanaka with Corey Kluber. The Rays traded Blake Snell and let Charlie Morton walk. The Athletics, Astros, and Twins have been mostly quiet.
All that cost-cutting and standing pat equals a tremendous opportunity for the Blue Jays to put themselves among the American League's elite. The talented young core is in place and the financial wherewithal to improve seemingly exists. The Blue Jays have not yet improved, however, and finishing second in so many trade and free agent scenarios is no consolation price.
Pitchers and catchers are due to report to spring training in about a month. The Blue Jays still have time to upgrade their roster and upgrade it in a significant way with Bauer or Springer or others. To date, that big fish has been elusive, and perhaps that's an indication Shapiro & Co. have to step outside their comfort zone and offer that extra year or extra million bucks to close a deal, otherwise they're going to keep coming up short.