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Blue Jays’ free-agent groundwork could soon yield payoffs

TORONTO – About a month into the off-season, the Toronto Blue Jays have surveyed the landscape, done their legwork and apparently have their budget for 2021. Now, general manager Ross Atkins says, they’re ready for action.

“It doesn’t take much at this point for a deal to happen,” he said Wednesday during the Toronto chapter of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America’s annual meeting. “I don’t know if it’s days or a week or two before things start to pick up for the Toronto Blue Jays. But we’re prepared.”

Prepared for what exactly remains the subject of much intrigue. They continue to be connected to new names daily, while some industry chatter wonders if a trade is in the offing. The Blue Jays have a surplus behind the plate and “a lot of teams have approached us about our catching,” Atkins said, declining to elaborate on a follow up.

No matter their specific aims, they’re big-game hunting, and making it known that they’re big-game hunting, which is an indication that they’re confident of landing a prime target.

Hence, even with Atkins conceding that “feeling the interest back has reshaped” their current pursuits, the Blue Jays feel that “this is an opportunity to not only impact this team this off-season, but it’s an opportunity to impact this (team) for years to come.”

“As we’ve talked about, this is just one step in the process, as last trade deadline was, as last off-season was,” he continued. “This is another point in time where we have an opportunity to add talent. And what we’re thinking about is not only positional fits, whether that be pitching or outfield/infield/catching, but also how it will impact our environment for some time to come.

“So that’s something we’re talking to free agents and targeting free agents for, is how they will influence Cavan Biggio and Bo Bichette and Vladdy (Guerrero Jr.) and Ryan Borucki and Jordan Romano and others.”

That’s a description befitting the likes of George Springer and D.J. LeMahieu, two players believed to be high atop their list, and other names they’ve been connected to, such as J.T. Realmuto. The sudden flooding of the free-agent market with players non-tendered ahead of Wednesday’s deadline – a deeply troubling purge of the game’s middle class – created some new opportunities for the Blue Jays, but they’re not achieving Atkins’ stated goals in that shopping aisle alone.

They also seem to have received approvals from team owner Rogers Communications Inc., which also owns this website, for their spending plans. Asked if the club’s 2021 budget has been OK’d, Atkins replied: “There have been several interactions, as there always are. We feel well-positioned. We feel like everyone understands our plan and everyone understands our opportunities. We feel well-positioned to proceed on executing them.”

Let’s condense those 33 words down to one, as that sure sounds like a yes.

Within that plan, Atkins said the Blue Jays “are in a good position to make the team better on both sides of the ball,” although he stressed that the club’s resources weren’t “unlimited.”

How those resources get divvied up bears watching, as after Robbie Ray was re-signed, Atkins said the Blue Jays felt good about covering a season’s worth of innings, and were focused on the quality of their innings as opposed to the quantity from here on out.

Save for ace Trevor Bauer, some of the better starting options are already off the free-agent board, which is why the Blue Jays seem positioned to strike on the position-player front first and secure impact there, circling back to the pitching market afterwards.

“I would say that’s a fair assessment, but it’s not by any means that I feel strongly that is the case,” said Atkins. “But I think the way that you framed it is fair.”

What they manage to accomplish in terms of adds will help determine how they line up the pieces already in place.

The decision to non-tender Travis Shaw, while not surprising, underlines that the Blue Jays believe they will find an infield upgrade. LeMahieu is the ideal option both from an offensive standpoint and his ability to play at any of the bases, but he may be impossible to pry from the New York Yankees, or perhaps the Mets.

Allowing the Blue Jays to examine a host of options is that Biggio can remain primarily at second base, move over to third or be bounced around the diamond. Atkins also won’t rule out the possibility that Guerrero is part of the solution at third base, describing him as one of the variables impacting where Biggio ends up playing, the other being who they end up acquiring.

“The great thing, and it’s the biggest compliment I can possibly make, at least in my view, to Cavan, is he has two incredible attributes that give us an incredible opportunity to have the situation just described,” said Atkins. “One is he has the athleticism and ability to do it. And two, he has the openness and values it himself and what it means for a chance to win. I think he prioritizes that. He prioritizes team and that’s a huge benefit for the Toronto Blue Jays.”

Even better would be if the Blue Jays reward him with some certainty about his defensive responsibilities for 2021. Given all the groundwork that’s been laid in recent weeks, and with the virtual winter meetings due to begin next week, payoffs on a number of fronts may soon start coming.


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