2020 was an interesting year for baseball. Quite frankly it was an interesting year for any sport. Better yet, 2020 has been an interesting year in general. For the Toronto Blue Jays, expectations were at ground zero coming into the 2020 campaign, especially with the club not knowing where it would host its home games leading up to Opening Day.
Following the shocking four-year, $80 million contract handed out to ace Hyun-jin Ryu during the offseason, the Jays made a surprising push for postseason action late into the regular season, despite dealing with a number of plaguing injuries throughout the course of the season. But October ball just wasn’t in the cards for Toronto, which fell from its American League Wild Card series with the Tampa Bay Rays in just two games (3-1 and 8-2 losses).
After watching the Los Angeles Dodgers come out on top of the World Series as COVID cup champs, Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins wasted little time putting the wheels in motion on the 2020 free-agent class, signing mid-season acquisition Robbie Ray to a one-year contract, following a brief showing with the club this past year.
The left-handed starting pitcher certainly had his moments for Toronto in limited action, putting up a split stat line that featured a 1-1 record, a 4.79 ERA, a 1.74 WHIP and a 25/14 K/BB ratio in 20.2 innings pitched as a Blue Jay. Coming from Arizona to Toronto at the 2020 deadline, Atkins and running mate Ross Shapiro made their intentions known as buyers, following an earlier move that saw right-hander Taijaun Walker join the crew in a deal with the Seattle Mariners.
With Ray putting pen to paper on the one-year, $8 million contract for 2021, the Blue Jays hope to use that contract as a calling card to fellow free agents, setting the precedent that Toronto is a winning market ready for more key additions.
“I think it says a lot about Robbie, as a teammate, as a competitor, and what’s important to him,” Atkins told reporters Thursday. “The confidence he has in himself coming into not the very best position if you want to try to have a bounce-back type of year. Considering smaller ballparks, pretty good lineups and two of the better teams in the game, that speaks to his confidence in himself. He is focused on winning and wants to be here. The environment he was in as different as it will be when we’re back in Toronto is definitely a positive for us.”
Yes, the Blue Jays played the majority of their home games out of Buffalo’s Sahlen Field this past season, easily giving the club the worst possible chance at home success. Despite that, the team went 17-9 in Buffalo, including a 5-2 record against fellow American League East Division rival New York Yankees. According to Atkins, the club is set to play 2021 at home in Toronto.
“Our management team worked very hard to reimagine how the Buffalo experience could be improved and made better and safe and workable to for all our players,” he said. “But when the players came in they felt like they mattered and that we really thought about them in all of this. When you have a good, young team that is focused on the team itself, it really makes it hard to be negative and point fingers and come up with excuses. And we had that. It was challenging to be playing out of Buffalo at times, but it was certainly fulfilling. Hopefully, we never have to do it again.”
Already setting the tone as the first MLB team to make an offseason roster player signing, the Jays are looking to remain in the hunt for further talent by way of free agency – something that was nearly unthinkable under the Rogers Canada ownership until the shocking announcement of the four-year deal awarded to Cy Young finalist Hyun-jin Ryu last offseason.
“We’re just focused on winning and trying to put this organization in a better spot,” Atkins added Thursday. “We spend the majority of our time on just making sure that we are in on every avenue of making our team better. One of the best ways to win championships is when you have really good players, and many of them. We do have several of them, but we are in the market for acquiring another one… Ideally we get better defensively this offseason, and ideally we get better from a pitching standpoint this offseason; but really, we just have to get better. And one of the ways to get better is by acquiring a very good player, or hopefully two.”
This year’s free-agent crop includes the likes of pitchers Trevor Bauer, Chris Archer, Masahiro Tanaka, Charlie Morton, Jose Quintana, and James Paxton, amongst others. The list of position players available to sign is also highly regarded. Marcel Ozuna, Jackie Bradley Jr., George Springer, Marcus Semien, and Didi Gregorious headline the bunch. Among the list of Blue Jays free agents are Taijaun Walker, Matt Shoemaker, Ken Giles, Anthony Bass, Joe Panik, Jonathan Villar, and Chase Anderson.
“Winning championships starts with guys like Bo and Vladdy, Teoscar and Cavan,” Atkins said. “And then just the progress of someone like Nate Pearson and the acquisition of Hyun-jin Ryu; we need to add to that. I think other teams realize that we are in that market. Certainly, the players’ representation realizes that and by now players have recognized that. We are confident in our plan, and our plan has been communicated from many years ago. The start of that free agency and spending became a bit more aggressive last year with some of the acquisitions that we made, and this will be a second time that we take a big step forward.”
With plenty of reports linking Toronto to a variety of different shortstops, one begs the question as to how a young Bo Bichette is handling both A.) a rebound from an injury-filled 2020, and B.) the potential of dueling for starts with an apparent incoming fellow shortstop. But according to Atkins, he and Bichette are in “constant communication”.
“He knows our confidence and conviction to him and how strongly we feel about him as our future shortstop,” he said. “I love his confidence and conviction in it as well. It is extrememly powerful in our clubhouse the amount of confidence that Bo has. If we can add a player, or two players, or three players – and maybe that takes another offseason or deadline – but someone who has that much impact, that really starts to move the needle forward. I just don’t want to eliminate us from someone of that caliber if they happen to play the position of shortstop. Bo understands that 100 percent.”
The other piece of the puzzle, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. has been enjoying quite a lean offseason himself. The big infielder has gone on the record a number of times the past few weeks indicating his desire to shift to third base.
“Right after the season ended I told them I played first base this year, but next year the third base is mine,” Guerrero told Dominican scribe Yancen Pujols via translation. “I’m already improving my skills as a third baseman. I still have my first baseman’s mitts out there in case one day I have to play first base or if in a game something happens and I have to be moved to first base, but I’m going back to my position, which is third base.”
Guerrero has taken a proactive approach to his training and has vowed to get himself into better shape.
Reportedly down an astounding 32 pounds since the start of the 2020 season, he has lost upwards of 15 pounds since falling to Tampa Bay in late-September. The 21-year-old now consumes nothing but water every evening after dinner and has been cycling through various weight training regimens, mixed with heavy doses of cardio – emphasis on the heavy.
“I finished the season more or less and put that in mind,” Guerrero told the elCaribe Dominican outlet. “I started with the slow swing and when I lost 20 pounds I started feeling better. I learned after these months of the coronavirus that if you don’t work hard, you can’t be in the Major Leagues. Why do Fernando Tatis and Juan Soto put up good numbers? Because they work hard. I got the hits I got because of the ability that God gave me. But I knew it from the beginning. I know I did it wrong.”
Should Guerrero find a permanent place on third base, first base may open up to former DH Rowdy Tellez, who enjoyed a breakout campaign prior to an injury that cost him the second half of the already shortened 2020 season. Although not one to show his cards too soon, Atkins fully supports Guerrero’s comments and says that he is excited to see where his young power hitter will land in the lineup for 2021.
“Vladdy has a unique background, being the son of a Hall of Famer, born in Montreal, raised in the Dominican Republic, and has had the superstar label on his back since the age of 14,” Atkins said. “He has just focused so much on hitting and playing the game, that now he’s learning that he’s gotta focus on his body. That happens at different times for every player. For some guys, it doesn’t happen until they are 33 and they have a back injury. Remember, he’s 21 years old. The fame, the success, the failure, the hype… and now coming out at 21 years old and saying, ‘I made a mistake, and here’s how I’m going to correct it,’ that’s progress. He’s still got work to do. It’s a week-to-week, day-to-day thing and we will be right there with him in that process.”