Beginning the offseason with a quick signing of left-hander Robbie Ray and officially non-tendered A.J. Cole and Travis Shaw, the Toronto Blue Jays – led by Ross Atkins and Mark Shapiro – have built up significant competition in the free agent market. With new potential targets swirling through the rumor mill by the minute, Toronto has been linked to a number of high-class free agents, even before this past week’s announcement of non-tendered players now officially available. One of those recurring names is that of free agent outfielder George Springer.
“We stay in regular contact,” Atkins admitted of his conversations with Casey Close of Springer’s managing agent Excel Sports Management. “Like any other agency that’s representing, they have several free agents. At least once a week we are connecting with Mr. Close, so there are several agents we are speaking with. They do a great job. I love dealing with and talking to them there. We have some consistent contact with Casey.”
Springer, a proven postseason winner, would add significant defensive depth to the outfield while combining a powerful bat to an already potent top of the order. The World Series MVP, three-time MLB All-Star, and two-time Silver Slugger is, of course, the best player available to any team in free agency. The Jays have already exhausted an interesting sales pitch to Springer, in sending Craig Biggio (Hall of Fame Houston Astros second baseman, and father of Toronto infielder Cavan Biggio) to the free agent in hopes of building that Houston-Toronto relationship in advance of a potential deal.
Interestingly, Excel Sports Management serves as the represented agency for many of the 2020-21 free agent class, including: Masahiro Tanaka, Kyle Schwarber, Jake Odorizzi, Michael Brantley, Joc Pederson, Tyler Clippard, Didi Gregorius, and Toronto’s own Taijaun Walker.
As per the available spending money that Atkins, Shapiro and Co. have at their fingertips, well, according to Atkins, Rogers Canada is on board with the team picking up another significant contract this offseason.
“We are in a good position,” Atkins said of the Jays’ roster makeup. “We have communicated our plan for years, not just days. Last year we had an offseason where we spent a lot of money and added to the group, and at the deadline we did that again. We have continued to talk about our plan and Rogers has continued to support us. We are confident that we are going to be able to add to the team. The priority for us in an ideal world would be to get better in a condensed way: adding a very good player to the group of very good players we already have. We added Hyun-jin Ryu last offseason, and this year we would like to add another player of that caliber or better.”
On top of fellow free agent outfielder Marcell Ozuna, another interesting name for consideration as an outfielder/designated hitter is that of recently non-tendered Kyle Schwarber. Yes, that Kyle Schwarber – the highly anticipated back catcher-turned-outfielder-turned-DH. And the same player whom the Cubs held onto in order to ship Gleyber Torres to the New York Yankees in the Aroldis Chapman deal of 2016.
“We talk about versatility, we talk about depth all the time,” Atkins said. “But when you get to the point where you’re using that DH spot with someone who’s dying to be on the field and has the ability to be on the field, you’re adding that amount of versatility and depth but also elite offensive performance, and that’s where we want to be. We may not get there this offseason, but we will get there at some point. So if we aren’t able to create a position player roster of that caliber or move someone like Teoscar Hernandez or Lourdes Gurriel into those DH spots because we acquired another good outfielder, we are only DHing one of our infielders because we want to give them a day off. That’s our goal. But by no means do we want to eliminate ourselves from considering someone who is more of a DH.”
Filling that DH spot at times for the Blue Jays last season was Vladimir Guerrero Jr. He also spent time at first base, however, his ultimate desire is to play the hot corner. This offseason has seen the hefty power-hitter make significant strides in his overall fitness, in an attempt to help Jays management understand his commitment to earning third base.
“We are really excited about the progress of Vladdy,” Atkins said Thursday. “Where he is at only 21 years old, to have gone through the success, and I wouldn’t say failure, but that setback. He felt as though he didn’t realize his ability last year or play up to his potential and even the year before. So he is motivated and driven, and hopefully that means he is DHing a lot less, ideally. As lofty as that sounds, it really comes down to two things: 1.) is just body count, and 2.) would be the reps. So it’s not just as simple as he gets down to a certain weight and that just happens, but he has the hardest things already acquired. The characteristics or attributes that make you a good defender are hands and arms and he has those, for sure.”
Coming into the abbreviated 2020 season at roughly 280 pounds, Guerrero was immediately shifted to first base, which clearly embarrassed the youngster. He got down to 250 pounds by the end of the season, and has been in agreement with the Jays coaching/training staff that 235 pounds is the desirable playing weight to help support Guerrero both in the field and at the plate. With prospect Jordan Groshans also working his way to a third base roster spot, attention to Guererro’s conditioning and defensive training will add some flair to an already explosive offensive benchmark he has set in his past two seasons in Toronto.
Set to play third base in Dominican Winter League ball, Guerrero remains in constant conversation with Blue Jays staff and management, in order to best prepare himself for 2021.
“We are working through it with him on a daily basis, and we will be supportive,” Atkins said. “What’s driving him are all the right things. Getting at bats for him is only going to help him. There is obviously some risk in it, but we are weighing those with him and want to make sure that we are supportive so we can help him manage those risks as well. If he can put himself into the position to get the reps and learn the pace of the game at the major league level, and we can expose that to him in a way that doesn’t expose us, that really is exciting to think about. So we haven’t closed the third base door. He could close it, or he could continue to open it, and that’s been exciting to think about. The versatility of having Biggio help us consider that day-by-day, but not take us out of the third base market.”
And for Atkins, the thought of retaining Guerrero’s services for both the immediate and foreseeable future, while continuing to add other pieces around his handful of young stars is an exciting endeavor.
“He is just maturing. He is so young and it’s awesome to see him realizing his potential,” Atkins said. “I really try not to talk about potential as much, I just feel like we are putting so much expectation and pressure on Vladdy. But it’s just so genuinely exciting to think about Vladimir Guerrero, with his hands, his bat speed, his athleticism, and the power.. what that could do. Not to mention the plate discipline and contact ability. Everyone who ever watches him – you don’t need to be an MLB professional scout to talk about his bat speed – you know the home run derby was an absolutely remarkable display. So to think about that athleticism coming back into the fold, and what that could mean for him, his career, and therefore our team, that’s fun to think about.”