How timing and circumstance finally allowed the Toronto Blue Jays to land a star


All along, the plan of the Toronto Blue Jays had been to start looking for opportunities — either in trades or in free-agent signings. The priority was to entrench the team’s core of promising young players — Bo Bichette, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Cavan Biggio and others — in the big leagues, and then add to them. In front-office meetings in recent years, they spoke of the 2020 trade deadline and the offseason that followed as perhaps the first windows to augment the roster with established players.

The club had no idea, however, how the financial shifts in its sport would tilt the market its way — to the degree that the other day, the Blue Jays landed the most expensive position player, outfielder George Springer, with a $150 million, six-year deal.

The Jays might still have a ways to go before they can seriously compete with the Yankees and Rays in the AL East. They could use another veteran starting pitcher behind Hyun-Jin Ryu. There is uncertainty about what position best suits Guerrero, and whether his recent devotion to conditioning will be a pivot point in his career. Like the Yankees’ lineup, Toronto is very heavy in right-handed hitters. And now, it just added another right-handed hitter in Springer. But the Jays are making progress, and forces beyond their control drove Springer their way.

Agents will tell you privately that a lot of free agents have no interest in playing in Toronto, because they don’t like the idea of being in another country or passing through customs or because of their perception of Canada’s tax system. It’s not a coincidence that before this winter, the Jays’ best-paid free agent was a native of Canada — catcher Russell Martin.

Highest-paid Toronto free agents
1. Russell Martin, 5 years, $82 million (2015)
2. Hyun Jin Ryu, 4 years, $80 million (2020)
3. A.J. Burnett, 5 years, $55 million (2006)
4. B.J. Ryan, 5 years,$47 million (2006)
5. J.A. Happ, 3 years, $36 million (2016)

The Jays haven’t typically had true access to the elite free agents such as Springer. Rather, Toronto would bid but be used as leverage, with targets eventually landing elsewhere. But this winter played out very differently.

Because the Houston Astros tactically delayed Springer’s first promotion to the big leagues so that he would miss free agency in 2019 — by one day, as it turned out — the outfielder missed out on feasting in the greatest spending spree in MLB history last winter. Gerrit Cole got $324 million. Anthony Rendon and Stephen Strasburg each signed for $245 million. The biggest trade target of the winter, Mookie Betts, landed with the Dodgers and got the second-largest contract in MLB history.

As it turned out, the context for Springer’s free agency could not have been more different: the coronavirus manifested, baseball was shut down for months, owners’ profits were diminished and Springer found himself in a tepid market this winter, his options significantly limited. Agents and club executives have been able to identify only a small handful of teams that even intended to be aggressive this offseason: the Mets, under new owner Steve Cohen; the White Sox, who have made a big push; the Padres, who wound up dealing for three starting pitchers; and the Blue Jays.

After trading for Francisco Lindor, the Mets’ efforts to sign Springer stalled, their last contract concept in the area of $120 million. The Padres and White Sox had other priorities. So the Jays had a unique opportunity — to get a prolific star player with almost no serious competition in the bidding.

The Jays’ pitch to him, beyond the money, was about what a great fit they thought he would be all the way around, with his vast experience on winning teams, his gregarious personality and his reputation for inclusiveness, and with all of his community outreach, including helping kids who stutter, something Springer has worked through himself.

In collapsing free-agent markets, there are incredible buy opportunities for anyone with even a little financial flexibility. That’s how Toronto wound up taking a really good player off the board for markedly less than he probably would’ve cost last winter.

The Jays will make some more moves, sources say, but probably not big-ticket items; rather, in a free-agent market filled with options, Toronto could be looking to be more efficient in filling holes. More time is needed to build more infrastructure, for Bichette to establish himself, for Nate Pearson to build major league innings, and there will be more windows in which the Jays will look to make additions — before next summer’s trade deadline, and in free agency again next fall.

The Jays went 32-28 last summer and qualified for the 16-team playoff field. They appear poised to take another step forward next summer.

Springer could’ve waited, but didn’t

It’s true that the Braves dabbled in the conversations for Springer — but not as toe-to-toe bidding competition for the Blue Jays and the Mets, but rather as a potential safety net for the outfielder in case the free-agent conditions were so poor that the options might’ve compelled Springer into taking a shorter-term deal than he sought. The market is bound to be more robust after the next collective bargaining agreement is signed — perhaps next December — with agents and executives expecting teams to build on the cost certainty that’ll follow and spend more aggressively. If Springer and his representatives had preferred to take a smaller offer, or wait for that, he could’ve signed a one-year deal somewhere — just as Josh Donaldson and Marcell Ozuna did with the Braves in 2019 and 2020, respectively. But Springer, who turned 31 in September, instead took the best long-term offer he had this winter.

Remembering Hank Aaron’s chase of 715

Like a lot of baseball fans at that time, I spent the winter of 1973-74 wondering how Henry Aaron’s climb over Babe Ruth as the all-time home run leader might play out. Aaron finished the 1973 season with 713 home runs and needed one homer to tie Ruth’s mark and two to pass. Would it take weeks for him to get those last two? Would he do it quickly? Would he break the record in Atlanta, in a Braves home game, or on the road? Who would the pitcher be?

Even at 10, I was also aware of another possibility — that somebody would hurt Aaron, or kill him. He’d been the target of a lot of death threats, a lot of racism. As Negro Leagues Museum president Bob Kendrick noted the other day, this was only six years after Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy had been assassinated. This was only a decade after John F. Kennedy had been murdered in Dallas. The next summer, there would be two attempts on the life of President Gerald Ford. There was inherent fear that something awful would happen.

In his first plate appearance of the 1974 season, Aaron blasted a home run off the Reds’ Jack Billingham to tie Ruth’s record. Four days later, the Braves played host to the Dodgers in a nationally televised game. We did not have a TV on our Vermont farm. Plus, my bedtime was at 9 p.m. so I’d be up for chores early the next morning.

When I came down the stairs at 5 a.m., there was a note on the kitchen table left by my mother, who listened to the radio nightly as she knitted. In her beautiful cursive, she wrote that Aaron had hit the record-breaking home run the night before — and at the bottom of her note, she added that the crowd had cheered.

Under the circumstance, that response seemed to be even more important than home run No. 715.

Hall of Fame losses

On July 21, 2019, Mariano Rivera, Mike Mussina, Edgar Martinez and Roy Halladay were inducted into the Hall of Fame. If there is progress with vaccines and the pandemic, the next ceremony in Cooperstown will be held July 25. The group of Hall of Famers gathered behind Derek Jeter, Larry Walker and perhaps others will be so vastly different after a time of staggering loss among the all-time greats, with Aaron the latest, following Al Kaline, Bob Gibson, Joe Morgan, Phil Niekro, Lou Brock, Don Sutton and Tom Seaver. The best stories from the induction weekend are always from the Hall of Famers’ conversations shared over dinner or on the back porch of the Otesaga Resort Hotel. Knowing how close this group generally is, this year’s ceremony will be a time of celebration — but also of grief.

Noteworthy

  • One of the great questions swirling around the industry after the Astros signed Michael Brantley to a two-year, $32 million contract: Why didn’t Houston simply give him a qualifying offer of $18.9 million in November? If it had, he would’ve been tied to draft-pick compensation that could’ve scared away potential bidders. Plus, it would’ve been very difficult for Brantley to reject a lucrative, one-year deal. “So in Year 2 of the deal,” a rival evaluator mused, “they’re now committed to an additional $13 million for a player who’s going to be 35 years old. It doesn’t make sense.”… As Corey Kluber prepared for his audition in front of scouts on Jan. 13, the industry expectation was that the right-hander would ultimately get offered a base salary of $6 million to $8 million with some incentives built on top. Kluber was good in his workout, although not spectacular, with fastball velocity in the 88-91 mph range. What he showed, however, was enough to help distinguish him from the other possibilities in the free-agent market. He apparently inspired clubs such as the Yankees and Blue Jays to dream big, because he got was a one-year, $11 million offer from the Yankees that, according to sources, was not the highest offer. The Yankees thought about trying to arrange a deal structure that would allay some of the impact on the team’s standing with the competitive balance tax but settled on a straight, one-year deal without incentives. Kluber has won two Cy Young Awards and has a large arsenal of weapons in his pitch mix and unusual pitch movement. Although Kluber turns 35 in April and injuries have limited him to eight starts the past two seasons, the Yankees (and other teams) bet on a bounce-back season with their offer.

  • The Yankees continue to work as if they are intend to stay under the $210 million competitive balance tax threshold in 2021. So the Pirates’ Jameson Taillon is an attractive trade target for them not only because of his pitching potential, but also his low salary of $2.25 million. And as they’ve considered a trade for Taillon, they’ve heard strong personal recommendations from ace Gerrit Cole, who was Taillon’s teammate in Pittsburgh as the right-hander first ascended to the big leagues. Taillon, 29, is at the back end of rehabilitation from Tommy John surgery — he has not pitched in a game since May of 2019 — and so there would be risk for the Yankees in a deal. But in 82 big-league starts, Taillon has a 3.67 ERA. He has an excellent reputation for his work ethic and his presence in the clubhouse. The Yankees and Pirates have been building off the conversations they had earlier this month about right-hander Joe Musgrove, before Musgrove was swapped to the Padres.

  • In the aftermath of the Jared Porter story, Jessica Mendoza talked on the Baseball Tonight podcast about how sick she felt in processing the details of the harassment and about the subsequent call shared among women who work under the industry umbrella. An overriding takeaway from that conversation: Major League Baseball needs to create a prominent position for a woman who can be the point person — someone who has the trust of women in the industry — to address cases of harassment or unequal treatment. Listen to the full conversation.

  • We also taped a special podcast following the death of Henry Aaron, with Kendrick, Tim Kurkjian and Eduardo sharing memories of the all-time great.



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