As juicy rumours swirl, Blue Jays GM Atkins keeps all options open

DUNEDIN, Fla. – Shout out to Ross Atkins, who in his first media availability since the end of the lockout cleverly offered just enough ambiguity in his answers to reinforce whatever you want to believe is coming next for the Toronto Blue Jays.

Convinced they’re laying the groundwork to make a play for Freddie Freeman? Well, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., “is open to playing some third base.”

Believe they have yet another nine-figure mega-contract in them after already handing out two this winter to Jose Berrios and Kevin Gausman? “We need to be thoughtful about how we’re thinking about today and tomorrow, but we have the full support to (make a significant add) from our leadership.”

Certain they need to subtract from the roster to fit in any new offensive additions? “We obviously have some good players and some depth in some areas that teams identify and they’re assertive in thinking about ways to improve their team. We’re not looking to do that.”

Listened to in totality, it was a masterclass in keeping everyone guessing.

To be fair, Atkins wasn’t going to come out and boldly lay out all of his plans. The best a club can do is suggest the what, not the who, and the general manager at least did that in defining what remains on his docket.

“We feel like we’re in a very good position, but we want to make the team better,” Atkins said after a Tuesday news conference introducing left-hander Yusei Kikuchi. “The most obvious way to do that is in our infield and complementing it somehow. We’ll still think about run prevention on the pitching side, if there’s a way to do that in our bullpen. If there’s a way to add offence, we’re open to that too, whether that be in the form of an every-day position player or not. There are several different ways that we can go and that’s a good position to be in.”

No surprises there and it all makes sense based on how they’re currently constructed. Still, if you’re all in on Carlos Baerga and the Freeman fire graphics on his Instagram posts, you can probably talk yourself into putting two and two together there to make four.

That’s dangerous, because the equation is far more complicated than that for the Blue Jays on Freeman.

This is just speculation here, but one way to read the situation is that they, like many teams, were convinced the star first baseman was going back to Atlanta but checked in on him all off-season as a matter of course, as they do with all free agents.

Once Alex Anthopoulos pulled off the Matt Olson blockbuster, however, a path to Freeman suddenly became an actual possibility. That left the Blue Jays, and all the other interested clubs, with a decision to make on how aggressively to jump in.

While he’s perfect from an offensive-profile perspective, Freeman is a really difficult fit both positionally – you may recall the Blue Jays have an MVP-finalist first baseman in Guerrero – and financially, especially because he’s believed to still be seeking a long-term deal.

Freeman’s interest in the Blue Jays is thought to be genuine. His late mother Rosemary was born in Toronto while his father, Fred, was born in Windsor, Ont., they married in Oshawa, Ont., before settling in California and he represented Canada at the 2017 World Baseball Classic to honour his mom, fully investing in the experience.

Still, making an unanticipated add of this magnitude isn’t difficult.

Guerrero is another major factor and though he came up through the farm system and debuted in the majors as a third baseman, there’s a school of thought that they should leave well enough alone with him.

Atkins, reluctant to cut off possibilities in public, noted that “we like to keep things open and like to stay as open-minded as possible about those different scenarios.”

Then he added, “Vladdy is in an incredible place mentally. He’s open to playing some third base. How much will be something we continue to work through with him and would like to have more information based on what our team looks like before we make anything near concrete.”

Similarly telling was Atkins’ comment on being “thoughtful about how we’re thinking about today and tomorrow.” Berrios, Gausman and George Springer have all signed nine-figure deals since January 2020 and the Blue Jays must cast forward not only to a potential payroll-crunch in 2023 but also the possibility of extensions for Guerrero and Bo Bichette down the road.

At this point, they must be careful about their salary structure becoming so top-heavy that it cuts them off to other options.

Hence, their pursuit of Kyle Scwharber makes far more sense, even if it accentuates their outfield surplus, a roster construction issue akin to the catching logjam they also have.

Atkins hedged a little when asked if further position-player additions would require subtractions – “it just depends,” he began – but then he went into the we’re not looking to move anyone, other teams like our depth spiel.

Notable Tuesday is that during the club’s workouts, a rival scout spent a lot of time taking video of Alejandro Kirk’s defensive work. It could have been just routine coverage, but Kirk would offer present value and long-term control as part of a package should a team like Cleveland, say, want to use someone like Jose Ramirez to reload rather than rebuild.

Ramirez is still the dream scenario, difficult as it will be to pull off, amid a host of options in a first-week-of-December playing out during the first week of spring because of the lockout.

The Blue Jays can afford to wait things out after acting fast to land Kikuchi for $36 million over three years, getting one of the last remaining free-agent starters comfortably worth multiple years. They nearly landed him when he first came over in 2019 before he chose Seattle instead, and this time “we also were working on alternatives because you have to, but we were extremely focused on Yusei and wanted to make sure we were putting our best foot forward there,” said Atkins.

Any alternatives would have been on the trade market, meaning the Blue Jays still have that capital in their arsenal.

So, Atkins may have left a lot of things open to interpretation, but with a rotation in place and possibilities aplenty, he wasn’t wrong about his team being in a good position.

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