Blue Jays celebrate homecoming, choose to live for now with Berrios trade

TORONTO – Amid the maelstrom of excitement, emotion, stress and pressure created by the intersection of the 4 p.m. trade deadline and the first baseball game at Rogers Centre in 670 days, the Toronto Blue Jays made a choice with ramifications for years to come.

Bold trades converting prospect capital like Austin Martin and Simeon Woods Richardson into present value like Jose Berrios were always going to be the next logical progression for the franchise after the mega-contract signing of George Springer last winter.

But the timing of that next step was never certain and getting it right is essential, because cashing in 12 years of two premium but untested talents for 1½ years of elite big-league performance at the wrong time can be perilously detrimental to the entire program.

That’s why the blockbuster GM Ross Atkins pulled off with the Minnesota Twins around noon Friday, hours before a 6-4 homecoming win over the Kansas City Royals, was described by one executive as “a little bit scary – for both sides.”

Berrios, 27, is an increasingly scarce commodity, a front-end starter with a blend of talent, durability and character that are exceedingly difficult to groom and even harder to acquire, either through trade or free agency. The Twins, described earlier in the week by another executive as “hoping a team will do something stupid,” may very well rue his loss.

But Martin, 22, has top percentile bat-to-ball skills and control of the strike zone, although where he fits on the diamond remains a question. And Woods Richardson, the key piece back from the New York Mets in the 2019 Marcus Stroman trade, is only 20, already at double-A and an American Olympian.

So this can go boom or bust for one, or both, and there’s no turning back for the Blue Jays now that they’ve sacrificed high-ceiling potential from their mix in 2023 and beyond to supplement the present with the best starter available not named Max Scherzer.

That this leap came during the best deadline seller’s market in recent memory, when executives suddenly abandoned their prospect hoarding and the teams the Blue Jays are chasing for the post-season all got demonstrably better, too, makes it even more significant.

Inflation struck the trade market. They didn’t flinch at the moment of truth.

“You’re trying not to,” Atkins said when asked if the deals made by others influenced his team’s deliberations. “You’re trying to discipline yourself, because I think any research you do, any studying you do about decision-making, about running a good business or running a good sports team, is about being disciplined and about being patient. In this case, we felt as though we were still doing that and felt as though the value was worth it.

“The opportunity to acquire Berrios was exciting for us and a very difficult decision, not something that we just walked into. Austin Martin will be a great player. Simeon Woods Richardson is going to be a great pitcher and we’re going to be pulling for them. This was just an opportunity that we wanted to take.”

The action Friday, and in the days leading up to the 4 p.m. cutoff, was dizzying and the returns in many deals staggering. Front and centre in that regard was the Chicago White Sox sending impressive but injured infielder Nick Madrigal and reliever Codi Heuer for a season and a half of Craig Kimbrel.

The Los Angeles Dodgers gave up their two best prospects plus two others to get Scherzer for the next two months plus shortstop Trea Turner through 2022, while the New York Mets gave up their first-round pick last year, Pete Crow-Armstrong, to rent Javy Baez.

The New York Yankees gave up six prospects ranked between 12 and 24 in their top 30 by Baseball America for Joey Gallo and Anthony Rizzo, and then traded two others for Andrew Heaney.

Even a middle-tier rental like Brad Hand, acquired by the Blue Jays from the Washington Nationals on Thursday, cost Riley Adams, a triple-A catcher with a chance to be a backup, while prying reliever Joakim Soria away from Arizona required two players to be named later.

Compared to the returns from recent summers, it was like baseball turned into the irrational Toronto real-estate market.

“As we were going through it, we felt as though the asks were very high compared to what we were accustomed to. And then as we saw moves occurring, it appeared that those asks were being met,” Atkins said. “It’s a hard thing to really pin down and say one reason why. There are subjective reasons with that excitement and energy around being, for us the first time back on our own home field, but throughout the game, people are just so excited to be playing baseball in front of fans again. That probably has some impact.

“But everything is a bit cyclical in the world and in business and maybe we’re seeing a bit of a shift here. It really is exciting to see this deadline. It was one of the more invigorating deadlines that I can recall in a while and that’s ultimately good for baseball.”

Another driving factor is that middle-tier contenders like the Blue Jays, who began the day with FanGraphs calculating their playoffs odds at 26 per cent, all decided to push in. Cincinnati, Atlanta and Philadelphia, each with playoff odds of 20 per cent or less, all made add trades, as well, when they could have justifiably gone the other way, adding pressure on the market.

Teams like Cleveland (the Blue Jays made a run at Jose Ramirez but it’s unclear how far that got), Miami, the Angels and even Minnesota could have sold far more aggressively and didn’t, providing more leverage for the Cubs, Nationals and Rangers, who reset their bases with massive hauls.

The frenzy counterintuitively turned the Blue Jays’ early strikes for Adam Cimber and Corey Dickerson from the Marlins and Trevor Richards from Milwaukee into relative bargains, as teams didn’t have to back off their asks as the clock ticked down. That allowed them to stay in the market for Gallo and come close on a handful of other potential deals.

Take the six new pieces and add the looming return of Nate Pearson to the Blue Jays relief corps – he is “already full steam ahead in a bullpen, electric stuff again,” said Atkins – and perhaps Julian Merryweather, a desert oasis or mirage, depending on your outlook, and the roster got a sizable bump.

That all of it came just in time for the team’s homecoming only added to a uniquely memorable day. During the emotional pre-game ceremonies, the Blue Jays took the field via the centre-field fall, ran through two columns of intensive-care unit workers from Toronto General Hospital and lined the infield as a series of videos tugged at heartstrings.

It didn’t take long for fans to serenade players with the first “Let’s Go, Blue Jays” chants in the building since 2019, and for the first time this year the crowd was not only decisively behind them, but also vehemently against their opponents.

“Really emotional,” Bo Bichette said of the entry to the field. “I was looking at Vladdy (Guerrero Jr.), looking at Teo (Hernandez), everybody’s looking at each other like, man, I got the chills, I’m holding back tears, stuff like that. It’s hard to explain the feeling.

“We’ve just kind of been trying to pretend like we had a home and it’s difficult to do for two years. So when we finally came back here, it feels like definitely a big weight off our shoulders. Just super excited to be here.”

A crowd of 13,446, considered a sellout with a maximum of 15,000 people allowed in the building, kept at it all game long and the type of night the Blue Jays envisioned when they poured $150 million into Springer back in January came to life before them.

“Today, honestly, was one of my best days in baseball,” said manager Charlie Montoyo, who later added: “We felt love.”

The goal is to repeat that feeling, over and over, which is why the Berrios symbolized so much on a day of renewal at Rogers Centre. Yes, the price was high, and yes, so is the risk, but as baseball returned to Toronto, the Blue Jays decided to live for here and now.

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