It was Dec. 22 and approaching midnight when ESPN analyst Jeff Passan broke the news that not many expected at the time.
The Toronto Blue Jays and left-hander Hyun Jin Ryu had agreed to a four-year, $80-million contract. I was awake and shocked. Ecstatic, but shocked. Ryu, then 32 and coming off a brilliant season, was joining an up-and-coming Jays team.
I immediately knew what the move meant. The Blue Jays front office, the group of executives unfairly chastised and compared to prodigal son Alex Anthopoulos, had done it; landed a big free-agent in what was the most expensive contract handed out to a pitcher in team history. Ryu rewarded them with an equally brilliant performance throughout the shortened season.
On Tuesday night, that same front office did it again, only greater. Outfielder George Springer agreed to a six-year, $150-million deal, pending a physical, to play for the Blue Jays. Springer — widely considered the prize free agent of this year’s class — appeared to be the club’s main target all along. If you believe the many reports, and there were many, Toronto being linked to every notable free agent led many, myself included, wondering how this would shake out in the end. Some players, such as import Ha-Seong Kim and D.J. LeMahieu, signed elsewhere. When he couldn’t find the right deal, Tomoyuki Sugano opted to stay in Japan. Francisco Lindor — a personal favourite target of mine — was traded to the New York Mets; a club justifiably eager and committed to spend big under new ownership.
Time after time it was reported that the Blue Jays were the runner up. Not Tuesday night.
Trusting a front office is hard. Every team has its ups and downs. When Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins were hired, most understood their reputation going in. Smart and savvy executives that for years worked for an organization that philosophically and culturally doesn’t spend much and operates on a tight payroll. Under Rogers Communications, the financial freedom would be there but because the team they inherited was very much in win-now mode, their hands were tied. Continue on this path. They had to.
I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to join an organization coming off its first playoff appearance in well over a decade and expect a seamless transition. The Blue Jays were fun, motivated, and flat-out good. But they were old, and everyone knew their World Series window was closing. Shapiro, who superintended a Cleveland organization known for getting the most out of its homegrown talent, reportedly scolded Anthopoulos for depleting a Blue Jays farm system. True or not, Anthopoulos shouldn’t be faulted for going all-in to help bring a World Series to Toronto. It didn’t pan out, and that’s OK. Unfortunately, with emotions running high — a bat flip for the ages will do that to a Championship starved City — once Anthopoulos inevitably left and Shapiro replaced him with Atkins, there was always going to be that “Well, what can you do for me that Alex hasn’t already done” type sentiment.
To their credit, Shapiro and Atkins tried. They signed J.A. Happ to bolster a rotation that already included Marcus Stroman and Marco Estrada. Traded for Drew Storen which, at the time, seemed like a good move. They kept the core intact, signed Cuban free-agent Lourdes Gurriel Jr., and eventually drafted Bo Bichette and Cavan Biggio, to name a few notable selections.
Sure, the Edwin Encarnacion/Kendrys Morales decision backfired but it happens. Then, the losing started. Josh Donaldson couldn’t stay healthy. Jose Bautista’s age was catching up to him. A rebuild was in order. There isn’t a majority fanbase that loves rebuilds. You won’t ever win a City over with the promise that one day, it will all be worth it. But now? The kids are established, major-league players. Biggio, Bichette, and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. are the present and future. Nate Pearson was named the best pitching prospect in the Majors. The Blue Jays have a terrific pool of young talent in the pipeline. Teoscar Hernandez is something and there is more than enough room to keep spending.
These latest signings, a combined $230 million in salary, represent so much for an organization that has been often criticized for not being aggressive. There was flack for trading Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez (we can all agree the Derek Fisher era is one to forget). The front office dealt with a messy, off-field situation with Roberto Osuna and handled it by trading him to an organization that supposedly prides itself on morality and virtue but ended up cheating their way to a World Series win. At the time, Osuna was one of the most effective closers in baseball. Not every team would make that decision but Atkins and Shapiro ultimately pulled the trigger and never looked back.
I don’t need to tell you how great Springer is because you should know that by now. The 31-year-old brings such an important element to a young Blue Jays team. He can hit, run, play defense and by all accounts appears to be a terrific social pioneer off the field. He was part of a scandal but is one of the few that owned up and took accountability for it. He’s out to prove his worth and the Blue Jays are lucky to have him.
This team isn’t done. Relievers Tyler Chatwood and Kirby Yates were the first few dominoes to fall leading up to the Springer signing. Yates was one of, if not the best reliever in baseball from 2018 through 2019. If healthy, and Yates appears to be, the right-hander is a steal. Now, the front office could reportedly reunite Springer with veteran Michael Brantley, who is said to be in contact with his close friend about joining him in Toronto.
Brantley, who will be 34 in May, is more than familiar with Springer having played with him for two years in Houston. Shapiro and Atkins also know him well, as the pair of executives were with Cleveland when they traded for Brantley way back in 2008. The veteran went on to play 8 years with the club, establishing himself as one of the best left-handed hitters in baseball during that time.
It’s no guarantee that the Blue Jays land Brantley. It would create a logjam in the outfield that would surely result in a trade of some sort. A great problem to have, though. Toronto still needs to address its starting rotation. Sonny Gray and Luis Castillo are possibilities (though Cincinnati’s general manager shot down rumours after New York Yankees Twitter essentially formalized a trade themselves). With the Chicago Cubs possibly looking to shed more payroll, right-hander Kyle Hendricks is another option.
To call this a monumental signing is an understatement. Now the richest contract ever handed out to a player, the aggressiveness we heard so much about led to a top free-agent deciding he wants to play for the Blue Jays. The six-year, $150-million contract is unprecedented if only for the circumstances and financial strain as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. But it’s also significant for the Blue Jays and doubters that questioned whether or not its top executives truly would land a player of Springer’s caliber.
It all started with Ryu and here we are.
The times they are a changin’.