NASHVILLE – Viewed from Ross Atkins’ perspective, there’s likely little upside in speaking publicly right now, and lots of downside.
At the same time, there is all kinds of curiosity about the Blue Jays’ next steps, not only amongst the team’s fan base but also within the suites and hallways of the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center, where agents and executives wondered about the Blue Jays’ chances of landing Shohei Ohtani or Juan Soto as the first full day of MLB’s Winter Meetings unfolded Monday.
It was within that rather unusual context that Atkins made his first media appearance of the week — well, sort of. The GM wasn’t actually on hand in Nashville, though he expects to be here soon. Instead, there was a change of plans and he addressed Toronto-based media via Zoom.
Naturally, he wasn’t fully forthcoming about the Blue Jays’ intentions. No GM ever is. And this year, there’s now more reason than ever to speak carefully. With that in mind, let’s read between the lines on some of Atkins’ comments from Monday afternoon…
On the change in plans
“Due to the scheduling conflict, I wanted to ensure, out of respect for (media) to not change this and Zoom permitted me to do that.”
Let’s start with the big one. Why wasn’t Atkins in Nashville? The Winter Meetings have been on the schedule for months, and his availability was set days in advance with plans for a media briefing in the team suite, as is standard practice. And if the Blue Jays were working on a deal for Soto, Padres GM A.J. Preller is right here.
But if Atkins was away because he’s pursuing Ohtani? Well, that would have required being in Los Angeles over the weekend, not Nashville. It would also require secrecy on the part of the Blue Jays. And it might have led to a last-minute shift in plans. Simply put, if the Blue Jays were pushing hard for Ohtani and still believed they had a chance to land him, Atkins’ answer would sound a lot like the one he offered.
On asking players on the current roster to help recruit free agents
“Absolutely, yeah, we always do … Every situation is different based on (which recruiters) we think will have the biggest impact. And then we were also very cognizant of … truly individualizing that in a way that (free agents) understand that we know them as individuals and we want to lean into that. We don’t ever want it to feel as though it’s anything but unique and something very special.”
Atkins didn’t address Ohtani in particular here, so what follows is speculation. But if you were pursuing Ohtani and you wanted to show him how well you understood him and how much you care about him as a person, you’d probably reach out to the person who went to the same high school, wore the same number growing up and successfully made the transition from rural Japan to the West Coast of the U.S. to Toronto: Yusei Kikuchi. Now, we don’t know for a fact that Kikuchi’s been involved in the Blue Jays’ pursuit, but to say it’s imaginable might be an understatement.
On the possibility of adding two elite players
“Two of those to add to our roster would be exceptionally difficult to pull off. But as we always talk about, the relationship that we built with Edward (Rogers, the team chairman) and Tony (Staffieri, the president & CEO of Rogers Communications Inc., which also owns Sportsnet) and the ability to go to them and present something to them is real. I would never eliminate us.”
Based on this answer, it doesn’t appear that adding Ohtani and Soto in the same off-season is likely. Nor does any other team appear to have a realistic shot at pulling that off, either. Acquiring one elite player would be hard enough, let alone two.
On lofty fan expectations given their apparent Ohtani and Soto pursuits
“In terms of expectations, listen, we’re going to do everything we can to make our team better. There are certain players in the game that any team in baseball would like to have, and it’s extremely competitive. We will do everything in our power to build upon this very good team. And that could happen in a lot of different shapes. We’re pushing very hard to do so.”
Important to remember in all of this: the Dodgers are extremely motivated on Ohtani, too. The Cubs seem serious. The Giants and Angels may be involved, and possibly others. Under those circumstances, the Blue Jays must be prepared for the possibility that Ohtani signs elsewhere despite what appears to be a genuine push to land him.
As Atkins says, the off-season could develop in “a lot of different shapes.” Some of those shapes would include Soto, but of course, it’s also possible the Blue Jays miss both. There are still good off-seasons to be had in that scenario – but the adrenaline crash would be real for fans, and maybe even for front-office employees.
For now, though, possibility and even a little mystery surrounds the Blue Jays.