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Although the Toronto Blue Jays have gone through immense changes since Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins took the helm after the 2015 season, the narrative surrounding the two has barely moved.
Shapiro made a dubious first impression by reportedly questioning the wisdom of Alex Anthopoulos’s 2015 push, which may have resulted in the lionized Canadian GM leaving town. Then the front office, with Atkins now in the GM seat, made only minor moves to bolster the 2016 group and proceeded to enter a rebuild after a disappointing 2017 campaign.
Consistently watching beloved veterans leave town in favour of lesser replacements allowed Blue Jays fans to anchor on the idea that this brain trust was obsessed with young, cheap, players far from free agency. Shapiro and Atkins’ track record with the small-market, player development-focused Cleveland Guardians didn’t help — neither did the GM’s enthusiastic comments about acquiring 42 years of team control at the 2019 trade deadline.
When the Blue Jays made major free-agent splashes in Hyun-Jin Ryu, George Springer and Marcus Semien, they showed a willingness to spend — but even then they took the team’s payroll from near the bottom of the league to the middle. While the “risk-averse” label was starting to look a touch unfair, existential concerns remained.
Would the Blue Jays’ affinity for prospect accumulation get in the way of making aggressive “win-now” pushes? Would the stated goal of creating a “sustainable contender” make it impossible to borrow from the future to prioritize the present?
Until Friday, those were open questions. By acquiring José Berríos from the Minnesota Twins, the Blue Jays answered them.
That does not mean they made an unimpeachable deal. Toronto paid a premium for Berríos’s services through the end of 2022 in the form of the fifth pick in the 2020 draft, Austin Martin, and the centrepiece of the Marcus Stroman deal, Simeon Woods Richardson.
Martin was Keith Law’s No. 12-ranked prospect in baseball just over a week ago, and Woods Richardson is more of a fringe top-100 guy considering the struggles he’s had at Double-A this season (5.76 ERA with a 5.16 BB/9).
That’s a hell of a package. It’s the kind of package that could make the Blue Jays look foolish in the years to come, even though they’re getting a near-ace pitcher who ranks seventh in innings pitched since the beginning of 2018 (577.1) and 17th in WAR (10.8) among qualified pitchers.
That’s what makes this a landmark deal, though.
Coming into Friday, there was no evidence the Blue Jays were willing to take a risk of this nature for a short-term roster upgrade. While this trade could go spectacularly wrong, it is paradigm-shifting move for this team. This deal indicates that the Blue Jays don’t just see 2021 and 2022 as part of an amorphous, indefinite era of winning baseball, but rather a specific opportunity worth pursuing — even if that pursuit requires sacrifice.
The trade for closer Brad Hand on Thursday showed the Blue Jays hadn’t given up on the 2021 season, despite playoff odds that sit well below 50 percent. As did the move to acquire veteran reliever Joakim Soria. Both pitchers are in their 30s and will see their contracts expire at the end of this season. Each can provide some support to a bullpen that’s produced 0.6 WAR total in 2021, approximately one-ninth of the output of the Tampa Bay Rays’ relievers.
While those moves were positive steps for the Blue Jays’ 2021 chances, they were both ultimately marginal upgrades that cost little. Shopping for mid-tier rentals is nothing new for this team and the price tag this time around (catching prospect Riley Adams and two players to be named later) was modest.
A little ventured, a little gained.
The Berríos deal was different because it cut deep. The team’s highly-touted farm system is going to see its rankings slip. Less than two years from now the Blue Jays will have nothing to show for this deal while Martin and Woods Richardson could be playing major roles for the Minnesota Twins. The chance of losing this trade — and losing big — is significant.
Whatever happens, this team has shifted into a new gear. The Berríos trade signals that the current Blue Jays are not simply one iteration of a perennially contending franchise, but rather a special group of players worth putting a great deal of weight behind, even if the cost of doing so is painfully high.
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