TORONTO — Conversations will be "constant," but nothing is certain.
Toronto Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins made that clear in his end-of-season media availability on Wednesday when fielding questions about the possibility of bringing back star free agents Marcus Semien and Robbie Ray.
Ray and Semien emerged as two of the most coveted names in free agency, with Cy Young and MVP-worthy seasons, respectively, during the Blue Jays' 91-win year.
"That dialogue will be constant," Atkins said on Wednesday. "Where we're talking about our interest and their interest and hoping that they're aligned."
There's optimism for the future around the front office and beyond, even though the Blue Jays fell one game short of making their way back into the playoffs, ultimately missing out on a Wild Card spot to the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox.
Though the club has made clear it's set on building upon the successes of this year, Atkins's vague statements seem somewhat warranted.
Toronto has made a name for itself as one of MLB's biggest spenders in recent offseasons. The six-year, $150-million, franchise-record deal signed with George Springer at the start of 2021 is a good case-in-point. So is Hyun-Jin Ryu's four-year, $80-million contract from 2019.
It would likely take another round of high-calibre spending to re-sign either of the team's current free agents, which begins to explain the lack of optimism or commitment toward any specific player.
"I think it bodes exceptionally well for us that we were a part of such significant years," said Atkins. "Being a part of that and having the team success — albeit not what we ultimately were striving for — I think how we finished, and finishing in this stadium on such a positive note ... all those things bode exceptionally well for us as we strive to make our team better."
A left-handed starter, Ray signed a one-year, $8-million deal with the Blue Jays last offseason after joining the club via trade in mid-2020. With a 2.84 ERA, 248 strikeouts and a 6.7 WAR, the 30-year-old is the frontrunner for the American League Cy Young award and will certainly command a long and lucrative deal in the coming months.
Semien, a converted shortstop, set a new MLB record for most home runs by a second baseman in a single season, finishing the year with 45, along with a .265 average, 102 RBIs and a .873 OPS. The one-year contract he signed with the Blue Jays last offseason paid him $18 million, and the 31-year-old is also likely to see a big pay raise wherever he ends up.
Starter Steven Matz is also a name worth observing, as he became a solid and reliable piece in the Blue Jays' rotation, especially by the end of the season. He will also hit free agency this year.
"All three of them, we have interest in," said Atkins about Ray, Semien and Matz.
At least two of them, Ray and Semien, have expressed the interest goes both ways.
Among the several questions hovering over this team in the offseason, a significant one is what to prioritize. It's possible the Blue Jays won't have the financial capacity to sign Semien or Ray — let alone both of them.
It will come to Atkins and the rest of Toronto's front office to decide whether to invest on a strikeout leader with the potential of pitching around 200 innings in a season, or to go for a power hitter with defensive upside and the disposition to play all 162 games.
"Really, we don't want to pin ourselves into boxes," said Atkins about the Blue Jays' free-agency plans. "We want to make sure that we keep all avenues for creativity open, and that's what we're focused on now: How do we continue to make this organization as good as it can be ... what are the best possible, most creative ways to do that?"
Both Ray and Semien are veteran leaders who command clubhouse respect. Bo Bichette, for example, didn't hide how much admiration and gratitude he has for Semien, who took on the role of mentor for Toronto's sluggers, and assisted in the development of the team's young core.
I know we fell short of our ultimate goal, but it was still an unforgettable year. Best group of guys & it was absolutely electric to finally experience the home field advantage that Jays fans bring to the Rogers Centre. Thank you for a very special year, Toronto! #WeAreBlueJays pic.twitter.com/NtzDf5vvwe
— Robbie Ray (@RobbieRay) October 6, 2021
Ray, on the other hand, had an important part in the development of youngster Alek Manoah, who turned heads in his rookie season with limited experience coming out of triple-A.
"I've had a lot of time to spend with them over the last month," said Atkins. "Much more on a personal level, to just learn from them, talk about how we can improve here and, you know, congratulate them and thank them for us to be a small part of what will be, ultimately, an exceptional year for them in their careers.
"And I hope they go on to continue to, obviously, have those years, year in and year out, and hopefully we can be a part of that. But having been a part of it for one year was very fulfilling and gratifying, not only for what it meant for wins and losses and our overall team performance, but also what it means for our environment, to have guys come in and have such exceptional years like that. It says a lot to our coaching staff, it says a lot about our support staff, about our resources and facilities, and I think that we'll be exceptionally attractive to players moving forward."
There really is no place like home 🇨🇦
Thank you for your support 💙 pic.twitter.com/22g0nsElbC
— Toronto Blue Jays (@BlueJays) October 3, 2021
And then there's the rest of the organization.
One certainty Atkins did offer is that there will be no major roster churn, whether on the field or within the coaching staff, as the Blue Jays intend to bring back all of their trainers and coaches for the 2022 season.
With Bichette settled in at shortstop and MVP candidate Vladimir Guerrero Jr. constantly improving at first base, second and third seem like the most pressing issues to address in the offseason, along with bullpen arms and a solidified rotation. While Atkins sees Nate Pearson and Ross Stripling as starters in the long haul, other components such as workload and development will determine where they fit.
The Blue Jays also believe they have good internal options for the infield, but won't discard going after outside possibilities.
"We're in a really good position," said Atkins. "Player development, performance, all scouting departments have done an incredible job to ensure that we continue to add talent from within to complement this team, and if we have to make trades, that we have the talent to do that as well. And Mark (Shapiro) has done an incredible job of communicating with Rogers and all of the stakeholders that ultimately support us in the most significant way of helping them understand our plan."
Set to get underway once the World Series wraps up, the upcoming free-agency period has a significant twist, as MLB's collective bargaining agreement is set to expire on Dec. 1. If for any reason the league and players' association fail to reach a new agreement, it will prompt a work stoppage and a freeze in deals until a potential stalemate is resolved.
One more wave to keep track of on the offseason radar.
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