Blue Jays look to add one more hitter in winter of fans’ discontent
GM Ross Atkins counting on coaching and hitter adjustments to rediscover offence
It was media Wednesday, the first availability of the new year, for Blue Jays’ GM Ross Atkins and his pair of off-season, initially head-scratching, free agent signings. For fans, the winter of their discontent began back in November. With most of the elite pitching staff returning, the run prevention side seemed locked and loaded, but that left the focus on the need for more offensive hitters. There were four lineup spots left open, due to a quartet of free-agency filings — Matt Chapman, Whit Merrifield, Kevin Kiermaier and Brandon Belt. Offence was the clear priority.
Two months ago, it was assumed one out of either third base or second would be filled internally from the existing combination of mostly young, mostly redundant skilled infielders and that the other three spots – the other of either second or third, an outfielder with the ability to play centre and a primary DH -- should be the newcomers brought on board via trade or free agency.
Instead, after an earnest, expensive, energy-consuming but ultimately fruitless pursuit of the world’s best player, DH Shohei Ohtani, the only two Jays additions have come with a re-engagement of Kiermaier, 34, and the signing of the experienced utility infielder/outfielder/catcher, Isiah Kiner-Falefa who admitted he had better offers with more playing time guaranteed, but who insisted he just wants to win.
With superior defence and Gold Glove skills, Kiermaier was never the problem. Neither is he now the solution to the scoring woes. As for the former Yankee, Kiner-Falefa, he was not a part of last year’s struggles, but neither will he be a part of any 2024 run-producing solution. So where’s the beef?
Listening on Wednesday to Atkins outline his immediate and remaining roster plans for the period leading up to spring training, the plan never seemed to truly become clear. For sure, one more offensive player will enter either by trade but more likely free-agency, then perhaps an unexpected bargain as spring approaches.
After finally confirming that the Jays had met, face-to-face, with Ohtani in Dunedin back in early December, Atkins went on to enthuse about the $700-million process, how everything was carried out with mutual respect and admiration for the process.
The evolution of the Jays’ needs has become a DH who can play the outfield at MLB average and the handedness doesn’t really matter. Because of the slow market, there are a few free agents still out there that fit that description, including Jorge Soler, JD Martinez, Teoscar Hernandez and Joc Pederson.
However, the acquisition of Kiner-Falefa and re-signing of Kiermaier, means the extra outfielder, that has always been in the Jays’ plans, no longer needs to be able to play centre. It also means that Cody Bellinger is an unlikely target, unless they are willing to make George Springer, at 34, an almost full-time DH. Defence remains important.
The revised DH position under the new plan will likely be used on a rotating basis to give regulars a day off their feet and may also make room for Alejandro Kirk to DH more, if he regains his magical bat-to-ball prowess, stunted in March ‘23 by late arrival to spring training and the birth of his first child.
Atkins at the GM Meetings in November, suggested that his goal was adding three or four position players. Now that Kiermaier has been signed to basically replace himself, it would have seemed logical there might still be room for two or three additions to the Jays’ roster with an eye always towards the needed improvement in run production, the reality of which culminated at Target Field. But, not so fast. What was once four possible additions, may have become one.
“I don’t think we will add three players,” Atkins said in response to SportsNet’s Ben Nicholson-Smith’s question, one he first asked at the GM Meetings. “I think most likely it is closer to one.”
Hmm? If it’s not three and is closer to one, then that would seem to exclude two. So, it’s one. It was Atkins, himself who suggested an outfielder-slash-DH as the new primary goal, even despite the presence of three everyday outfielders in Kiermaier, Daulton Varsho and George Springer.
Defence should not be overlooked. The good news is that the surprising 2023 pitching resurgence of Jose Berrios and Yusei Kikuchi will once again be supported by Gold Glove excellence in the outfield, a point addressed with pride by Kiermaier.
“Those guys had huge years for us,” Kiermaier said. “Those guys took the ball every fifth day, no matter what and pitched phenomenal. From an outfielder standpoint -- me, George and (Daulton) Varsho -- I already know them and know how much pride they take in their defence. We love making plays. We don’t mind putting our bodies on the line or doing whatever it takes to help our team, whatever pitcher’s pitching that moment, it doesn’t matter. We’re out there trying to make plays and win ballgames.”
Kiermaier had more to say about Varsho’s struggles at the plate and his personal inkling that it will be a much different and more offensive Varsho in 2024.
“There is not one inning that he took his offence to defence,” Kiermaier recalled. “That’s why he was the best defender in the big leagues. Not saying that to say that. The numbers will back it up. He is an amazing player. Still hit 20 home runs, ran the bases great.
“He’s a guy, when he steps in the clubhouse, everyone just smiles. What I learned about him, when he was going through tough times, you find out a lot about your teammates. I know I can count on him right now and the rest of forever, just on how he handled himself last year. I would go to battle with that guy seven days a week. He’s going to have a huge bounce-back year.”
Kiermaier is a realist and is aware that the team has to be better offensively in 2024, but he was also cautiously optimistic about a return to form of his young teammate, last year’s opening day pitcher and current fifth starter, Alek Manoah. He did not make excuses for Manoah and his late-season issues, or make excuses for the way he handled how he was handled, but KK plans on paying attention to Manoah at spring training as a veteran who only wants the team to be better.
“I assume it was a big learning experience for him,” Kiermaier said. “He’s probably a guy who’s never struggled his whole life. I know that he was really good in high school, really good at (U. of) West Virginia, really good in the minor leagues, really good in the big leagues. Sometimes you get punched in the mouth and see how you respond and I don’t think things went his way, but you’ve got to be a pro about a lot of certain things along the way.
“He’ll have a clean slate headed into 2024, but I hope he’s as motivated as ever, because when he’s on his game he’s one of the best pitchers in the game. When you see a teammate go through stuff like that, I would always remind him, ‘Hey don’t forget how bad of a dude you are. You’re one of the best on the planet.’
“But when you’re not right (in your head), crazy things can happen. I just think his body and mental things weren’t synching up. Hopefully this off-season, he’s been getting after it, working his butt off. I saw a few pictures, videos, he looked really good. Hopefully he keeps at it. Hopefully last year was a big wakeup call for him.”
There is no denying that it has been a disappointing off-season for Blue Jays’ fans, who felt lied to by somebody when it was discovered Ohtani was not on that private jet to Toronto. But with almost seven weeks yet to go until pitchers and catchers report, there are players out there that can help this team.
With $196-million in estimated salaries, towards 10 guaranteed contracts, plus the salaries to 11 arbitration-eligible players, as estimated by MLB Trade Rumors, the Jays still have about $14M available for five roster spots to match last year’s opening day payroll which was the unofficial guideline issued by CEO Mark Shapiro back in October. Hey Jays, spend the rest of it wisely and add some offence.