Ohtani free-agent craziness: Blue Jays needed more balls in the air
Ohtani adds welcomed fuel to the MLB Hot Stove fire
When the Blue Jays in 2020 brought lefthander Hyun Jin Ryu to Toronto as the most expensive, at the time, free-agent in franchise history, the Korean media that dutifully accompanied him to Dunedin for his first training camp, described him as a rock star back at home. Multiply this simple Ryu description by 10, if, indeed, the Jays are able to bring to Toronto, DH/RHP Shohei Ohtani, the greatest two-way player in MLB history. In terms of rock-stars, if Ryu is Meatloaf, then Ohtani is Elvis…The King.
The pursuit of this once-in-a-lifetime six-tool talent by Rogers has been relentless, but mostly undercover, since hunting season officially opened for free agents, following the conclusion of the World Series in early November. But all that speculation reached an entertaining, hectic, careening and, thankfully, non-life-threatening climax, on Friday, with word of a mystery private jet making its way from John Wayne, the main, secondary L.A. airport in Santa Ana, headed to Pearson International.
The plane took off at 9:47 a.m. Pacific time and landed just over four hours later, around 5:00 p.m. Eastern, to a TMZ-like media reception, coincidentally right in the heart of the local, evening news cycle. Turns out it was some guy from Shark Tank avoiding the hubbub of LAX. Simple mixup? Entertaining result? Yes! Conclusive result, either way? No! Ohtani remains a free-agent and in the crosshairs of a diminishing number of teams – including the Jays. He, at least, probably smiled.
All along, it was a giant leap of faith and a rush of hand-wringing hope by Jays’ fans. Without any knowledge, other than the existence of the basic flight information, without knowing who had booked the jet, who was onboard, the entire Jays’ social media fandom was locked in on a random flight-tracker app, waiting breathlessly on the ground to witness history when the doors finally opened and the passengers disembarked. Can anyone say Kahwi?
There is no doubt that local Canadian sports fans, among the savviest, but, also, the most needy in North America, have been through situations like this before. They have forever been adept at deciphering the truth from a combination of random Twitter (X) and Instagram engagements that, depending on the authors, range from sarcasm, to disdain, from humour to, most dangerously, a number of insider-wannabes that continually quote unnamed sources, most pulled out of thin air. Then, if they are right, can pin that at the top of their account to impress their friends and attract more followers. Jays fans are used to that and quite good at breaking it down.
However the X-factor entered the fray when some reputable, well-connected baseball insiders chimed in, seeming to confirm the 29-year-old superstar was, indeed, on that flight, on his way to Toronto to sign a record contract with “your Toronto Blue Jays”.
It began with a tweet from MLB Network’s J-P Morosi and, from that point, like horsehide dominoes, the news seemed to be confirmed by others that should have known better – including a repost of the Morosi speculation by Sportsnet, which is, of course, owned by Rogers, who were ultimately the ones most affected by the hunt for Blue October. That’s where the day reached its maximum craziness.
Now, after the dust has settled and it turns out Ohtani was still at home in Southern California, we are back to Square One with Ohtani. Yes, the Jays are still Top 3, along with the Dodgers and Cubs. That’s where it sits, at least publicly. It didn’t make sense that Ohtani was flying to Toronto on Friday, because even if there had been agreement in principle, there are too many details to be worked out between sides in a contract of this magnitude, before any press conference could be staged.
There’s the player medicals, the attempts at tax equalization, the contributions to several charitable foundations, the potential opt-outs, the no-trade clauses, the perks on the road, the additional flights for the family from Japan, or L.A., the side endorsements that surely will be made available from parent company Rogers. That all could not have been possible in the five hours it took that private jet to fly from John Wayne to Lester B. Pearson. The guess is that before that happens, the other suitor teams will be notified by the folks at CAA, Ohtani’s agency, then it will be “go-time.”
Just some future advice for still-angst-ing fans, in case Ohtani finally chooses to go elsewhere, other than playing in Canada. It’s not us, it’s him. It’s nothing that we, as baseball fans, did wrong this week, but when you are competing in the nose-bleed territory of 10-12 years and $500-600 million, a player has the right to choose where he is most comfortable playing for the next decade.
Remember when the season ended and GM Ross Atkins and President Mark Shapiro staged their respective media avails, they outlined a plan to remain competitive, even given the loss of 3B Matt Chapman, 2B Whit Merrifield, CF Kevin Kiermaier and DH Brandon Belt. For fans and media, at the time, those early plans did not include a pursuit of Ohtani or a potential trade for Juan Soto. That being the understanding, even if the AL MVP chooses an alternate landing site, it does not mark the end of the Blue Jays ability to build a roster capable of 92-100 wins. What it would do is signal a return to whatever was Plan A. The Ohtani option was as much about overseas profit for Rogers as it was wins for the Blue Jays and their fans.
In the meantime, it’s been a helluva one-week ride for Jays fans and for the front office. If nothing else, it has opened the eyes of fans and media around MLB that the Jays are serious players when it comes to reaching out for high-priced talent. No longer pat us on the head like we are mere talent feeders for the big boys.
In the case of Ohtani, given the deep-dive studies that ownership had clearly made heading into this and the opportunities that the Asian market would present for Rogers, that record-setting contract at $50-60 million per year could have become as efficient for ownership as a $30M deal for someone else.
The next step for Jays fans as they return from the edge of lunacy to a sense of normalcy is not to check cross-country flight schedules, but instead, listen to teams that have been told they are no longer considered, then check flight schedules and passenger lists, but instead, from Tampa to Toronto. Jays manager John Schneider will most definitely be coming into town for that welcoming press conference.
Oh, the word is that Mrs. Kikuchi loved the surprise birthday dinner that Yusei had planned on Friday and, also, that Shark Tank appreciates the bump in awareness for one of its star sharks.