With higher aims (and stakes), winter meetings are full of intrigue for Blue Jays

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SAN DIEGO – Remember Tanner Roark? It was at the winter meetings three years ago that the Toronto Blue Jays began re-establishing themselves as off-season players by signing the self-described “diesel engine” for $24 million over two years.

A couple of weeks later, general manager Ross Atkins built upon that deal by taking the $80-million, four-year plunge for star lefty Hyun Jin Ryu, credibility building steps which led to big contracts for George Springer ($150 million, six years) and Marcus Semien ($18 million, one year) the following winter and Jose Berrios (an extension for $131 million over seven years), Kevin Gausman ($110 million, five years) and Yusei Kikuchi ($36 million, three years) last off-season.

Now, once again at San Diego’s Manchester Grand Hyatt for baseball’s first in-person swap-fest since that fateful 2019 gathering, the Blue Jays are in a much different spot.

Back then, they were a team on the make trying to sell reluctant free agents on the legitimacy of both their ambitions and their roster. This time around, they’re a largely set wild-card club seeking to refine a group that’s posted back-to-back 90-win seasons, a shift that in some ways makes their work even more complicated, even if they are now a far more attractive venture.

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Their needs at this point are obvious – one starting pitcher for sure, but likely two, or at least one other arm who can also start; plus a left-handed hitting outfielder, ideally one who plays centre field – as they have been since the trade of Teoscar Hernandez to Seattle last month.

How they address them is still unclear, and even though Atkins, speaking at the Toronto chapter of the BBWAA’s annual meeting Wednesday, said the club is “probably” leaning a bit more to free agency than trade right now, what happens in the catching market may very well be the trigger for their next steps.

While the Blue Jays may certainly hold on to all three of Danny Jansen, Alejandro Kirk and Gabriel Moreno – and there’s a case to be made for that – reallocating some of that depth to fill other areas of needs offers a financial efficiency plugging holes in free agency alone will not.

Converting one of their backstops into an outfielder from, say, the St. Louis Cardinals (Dylan Carlson and Lars Nootbar are the best fits for them), Pittsburgh Pirates (Bryan Reynolds has requested a trade), Arizona Diamondbacks (Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic reported last month they’re open to a deal) or Minnesota Twins (Max Kepler) would allow them to address their need for a starter on the higher end of the open market (they’ve long liked Kodai Senga) and perhaps leave some money over for a reliever.

Conversely, converting a catcher into a rotation piece from, for instance, the Miami Marlins (they are believed to have discussed Pablo Lopez at the trade deadline when they acquired Anthony Bass and Zach Pop, as did the New York Yankees) or Cleveland Guardians (Zach Pleasac or Aaron Civale), would point them to free-agent outfield market, where Brandon Nimmo on the higher end and Cody Bellinger, in a Semien-esque pillow-deal, make total sense.

Whichever option they take locks them into a specific course, which is why their work seems to hinge on how the catching situation develops.

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Given that nothing has happened yet suggests that the Blue Jays are still playing out their preferred path, while clubs seeking catching help will want to see where costs for free agents like Willson Contreras or Christian Vazquez land before surrendering assets.

As a result, multiple teams and a few key free agents are all waiting for a price in trade or contract to hit their realm, or for someone else’s move to start dropping the dominoes.

It’s not dissimilar to how Aaron Judge’s free agency will be the jumping-off point for position players on the open market, as his expected landscape-altering deal should help raise values and leave spurned suitors eager to spend elsewhere.

One thing the Blue Jays will need to monitor is the way the starting pitching market moves after the Texas Rangers signed Jacob deGrom to a stunning $185 million, five-year deal Friday. That contract bodes well for aces Carlos Rodon and Justin Verlander, the latter of which the Blue Jays pursued aggressively last winter and remain engaged with this one, although a deal for him may very well cut them off from other significant moves.

All of which makes this a winter meetings full of potential and intrigue for the Blue Jays.

Speaking in general terms last week, Atkins noted that “we are definitely at the point where we understand where there are levers that can be pulled. But it also isn’t 100 per cent dependent upon us, as you know. There are often times where either a player, his representation aren’t quite ready for offers to come in. There are often times when teams would like a little bit more time to understand a different aspect of the market before they’re ready to fully engage with us. We don’t have the full picture painted on exactly how to do A, B and C to make our team better. But we do have a very clear understanding of where we could take our next strategic step.”

That’s a whole lot different than the last time the Blue Jays were in San Diego, when they fluttered their eyes at an indifferent Gerrit Cole, who got $324 million over nine years from the Yankees, and made unsuccessful runs at Gausman, Rick Porcello and Didi Gregorious, among others, before pushing beyond their comfort zone to land Roark and lay groundwork with Ryu.

Their aims are higher now, with the stakes around what they do to match.

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