Perhaps it was bluster. Perhaps it was a front office trying to make sure it looks like it’s doing it’s damnedest, even when it knows it’s a desperate long shot. But at the GM Meetings in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, on Monday, Ross Atkins was about as clear and direct as anyone has ever heard from a Blue Jays GM about his desire to sign a specific free agent. The Jays want Shohei Otani.
Shi Davidi has a great piece on this over at Sportsnet, in which Atkins just about lets loose about the subject:
“I think we’re as well equipped as any organization in baseball,” Atkins said, perhaps trying to pique Otani’s interest. “Our emphasis on recovery, our emphasis on preparation, our emphasis on what it takes to realize all of your potential and understanding what that means is at the forefront. The fact we’re in the American League and do have the DH spot allows for more patience, and allows for more versatility in that arena. I can’t imagine a better fit, quite frankly.”
As you can see from the aside, it’s framed in Shi’s piece that this could be Atkins negotiating through the media. Later he notes how well much of what the GM says lines up with comments the Japanese sensation made to reporters in his homeland recently about what he’ll be looking for in a new team.
Some Jays fans, understandably, will likely view this effort as entirely futile. But there are reasons to think that the Jays can seriously make a very solid pitch to Otani, a player Atkins says is about “baseball and baseball first,” who, more than anything else, is “thinking about how he can be one of the best athletes in the world.”
- Many teams will likely put themselves out of contention for Otani’s services because they’ll refuse to let an expensive starting pitcher frequently play as a position player on his non-pitching days. The Jays are clearly not one of those teams.
- The Jays really have spots for him to do anything he wants, positionally, with their outfield in flux, their rotation not yet filled, and perhaps with their DH being so dreadful last year from the left-hand side (Otani is a left-handed hitter). Sure, Otani would be a fit for any club, but for the type of role he reportedly wants to have, and what the Jays need, it really is perfect.
- The Jays appear to have positioned themselves at the forefront of sport science, with their High Performance department. In Shi’s piece Atkins talks about the club’s scientific approach to recovery and preparation, all of which appears to fit Otani’s mindset.
- Though the Jays’ training facilities in year one may still be somewhat antiquated, the club is on track to have a brand new — and, one would expect, state-of-the-art, and world class — facility in Dunedin by the start of spring 2019. Probably a plus!
- There also ought to be great positive to be taken from the fact that the Jays’ High Performance department is headed by Angus Mugford, who came from IMG Academy — literally an academy run by the enormous sports talent agency, which obviously has a vested interest in providing all the tools possible to better individual performance in an athlete’s chosen sport.
- Mugford came from the “mental conditioning” side of IMG, but still, the fact that the Blue Jays are going in the direction of the place Baseball America calls a “trendsetting destination for high school athletes” perhaps bodes well when it comes to their ability to convince someone like Otani to join them. (IMG Academy counts Andrew Benentendi and José Fernandez, as well as 2014 top pick Brady Aiken, among the alumni of their full-time baseball program, and Mark Buehrle, Adam Dunn, Nomar Garciaparra, Josh Hamilton, Joe Mauer, Andrew McCutchen, Gary Sheffield, Joey Votto, Vernon Wells, and Ryan Zimmerman as alumni of their professional training program. Impressive stuff.)
Now, the Blue Jays surely aren’t unique in trying to create an atmosphere and give players the tools they need to get better, but they do seem to be especially active in that regard, and committed to being at the forefront of it. And that, coupled with the fact that they seem to be very much player-first when it comes to how they apply this stuff — Atkins says that “the biggest piece of the equation is going to be the player in that [two-way] scenario, their desires, their feedback, their inputs, in how you use that information” — and the fact that they would be such a great on-field fit for Otani, perhaps makes them a more desirable location for him than some fans are giving credit.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think anybody should believe in the slightest that the Blue Jays are going to land him. But I don’t think anybody should be completely writing off the possibility, either. And a big part of why it’s maybe OK to hold that glimmer of optimism is, as the title of this piece suggests, the way that the Jays landed Bo Bichette.
Here’s what Bichette told the Tampa Bay Times after he was drafted 66th overall in 2016:
“The Blue Jays were the top team that I wanted to go to,” Bichette said. “They were the best as far as player development.
“I may end up taking a little less (in signing bonus), but this is the best fit. I actually turned down about four offers earlier in the draft because they weren’t good fits.”
Over the years since this quote I’ve had a hard time taking it 100% at face value. Surely there had to have been some kind of a financial concern involved too, I’ve always thought. But maybe not! After all, Bo’s father, Dante, made $42 million in a big league career that lasted until 2001 — it’s entirely possible that a hundred thousand dollars difference between offers genuinely wasn’t as important as the ability to play somewhere that Bo and his family thought would be best for Bo.
That’s certainly the way Bo continues to frame it, as he did when he joined Mike Wilner on a Fan 590 playoff pregame show back in October, where he said this:
I have not had one person in the Blue Jays organization say anything to me about my swing, which is obviously all I could have hoped for. I mean, I’m not someone who’s super stingy that if I go 1-for-100, you know I’m the worst hitter in the minor league, that I wouldn’t seek other options. But for me, every day, I’m trying to figure out how to get better — my swing, my approach, all that stuff. I’m just lucky that the Blue Jays have left me alone and they kind of let me do my own thing. It’s worked out pretty well so far.
Why might other clubs have asked him to change his swing? Bichette got to the nut of that, too, as he tried to explain to Wilner what scouts saw that they didn’t like:
I don’t know. I think that it’s just different, they haven’t seen it before. I don’t blame them, if you haven’t seen something before, you won’t know how to process what the player will be in the future. To me, it’s not that weird. I don’t really understand it. I couldn’t really tell you what’s different. I think that people think, ‘Oh, if he has a big leg kick,’ well Josh Donaldson can do it because he’s Josh Donaldson. I think everybody’s their own hitter and people can do things in different ways. But I’m not really sure what exactly they see.
Bichette and his violent swing had what was thought to be a strong commitment to go and play at Arizona State, which, according to how he tells it, he used as leverage to scare off teams that he didn’t think were going to be good fits — who were going to want to change his swing, or, perhaps, who weren’t also so out forward thinking on how to put players in position to get the best out of themselves.
Again, I don’t want to paint the Jays as having lapped the field in this regard. Obviously there are organizations with loads of money, great player development systems, and the ability to woo Otani in much the same way as Atkins can. But Bichette perhaps — hopefully! — provides an instructive example of how the Jays’ new regime has the ability to sell itself over other organizations to a top player, based on their approach to development and willingness to let the player be himself. If money isn’t the issue — and in Otani’s case, with the multiple millions he’s leaving on the table to come and do this, it’s really not — maybe they honestly do have a shot.
I can’t let myself believe here that it’s a particularly good shot, or more than merely a slim one, but I don’t think Atkins is necessarily wrong about this, either. Based on what I think I know about the player, and what he wants, and what the Jays can offer, it really does seem like a great fit. Could there be other places with as good a fit? Sure. But better? Unless he’s determined to play on the west coast, or has always dreamed of wearing Yankee pinstripes, maybe not!