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Blue Jays taking more cautious approach with off-season plan

CARLSBAD, Calif. – Rick Hahn isn’t playing down the notion that his Chicago White Sox intend to pursue superstar free agents Bryce Harper and Manny Machado. Quite the opposite, actually, as he actively encouraged the idea that the rebuilding club is ready for a franchise-altering add.

“No one should be surprised about seeing us involved with potential impact names,” he proclaimed boldly Tuesday at the general managers meetings, comments that marked his club’s attempt to emerge from the setting-a-foundation-of-talent phase of team-building.

While acknowledging that 2019 “might not be the moment of greatest impact” for the young players the White Sox have been developing over the past couple of seasons, Hahn pointed to the window of opportunity in the current market as a reason to jump in now, even if it is a season early for his core.

“We’ve made no secret from the start of this that we wanted to put ourselves in the position where we have the economic flexibility and wherewithal to add players that align with the impact prospects that we’ve accumulated,” said Hahn. “You can’t control when certain players become available and we wouldn’t be doing this properly if we weren’t at least investigating all of our possibilities via trade and free agency to further expand that group of players we have coming.”

The White Sox’s step up to the big-boys’ table – alongside the Philadelphia Phillies, who’ll also be in on Harper and Machado after starting to spend last off-season to advance their rebuild – isn’t the type of aggressive push the Toronto Blue Jays plan to make this off-season.

After transitioning their roster last year, their aim for 2019 and perhaps 2020 will be to sift through the young talent already in place, and figuring out who sticks and who doesn’t.

Trying to accelerate that process by buying free agents can be tempting, but is of debatable merit for a team to some extent unsure who will be in place for them at multiple spots around the diamond.

As a result, they’ll largely be sitting out a rare free-agent market that features two mid-20s stars, keeping their financial commitments in check while their roster questions get sorted out for runs at premier free agents next off-season, or the one after that, trying to prudently time their jump.

“It’s so hard to say when young players are going to be peaking,” said Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins. “A lot of people try to do it and sometimes it happens before people expect it to happen. We’ve seen it with Houston, the Cubs, their winning happened maybe potentially before they had planned. Sometimes it happens after dates you set.

“Really, this year is so important for us to understand how Vladdy (Gurrero Jr.) and Bo (Bichette) and Cavan (Biggio) are going to fit into the equation, where is Nate Pearson going to be halfway through the year, a year from now, how have Sean Reid-Foley and Ryan Borucki really transitioned. We want to make sure we’re in a position to add to that talent when it is peaking, and it is coming together in a winning fashion. We’re confident we’ll be prepared for that.”

The only way to get there is through allocating at-bats and innings to their young players and finding out how their puzzle pieces best fit together.

Consider that for second, third and shortstop, the Blue Jays at the moment have Devon Travis, Lourdes Gurriel Jr., Aledmys Diaz, Brandon Drury, Yangervis Solarte and Richard Urena with Guerrero to join them late in April and Bichette and Biggio pushing from behind.

Atkins said the Blue Jays still haven’t decided on a spot for Gurriel – “there’s a lot of discussion in and around that” – while Drury wants to play third base, which is fine until Guerrero is recalled after he’s spent enough time in the minors for the Blue Jays to artificially postpone his free agency.

“It’s just too early to say (what happens at that point),” said Atkins. “If we don’t have to make decisions, why make them? We can plan for the versatility and we can embrace Brandon’s desire to be a good third baseman simultaneously.”

Now, some of the pressure there can – and likely will – be alleviated through trades to acquire the most pressing need for the Blue Jays this off-season, pitching. In an ideal world, they can get a starter with some control, but they’ll also be looking for one-year types, too, to not totally block off the young arms they have coming.

To that end, Atkins met with the representatives for J.A. Happ on Tuesday and while that shouldn’t be taken as a sign that the left-hander will return to the Blue Jays, he’s exactly what they need for a young team – a proven performer who’s the ultimate example of a professional.

Still, it’s hard to see them paying him what the New York Yankees or another contender will pay him, and the same holds true for other desirable free agents.

In theory, the Blue Jays could try and wait out the market to see if someone is left without a chair as spring training approaches, as the Phillies did with Jake Arrieta last year. But the reality is that the Blue Jays won’t be anybody’s first, or second or third choice with so many growing pains still to come.

“You don’t tend to get the guys who have opportunities to go play on a contender,” Astros GM Jeff Luhnow said of why he waited until his core was established before making impact free-agent adds. “If you can find the right fit and it’s someone that you know is going to be with you for five-plus years and they’re going to be there as part of your core, it’s worth considering. But it’s a lot easier said than done.”

The Blue Jays can’t be certain of when they’ll be able to offer up a contender, which is why they believe this isn’t their time to be bold. And while fortune doesn’t always favour the bold in baseball, the White Sox sure seem intent on finding out if it will for them.

“We’ve got what we feel are some interesting waves of talent coming here in Chicago over the coming months and years,” Hahn said. “It’s not a surprise, to us at least, that there are players out there who are going to have some choices that may be interested in being a part of that.”

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