Blue Jays focused on playoff push but Ohtani’s uncertainty looms over baseball

TORONTO — A riff on what we’re left with after a weekend when Shohei Ohtani and the Los Angeles Angels laid waste to the Toronto Blue Jays… and boos were heard at the Rogers Centre.

We still need to see how Arte Moreno’s exploration of a sale of the Angels plays out, but if we operate under the assumption that Ohtani is going to be in play this off-season should we expect the Blue Jays to be interested? I put that question via text to an agent and another team’s general manager, not because I doubt anybody’s sincerity on (or off) the record but because it costs nothing for a team to say, “Yeah, we’re interested.” The agent’s response? “Their ownership spends money and they explore every possibility. I don’t see why they wouldn’t with Shohei. I don’t see why anybody wouldn’t.” The GM? “Them, us and everybody else.” OK, then…

It’s a long way from here to there, but Ohtani will be a free agent after next season and, well, Juan Soto was traded — Juan Soto! — by a team up for sale despite his youth (just under 24 years old) and the fact he’s not one but two years away from free agency. I know that conventional wisdom is any new owner would love to inherit a marquee player — I love the way Angels TV guy Matt Vasgersian answered when asked to choose between Mike Trout and Ohtani: One’s the best player of his generation, the other is multi-generational — and the flip side is that new ownership might want a clean slate and let the previous owner be blamed for the loss of a player.

But I don’t know. It seems to me that buying a team like the Angels is as much a real estate play as anything and I’m not certain how much extra value would be attached to Ohtani. I mean, is it the difference between a $2 billion price tag or $2.5 billion? Does the marketing bump you would get — especially in Japan and especially if somehow the Angels turn into a contending team — carry a tangible, measurable dollar figure for a new owner?

It would most likely depend on the buyer as well as the timeline of the sale process. For example, Golden State Warriors owner Joe Lacob has been rumoured to be interested in buying a Major League franchise and if any sports executive understands how much value is added by a transcendent player, you’d have to think it would be an NBA owner. (For the record, when the Los Angeles Times asked Lacob last week if he was interested in the Angels, his response was: “Can’t answer this question that fast. We look at good opportunities.”)

Here in Toronto, we saw first-hand this past weekend what Ohtani is all about. You cannot take your eyes off the man and his combination of explosiveness and elegance. He’d be your ace — or at worst No. 2 — and the best left-handed bat in most lineups — including the Blue Jays, who are a playoff contender. But like former Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston mentioned on Saturday, you wonder how long Ohtani can keep this up and whether one part of his game turns south before the other. I mean, if you’ve never seen a unicorn before, you’ve never seen it age, and that must be an issue if you’re interested in making him the highest-paid player in baseball history which, let’s face it, is where this is all going at some point if you’re looking at making Ohtani anything but a rental.

The calendar flips to September on Thursday. Blue Jays fans didn’t need this weekend sweep to remind them that playing meaningful games on Labour Day can bring with it frustration and disappointment as well as excitement and celebration. And while looking ahead to the off-season is distracting… well, this could be an off-season of monumental ground-shifting.

See what Ohtani can do to you?

Let’s leave the trade market out of it, for now, because September and October will have a say in determining its composition. Carlos Correa and Xander Bogaerts are both clients of Scott Boras in position to exercise opt-outs and join Trea Turner and, possibly, Dansby Swanson as free agent shortstops. Aaron Judge will be there, too, if he doesn’t re-sign with the New York Yankees and if that doesn’t happen it would leave the Yankees, Los Angeles Dodgers (without Turner) and maybe even the Boston Red Sox — no Bogaerts, perhaps facing an issue with Rafael Devers — doing some big game hunting. Plus, keep an eye on the San Francisco Giants — who badly need a cornerstone and will end up with at least one of the big names — and the Washington Nationals, who will have new ownership by then and be positioned to splash the cash.

It would be so much easier for second-year general manager Perry Minasian and the Angels brain-trust if they or their predecessors had managed to win once while employing Trout and Ohtani together. COVID-19, Trout’s chronic inability to stay on the field and the meddling of Moreno were all factors out of a front office’s control but those factors exacerbated miscues in judgment — such as Anthony Rendon’s contract — that even the best front offices make as a cost of business.

I’ve taken grief for saying this, but it’s true: winning allows you to do whatever you want when it comes to dealing with franchise players. Washington Nationals GM Mike Rizzo won a World Series with Soto before trading him. Masai Ujiri’s NBA ring made it easier to hold the line on Kawhi Leonard’s attempted hijacking of the franchise. And in the most extreme case Bill Belichick can pretty much do whatever he wants with any player because, well… duh. And don’t think for a second that Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas wouldn’t mind being able to use a title as the impetus for moving a big salary and getting out of cap hell.

Rizzo doesn’t always wear his 2019 World Series ring. But he did wear it to the news conference announcing the Soto trade to the San Diego Padres to, as he said, remind people of “what we did in the past and what we’re going to do in the future.”

Ohtani left Toronto having played a starring role in a big weekend at the Rogers Centre. Beautiful weather. Big crowds. He homered on Friday and Sunday, sandwiched around nine strikeouts and 100 m.p.h. in his start on Saturday. He was a topic of conversation for members of the 1992 World Series champions Blue Jays during Saturday’s reunion. Sure, you can dream on it. The Blue Jays have surprised us before: George Springer. Extending Jose Berrios. Coming closer to signing Justin Verlander this winter than any of us knew until a June 17 article by ESPN’s Jeff Passan quoted Verlander as saying he thought long and hard about the Blue Jays, who were in his mind runners-up.

But… nah. No way. Ohtani would be something else again, even in what could be a seismic off-season of movement around the game. The Blue Jays have long-term deals with Springer, Berrios and Kevin Gausman. At some point, Vladimir Guerrero, Jr., needs to be paid, although I wonder how close we’re coming to a Devers situation here where it gets to a point that as free agency gets closer the clock mitigates against doing anything long-term. (For the record: my hunch is that the Blue Jays sign Vladdy to a massive deal this off-season.)

Looking elsewhere: Alek Manoah is putting together a historical season by the standards of Blue Jays pitching and I’d be careful getting into one of those “throwing out the baby with the bath-water” situations with Bo Bichette if September goes pear-shaped. Even if the idea that you couldn’t extend one of Vladdy or Bo without annoying the other has been put to rest by the separation between the two we’ve seen in 2022 — really, there’s only one choice — a sub-par season doesn’t make a bad player. Sometimes it’s just a bad season, you know?

It’s foolish to read too much into the boos we all heard on Sunday, even in a city that has spent recent winters wasting the service time of another pair of bright young stars — Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews — and could find itself a little more than a month away from thinking: “Really. We have to put up with this in the summer now, too?”

So let’s focus on the wild-card race because it’s still very much on the table. It’s gonna be some kind of winter, to be true, but I’d rather not think about it right now, even if this weekend was enough to leave you muttering.

We are going to learn something about this group. No more COVID-19 excuses. No more padding of the statistics in minor league parks. An expanded playoff format and an implosion on the part of a Red Sox team that usually has a say in how or if a team gets to the post-season out of the American League East. Some cushy games against weak teams.

The unicorn has left his calling card after stealing the spotlight and brandishing a broom. Boo to that… but time to move on.

Jeff Blair hosts Blair & Barker from 10 a.m.-Noon ET daily on Sportsnet 590 The Fan and Sportsnet 360. The show is also available on demand wherever you get your podcasts.

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