By most accounts, Shohei Ohtani prefers to stay away from the limelight.
Take Thursday night, for example, as the 29-year-old was honoured with his second unanimous MVP award. In the midst of arguably the most hotly anticipated free agency in North American pro sports history, the slugger/fireballer/alien didn’t celebrate surrounded by a gaggle of family and friends, but instead chose to cozy up with his adorable puppy.
That is to say that nobody knows for certain what the transcendent talent intends to do in the weeks to come as teams court his services. Sure, there are definitely favourites, but that doesn’t mean another club — say, one in desperate need of a powerful stroke from the left side of the dish — couldn’t come in and swoop him up.
While every team should be trying to add Ohtani, the Toronto Blue Jays' circumstances make a fit particularly obvious. The star is friendly with franchise cornerstone Vladimir Guerrero Jr., the Blue Jays have a desperate need for a power-hitting lefty like Ohtani, and he's also, obviously, a premier hurler assuming he doesn't drop off in that area too much following what will be a lengthy UCL recovery after undergoing elbow surgery in September.
Given the boxes both sides check for one another, it’s no wonder why rumours have begun to swirl around a possible deal. First, Sportsnet’s Shi Davidi indicated there’d been growing chatter that Ohtani could look to add a third country, Canada, to his fan base.
From there, the murmurs only grew louder this past week as Jeff Passan wrote that the Blue Jays were looking to “do something big,” with specific reference to Ohtani. Finally, Ken Rosenthal blew the proverbial lid off by firmly linking the two parties via a rival executive, who dubbed the Blue Jays “sleepers” for the star’s services.
With winds swirling of a potential union, what if the Blue Jays and fans dared to dream? What if the Blue Jays pulled off the heist of the century, a coup d’etat on the most unique ballplayer of his generation, and landed the face of Major League Baseball? What might that hypothetical offseason look like for Mark Shapiro, Ross Atkins, and the rest of the Blue Jays brass?
The Blue Jays have several holes to fill with key free agents departing. Matt Chapman leaves the hot corner vacant, while Kevin Kiermaier’s departure is expected to send Daulton Varsho over a few hundred paces to man centrefield, leaving his post in left without a tenant.
There’s also the departures of Whit Merrifield, Brandon Belt, Jordan Hicks, and Hyun-Jin Ryu. That quartet doesn't represent the same degree of urgency to replace, but they’re nevertheless 26-man roster players the Blue Jays will need to swap in for either internally or externally.
Let’s dive into fantasy land, at least for the time being, and see what a Blue Jays squad, operating with a reported $50-million available in budget room, might look like if Ohtani took his talents north of the border.
Blue Jays sign Shohei Ohtani to a 13-year, $527-million contract
In one fell swoop, the Blue Jays pick up the best player in baseball, fill their hole at DH, and chew up the vast majority of their hypothetical wiggle room. Working off the contract projections provided by Fangraphs, Ohtani is projected to walk away with over half a billion dollars and wind up with the third-highest average annual salary in MLB history — beating out Aaron Judge by $500k.
Is any MLB player worth this? It’s debatable, but when you’re looking at acquiring a player as marketable and important as Ohtani figures to be, it’s best to pull the trigger first and ask questions later.
Filling in the left-field hole
Our fantasy Blue Jays have pushed their chips in with Ohtani, but now need to find the most cost-effective options to fill their two most pressing holes, and decide whether they’re looking to promote internally or externally.
We’ll start with the outfield, where the choice is much more clear. According to MLB.com, the Blue Jays' top outfield prospect is 23-year-old Alan Roden, a 2022 third-round draft pick coming off a strong year split between High-A and Double-A. He may figure into the Blue Jays plans in 2024, but penciling him into the Opening Day lineup, while cost-effective for our purposes, is a non-starter.
The Blue Jays look externally in our parallel universe and will have to decide whether to spend prospect capital or look to the lower rungs of free agency for an option here. At this point, with a meagre $9.5-million to play with, even under-the-radar outfielders like Michael A. Taylor and Joc Pederson are probably too expensive based on their contract projections. The trade route is our best bet.
Two options immediately stand out: Los Angeles Angels right-fielder Taylor Ward and St. Louis Cardinals left-fielder Tyler O’Neill. Both fit the Blue Jays' needs as modest power bats, but are both coming off injury-plagued seasons and are buy-low bounce-back candidates. With both corner outfielders arbitration eligible and with salary expectations for the pair at $4.5 and $5.5 million, respectively, they fit the bill as affordable options.
Whoever the Blue Jays prefer likely comes down to prospect allocation, as Ward likely costs slightly more to acquire given the extra two years of team control and his stronger track record the past two seasons.
O’Neill, comparatively, boasts the obvious Canadian connection, starring nationally at the 2023 World Baseball Classic and hailing from Maple Ridge, B.C., with some slightly more encouraging batted ball data than Ward last year.
In our parallel universe, Ross Atkins and Co., ever the group to value team control, go with the luxury option in Ward, snatching a final piece from the Angels who opt to tear it down post-Ohtani.
In return, the Blue Jays send back a package around Santiago Espinal – freeing up an estimated $2.5 million – with two to three other prospects included, perhaps such as infielder Addison Barger or fast rising pitcher Chad Dallas, both of whom play positions of strength within the Blue Jays system.
Where to look for answers in the infield?
With left field accounted for, the Blue Jays now look for their Matt Chapman replacement, whose $150-million asking price is now far beyond the realm of possibilities in Toronto after hypothetically landing Ohtani.
With a glut of infield options remaining even after trading Espinal and Barger, including Cavan Biggio, Davis Schneider and Orelvis Martinez, the first choice is to promote from within at the hot corner and second base — also vacated with Merrifield a free agent. It would still make sense, however, for the Blue Jays to add one more pure third-base option with roughly $7.5 million left to play with.
Having explored the trade market, the Blue Jays instead turn to one of the roughly half-dozen stop-gap options available on the market, particularly given that the hot corner isn’t bursting at the seams with talent these days as it was during the mid-2010s.
Among the most compelling budget options, former Milwaukee Brewers third baseman Brian Anderson stands out as one of the few on this list who provides an adequate defensive replacement for the Blue Jays to play beside a defensively improved but still mediocre Bo Bichette.
Anderson’s primary calling card is his arm strength, which clocks in the 98th percentile according to Statcast metrics (for reference, Matt Chapman’s was in the 80th percentile). After signing a one-year, $3.5-million deal last January, a similar deal could be in the works for the 30-year-old, who bridges the gap to the aforementioned Martinez, or perhaps another option such as Arizona Fall League standout Damiano Palmegiani.
The 2024 Opening Day roster
There are some other spots where the Blue Jays could use another body, namely in the form of pitching depth, but based on the huge lump sum dedicated to signing Ohtani, those spots are best left to internal candidates and minor-league free agents if we hope to remain within the constraints of our experiment.
Nevertheless, it’s hard not to dream about the kind of damage this lineup could be capable of by adding the world’s best player.
On the depth front, the Blue Jays look largely internally to fill the gaps around the diamond. Bench options include Cavan Biggio, sure to get plenty of playing time given his positional versatility, as well as last season’s Buffalo Boys, Spencer Horwitz and Ernie Clement, and whichever catcher isn’t in the starting lineup.
On the pitching front, forgoing a 5th starter — in the short term at least, given that Ohtani is expected to return to the bump in 2025 — leaves room for top pitching prospect Ricky Tiedemann to enter the rotation conversation by midseason. The bullpen also remains largely intact, though will once again be an area in need of addressing during the dog days of summer, even if it ranked eighth in MLB last season in ERA.
Organizational depth is also probably best addressed via minor-league free agency as it has been in years past.
How realistic this scenario ultimately is remains to be seen, but in terms of dreaming big, it’s hard to get any larger than Ohtani. Now, the question is whether or not the Blue Jays front office can turn much of these rumblings into concrete action.