Shohei sighted? Speculation soars around Blue Jays

December 5th, 2023

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Welcome to Nashville, Ross Atkins. 

One day after the Blue Jays’ general manager joined a cryptic Zoom call from parts unknown, sitting in front of a blank white wall that offered no clues to baseball’s greatest mystery, Atkins rode into the MLB Winter Meetings atop a freight train of  speculation.

“Everybody has me in four different places, it’s so funny,” Atkins said on MLB Network Radio. “The best was the text messages I was getting from other GMs. Everybody is speculating and guessing.”

Overnight, Ken Rosenthal reported that the Blue Jays were believed to have met with Ohtani and his representatives at the club’s Spring Training complex in Dunedin, Fla., the crown jewel of their recent run of big-money renovations. Ohtani’s negotiations have been fiercely private up to this point, just like the superstar himself, but that’s beginning to change.

Tuesday afternoon, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts revealed that his organization had met with Ohtani recently, which keeps Los Angeles and Toronto at the forefront of a race barrelling toward the finish line. 

“We met with Shohei and we talked, and I think it went well,” Roberts said. “But at the end of the day he's his own man and he's going to do what's best for himself, [go] where he feels most comfortable.”

Before a dam bursts, it will drip, drip, drip …

The Blue Jays have been serious bidders for Ohtani, the two-time MVP who is about to become a half-billion-dollar man and change a franchise’s trajectory with a signature. A visit to Toronto's player development complex suggests this is something far more advanced, though, putting the Blue Jays among the inner circle of finalists alongside the Dodgers and other bidders.

Atkins is playing his cards so close to the vest that he might crack a rib, but he didn’t shy away from sharing the sales pitch.

“If you just talk about the city of Toronto, that it represents a nation, that we now have the best resources as it relates to getting players better with our facility in Dunedin in 2024, [and] our player-focused facilities that will be in Rogers Centre,” Atkins said. “They will be, in our opinion, one of one.”

If those facilities will be one of one, then Atkins’ comments Tuesday were for an audience of one: Shohei Ohtani.

The Blue Jays want to sell Ohtani on not just the contract, but the Blue Jays’ facilities and their ability to contend long-term. Ohtani’s deal is expected to be for a decade or longer, and while it’s very possible he negotiates opt-out clauses to protect himself, the sport’s brightest star isn’t going anywhere that he’ll need to live through a rebuild.

“[We have] the ability to acquire players at every level,” Atkins continued, “to maximize spending on amateur and international, to be able to trade for players, to be able to go after high-caliber free agents like George Springer, Hyun Jin Ryu, Kevin Gausman and Chris Bassitt. That’s an exciting and easy thing to sell. It’s not something that we’re looking to overcome, it’s something we’re celebrating.”

Blue Jays manager John Schneider holds all those same beliefs, and while he tiptoed carefully through a minefield of questions about the Blue Jays’ interest in Ohtani on Tuesday, he touched on the topic in broad strokes, speaking of the once-in-a-lifetime star at the center of it all.

“I think what he does is obviously unique to the sport,” Schneider said. “Pitching, hitting, he can run. Dangerous in the box, obviously you always know when he's coming up in the order. A talent that the game hasn't seen in quite some time, if ever.”

Given the report of Ohtani’s presence in Dunedin, these negotiations are clearly reaching a late stage. Clubs involved, including the Blue Jays, have put some other plans on hold while they wait on Ohtani’s decision, waiting to pivot elsewhere if Ohtani decides to do the same.

Until then, you’re staring at a stretch of days that have the potential to be some of the biggest in the history of this organization … or one of its greatest heartbreaks.