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Unicorn chase brings Blue Jays' front office into the deep end of the pool

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The Toronto Blue Jays in the Mark Shapiro-Ross Atkins era have been nothing if not prudent.

Their early free-agency moves were splashes similar to those made by a teenage Olympic diver: tiny ones that didn't displace a lot of water. Kendrys Morales, Steve Pearce, that kind of thing.

Even as the team came out of its rebuild and moved into the competitive window the Toronto front office had spent a few seasons promising was soon to arrive, the deals signed were perfectly rational. Nine figures for George Springer was bound to be an overpay at the back end, but overpaying at the back end is what baseball teams have to do to sign veteran free agents.

An extension for José Berríos and big free-agent contracts followed for Kevin Gausman and Chris Bassitt, but none of those came close to the moonshot deals signed by top-tier free agents like Gerrit Cole or Jacob deGrom. The Jays weren't in the running for monster contracts like that, and no one really expected them to be.

One of the side effects of talking a lot about cost certainty and roster flexibility for the last seven-plus years is that people reasonably assume you have no interest in the hair-on-fire moves that sometimes emerge out of the MLB winter meetings, like $300 million for Trea Turner, and $325 million for Corey Seager. You might as well have asked Ross Atkins to spontaneously take flight. The Toronto general manager remains the guy who once proudly described a series of deadline-day trades as having "turned 14 years of control into 42 years of control." Feel the excitement!

All of which makes the Jays' news of recent days, to use the term loosely, a little disorienting. If not bewildering.

The Blue Jays have been linked to the pursuit of dual-threat Japanese superstar Shohei Ohtani, with Atkins conducting media calls from undisclosed locations and reports suggesting the two-time American League MVP visited the team's player development complex in Dunedin, Florida. While no one really knows what any of this means in terms of interest from either side - maybe Ohtani just happened to be in the neighborhood? - it is a significant departure from the Blue Jays' usual way of doing things. Ohtani's expected to land a contract in the neighborhood of half a billion dollars, which is more than double what the Jays paid their entire roster last season.

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It's a contract both absurd and entirely sensible. Ohtani isn't just an incredible hitter and pitcher (assuming his recovery from arm surgery allows him to regain his previous form), he's a rare global star. A Jays team with Ohtani would become the most important MLB franchise in two countries, Canada and Japan, and have a much higher profile in the United States.

The Jays have already seen what a jump in popularity can do to their revenues, when the team surged in 2015 and seemingly every second person on the Toronto subway was wearing a blue cap. Those teams also brought in several seasons of booming attendance and television ratings - all of which increased the value to corporate sponsors - and that was without anyone close to Ohtani's worldwide profile.

But the pursuit of Ohtani can't only be about selling a lot of merchandise in Japan, given that Toronto also reportedly talked to the San Diego Padres about star outfielder Juan Soto. A trade to land the three-time All-Star is even more against type for the Atkins-Shapiro axis than an Ohtani deal since Soto has only one year left on his contract. The Jays would have to give up some of their top prospects to land him without any guarantee he'd stay beyond 2024.

Considering that one of Shapiro's first acts upon coming to Toronto was to tsk-tsk the aggressive prospects-for-stars moves that former GM Alex Anthopoulos made in the waning days of his time in that job, this feels a little like the Orcs deciding they don't mind the Hobbits after all.

Again, no one knows how serious these discussions are, but like the alleged Ohtani courting, it suggests the Jays' payroll shackles have been well and truly thrown off. Why it's happened now is harder to discern. The 2023 season ended in disappointment and recrimination, but it's ended like that before in recent years and interest in a competitive team has remained robust in what is one of baseball's largest markets.

There are costly renovations to pay for and new premium ticket packages to sell, but unless the Jays have early internal data that suggests they dramatically overestimated the interest in such things - which seems unlikely given the amount of corporate money that swirls around the lower bowl at Scotiabank Arena for Maple Leafs and Raptors games - then there wouldn't necessarily be an urgent need to make an all-in move this winter. The Jays have been a playoff team for two straight years and would be expected to be in the mix again. That's been enough to sell tickets.

Perhaps Jays fans shouldn't overthink this. After years of taking pitches and working its at-bats, Toronto's front office seems of a mind to take some mighty hacks. Might as well see if they can barrel one.

Scott Stinson is a former national sports columnist for Postmedia News.

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