Gregor Chisholm: The Jays add a little bounce to their step by coming to terms with free agent George Springer
The San Diego Padres, Chicago White Sox and, to a lesser extent, the New York Yankees had their day in the spotlight earlier this off-season. On Tuesday it was the Blue Jays’ turn to become the centre of attention.
After not making a move for more than two and half months, Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins made up for lost time by getting the bulk of his work done within 24 hours. The flurry of activity started with signing right-hander Tyler Chatwood, continued with the addition of veteran closer Kirby Yates, and reportedly concluded with the biggest transaction of all: signing centre-fielder George Springer.
According to multiple reports late Tuesday night, the Jays reached an agreement with Springer on a six-year deal worth $150 million (U.S.). Toronto’s agreement with Springer was first reported by local blogger Brendon Kuhn, with the contract details later revealed by MLB Network’s Jon Heyman. Springer likely will have to pass a physical before the deal is officially announced.
The Jays had been in the mix for almost every prominent free agent in the market but Springer had long been considered the club’s top target. While Francisco Lindor, D.J. LeMahieu and others would have been nice, it was the three-time all-star centre-fielder that the Blue Jays wanted more than anyone else.
There were multiple reasons for that and most of them centred around his bat. Springer is a career .270 hitter with a .361 on-base percentage and .852 OPS to go along with a pair of silver slugger awards and a World Series MVP. The 31-year-old has five 20-plus homer seasons on his resumé and, while he doesn’t steal a lot of bases, his speed and athleticism are assets as well.
The second reason Springer was such a high priority was because of his position. Centre field has been a revolving door for the Blue Jays ever since Kevin Pillar was traded days into the 2019 season. Randal Grichuk, Teoscar Hernandez, Jonathan Davis, Derek Fisher and Anthony Alford are just a few of the players who have appeared there since. None were considered viable long-term fits.
There was some talk of eventually transitioning a player like Cavan Biggio or prospect Austin Martin to centre, but the preferred route was adding someone from outside the organization. The Jays’ biggest issue is that there wasn’t a lot of depth at centre in this year’s free-agent market, with even fewer premium options expected to be available in the fall. Short of adding a midtier option like Jackie Bradley Jr., it was Springer or bust.
The clear loser in all this is Grichuk, who spent the bulk of the 2020 season as the Jays centre-fielder and now finds himself without a defined role. With $31 million still owed over the next three years, he’s too expensive to get buried on the bench and too high-priced to be easily traded away, which creates some problems.
Grichuk could split time in both right field and at designated hitter with Teoscar Hernandez, but that would leave Rowdy Tellez without a role. The situation gets even murkier if the Blue Jays end up signing outfielder Michael Brantley, who according to The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal has been pitched as a package deal with Springer. At that point a trade becomes inevitable, with the Blue Jays aiming to use their depth in a deal for starting pitching.
Springer spent the bulk of his career as the leadoff man for the Astros, where he was part of the sign-stealing scandal that marred the 2017-18 seasons and resulted in the suspensions of multiple coaches and former GM Jeff Luhnow. Springer’s market didn’t appear to be impacted by the recent controversy and he’ll likely stick to the top of the order with the Jays as he headlines a lineup that also includes Bo Bichette and Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
This marks the second consecutive year the formerly stingy front office of Atkins and president Mark Shapiro pulled off a major signing. Last winter, the Blue Jays agreed to a four-year deal worth $80 million with veteran lefty Hyun-Jin Ryu. It was the highest free agent contract ever handed out by the Blue Jays. That record now belongs to Springer.
The signing also allows Atkins and Shapiro to fulfil their long-stated goal of adding a “high impact” player this off-season. There was increasing skepticism in recent weeks about the Jays bring able to pull off a deal of this magnitude, especially considering the uncertainty of where the club will play its home games, but money talks and Atkins threw a lot of it on the table to close the deal. The Mets, who were considered the other finalist for Springer, likely had trouble topping Toronto’s offer because of concerns about surpassing the competitive balance tax threshold.
And just like that, with one stroke of the pen, the Jays’ well-documented swings and misses from earlier this off-season can be forgotten. Putting all their eggs into one basket would have been risky, which is why the organization cast such a big net this off-season. But while there was panic in some circles after LeMahieu, Hendriks and others spurned the Jays for better offers elsewhere, there was good reason behind the club’s decision not to up their bids.
Springer was the piece the Jays wanted and now they have him. It’s a defining moment for Atkins and Shapiro, who are putting their reputations on the line. If Springer pans out, he will become a primary piece for a team with championship aspirations. If he doesn’t, the Jays will have another Vernon Wells situation on their hands several years down the road.
These are the kinds of risks big-market teams are supposed to make. The Jays aren’t the Yankees or Dodgers, maybe not even the Padres, but for at least one week the expenses are similar. The Jays have their man and now they want the division. With a couple more additions, they might even be able to get it.
Gregor Chisholm is a Toronto-based baseball columnist for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @GregorChisholm or reach him via email: firstname.lastname@example.org