National Post (Latest Edition)
Jays want Semien, Ray to stay
But big question is, what do they want?
Ross Atkins began talking casually to Robbie Ray and Marcus Semien in the last month or so, just to get a sense, a feel, to try and understand what they were thinking about now and what their thoughts are about next year.
He has no real answers yet — not even an instinct other than the usual Atkins optimism.
But the Blue Jays question of the day, the question as this semi-spectacular season ended, the question president Mark Shapiro and general manager Atkins must wrestle with as fall turns into winter, is how do the Jays get free agents Ray, Semien, and even Steven Matz, to return to Toronto?
And if they don’t, where do the Jays go from here?
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. had an Mvp-like season as did Semien, the shortstop turned record slugging second baseman. Ray had a Cy Young-like season, especially as the Yankees’ Gerrit Cole stopped winning in September and October. But Shapiro and Atkins, combined, and it’s never certain who does what in this baseball couple, had their own MVP winter, which translated quite nicely to summer.
And now, they have to do it all over again.
Ray was the first freeagent signing of the last off-season, for what turned out to be bargain-basement money at US$8 million a year. He signed before the bank was thrown at George Springer, who unfortunately missed more games than he played. But it was those seven days of January last winter that changed so much for these Blue Jays.
They signed Springer. They signed Semien. They traded three minor leaguers for Matz.
Of the main acquisitions of winter, Semien was sensational as was Ray. Matz was significantly better than advertised. When Springer played healthy, he looked special: He just didn’t play enough.
Had he missed 50 games instead of the 84 he didn’t play, the Jays would have been in the wild-card game Tuesday night. And then after that, who knows?
And now a lot of who knows as the off-season has officially begun. Of the free agents they want to return, Ray would seem to be the most likely to be loyal to the Blue Jays. He had hit almost rock bottom as a major league pitcher when the Jays traded for him last summer. But something happened, something clicked between pitching coach Pete Walker, who had recommended Ray.
He went from almost finished to superstar in little more than a year. That happened because he changed much about his own routines. But it happened because whatever it was Walker saw and altered with Ray, will make the pitcher somewhere in the neighbourhood of $100 million. That seems the going rate for late-blooming stars.
Should Ray choose to leave Toronto — his call — he won’t have the option of taking Walker with him. Athletes don’t always view the world this way but he owes something to the Jays, something to Walker, something worthy of loyalty.
It’s different with Semien. He wants to play shortstop. That’s how he views himself. Bo Bichette is the Blue Jays shortstop today and will be the shortstop tomorrow. If Semien wants to stay with the Jays, he’ll be staying as a second baseman. It’s not his position of choice. But how many major league hitters would love to be in a lineup surrounded by Springer, Guerrero Jr., Bichette and Teoscar Hernandez? Semien isn’t going to get that anyplace else.
Should he decide to stay, he may be willing to sacrifice some defence for some offence and for a chance to play with a team that should contend for the World Series from the first day it takes to the field next season.
There will be all kinds of interest in Semien in free agency: Should the Jays not retain him, they lose a bat, a leader, a ton of power, an infielder who plays every day. Irreplaceable, really. But it’s Semien’s call here as it is with any free agent.
And in Atkins’ view, it “bodes exceptionally well for us,” whatever that means. He isn’t saying yes. He isn’t saying no. Sometimes you have to listen closely to understand what exactly Atkins isn’t saying.
They have built a great baseball team here — partially with the gifts they inherited coming in. Partially with the development of Alek Manoah, Jordan Romano, and Tim Mayza, with the guile they have demonstrated, trading for Hernandez, for Santiago Espinal, for Jose Berrios, for Matz.
Ray makes them better as does Semien as does Matz. The first two more than the third one. This was the most entertaining Blue Jays season in years, the most fun really, this loose team that smiles its way through games.
The Jays can’t possibly be as competitive without Ray and Semien as they would be with them. That’s the difficulty for Shapiro and Atkins as the off-season begins. If they can’t keep one or the other, or can’t keep both, they need to replace them with players of similar talents.
And after hitting for the cycle last winter, how can they possibly do that again?