Ross Atkins learned the hard way how emotionally exhausting it can be to get your hopes up about an incoming ballplayer, before the ink is dry on the contract and a doctor has signed off on the physical.
Nothing is done until it’s done, the Blue Jays general manager knows now, having jumped the gun on smaller deals in the past.
And yet, he says he allowed himself to dream just a little before officially closing the biggest deal in Jays history with outfielder George Springer this past week: six years, $150 million (U.S.).
It was after Atkins had reached a verbal agreement with Springer’s agent Casey Close, and following a conversation with the centre-fielder himself while awaiting the results of the physical, that the GM started to imagine what the acquisition of the former Houston Astros star would mean for the organization, the city of Toronto and fans across Canada.
“That’s when I felt it was absolutely real and felt elated,” Atkins recalled hours after Springer was officially introduced Wednesday.
The front office had promised throughout the off-season that the Jays would be making a splash. That was part of the long-term blueprint ever since Atkins and Mark Shapiro, the club’s president and CEO, took over more than five years. They would spend when the young core is ready to win.
Despite the financial impact of the pandemic, the Jays continued to have the support they needed from owner Rogers Communications, Shapiro said. And Springer, perhaps the most valuable commodity on the free-agent market, was always a target. The reasons were clear to see:
- Centre field had been an area of need since the days of Kevin Pillar’s prime.
- Sign-stealing scandal aside, Springer’s former club, the Astros, rose to the top by building around a core of young position players, especially infielders, much like the Jays’ template.
- Bench coach Dave Hudgens spent four years on the Houston staff working with Springer, including their championship season in 2017. Outfielders Teoscar Hernandez and Derek Fisher plus pitcher Trent Thornton also know Springer from their days with the Astros.
Conversations between Springer’s camp and the Jays began soon after the market opened on Nov. 1. But it was never going to be easy.
The big-market New York Mets, who made a splash of their own by trading for Cleveland all-star shortstop Francisco Lindor and pitcher Carlos Carrasco, were among the other teams interested and offered something the Jays couldn’t: the chance for Springer to play close to his home state of Connecticut, which was reportedly a priority for the outfielder.
There were also concerns that uncertainty around where the Jays would play in 2021, with Canada-U.S. border restrictions still in effect, might turn Springer off. That’s on top of the usual resistance of American-based players when it comes to playing in Canada.
But those issues never threatened to derail the deal, Springer said, in part because the Jays made a good first impression with him.
A conference call with Atkins, Shapiro and manager Charlie Montoyo gave the outfielder a clear idea of what the club had in mind, and left him believing the roster he would join is something special. Springer said later that the call felt comfortable, honest, and that the message he heard was consistent.
“All the conversations that I’ve had, not one person has said that they don’t want to win, that they don’t go out every day and play as hard as they possibly can,” said the newly signed Jay.
That first impression, Atkins says, was the product of hard work behind the scenes. Before that call, the front office spoke to as many people as they could track down who know Springer well — teammates, roommates and others.
Springer still shopped around, of course, and soon found out which teams were serious and which ones were kicking the tires. In the end, from the Jays’ side, the fact that those closest to the outfielder spoke so highly of him helped seal the deal.
“Then it just gives you a lot more conviction,” Atkins said.
The GM added that it’s the kind of signing that gets the attention of players and agents leaguewide, and can lead to more down the road.
Not long after the Springer deal, the Jays came to terms with top free-agent infielder Marcus Semien — whose one-year, $18-million deal became official Saturday. Veteran reliever Kirby Yates, who signed with the Jays hours before the first reports about Springer, says the club’s approach is exactly what a player wants to hear.
“I felt like they were definitely putting a strong effort,” Yates said of his negotiations, culminating in a one-year deal worth $5.5 million. “They were pretty aggressive with me … It’s just exciting to be a part of that, a team that’s trying to push really hard to go to the next level.”
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