Blue Jays GM Atkins sidesteps Ohtani question, commits to Bichette as shortstop

Toronto Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins had barely settled into his seat for a media availability at a downtown restaurant when a Shohei Ohtani question was volleyed his way.

The two-way superstar is the plum of this year’s free-agent class and will command a monster salary. So is Canada’s lone big-league team in on the pursuit?

“I wish I could get into specifics on free agents,” Atkins said at a meeting of the Toronto chapter of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. “For a lot of reasons that you’re all very aware of, we can’t do that. I feel really good about the team in place and the opportunity to make it better.

“Stepping away from that question specifically, we’ve always had incredible support from ownership to make this team better, and we have a good one and we’re working hard on making it better.”

The Los Angeles Dodgers are considered one of the favourites to land the two-time most valuable player, but the Blue Jays have been reported to be in the mix as a sleeper candidate.

The Blue Jays have also been at the forefront of trade rumours — most notably including Bo Bichette — ahead of next week’s winter meetings in Nashville. Atkins said the Blue Jays are committed to their star shortstop.

“We are very fortunate to have him,” he said. “And he is our shortstop moving forward.”

Pressure to win now

This should be an interesting off-season for Atkins, who has been on the job as GM for eight years. Toronto was swept in the first round of the playoffs last month for the third time in four years.

The team is in win-now mode and the pressure will be on to reach the second round of the post-season for the first time since 2016.

Toronto’s pitching staff is anchored by one of the best rotations in the big leagues but the team’s offence needs to improve. Third baseman Matt Chapman, outfielder Kevin Kiermaier and reliever Jordan Hicks are some of the notable players who became free agents.

Atkins declined to get into specifics regarding meetings with free agents, but said some had already occurred and others “would occur moving forward.”

The groundwork for potential trades is often developed at the winter meetings. And once a big free-agent domino falls, others tend to follow.

While not tipping his hand, Atkins said the Blue Jays are open to a lot of possibilities.

“This very good team that we want to lean into, we need to lean into in any possible way,” he said. “If that means trading for a player that only has one year of control, or signing a player to a one-year deal as you’ve seen we’ve done, we are absolutely open to that.

“But we are also willing to get into lengthier deals and trade for players with significant years of club control, and that is pricey. So we’re in a position where we’re able to do both fortunately.”

Manoah throwing again

Atkins also said that right-hander Alek Manoah, who had a down year in 2023, is throwing again and feeling excited about the upcoming campaign.

“I feel confident about him being a large part of our success next year, a significant piece in the rotation, and I know Alek isn’t thinking about winning the fifth spot,” he said. “He’s thinking about excellence.

“He’s thinking about being one of the better starters in the game, and we believe that he can build back towards that.”

Also Tuesday, the BBWAA’s Toronto chapter announced the winners of its annual awards.

Bichette was the unanimous choice as Blue Jays player of the year and Kevin Gausman took all 22 votes for pitcher of the year. Left-hander Yusei Kikuchi was named most improved player and Davis Schneider was a near-unanimous pick for top rookie.

Luis Rivera and Mike Shaw were named co-winners of the John Cerutti Award. It’s given to a person associated with the club who exemplifies goodwill, co-operation and character.

The retiring Rivera served as a third-base coach and infield coach last season. Shaw, who’ll be leaving the team next month to pursue another MLB opportunity, is the director of team travel and clubhouse operations.

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