These are days of deep uncertainty in baseball, with the entire sport, on advice from the commissioner’s office, pointed toward an uneasy opening of spring training camps in roughly four weeks — but with the recent experience of the NBA providing a sobering reminder of the difficulty of pulling off a season amid a pandemic that is exponentially worse than it was in the fall, when baseball lurched to the end of the World Series.
That uncertainty, which comes with untold economic repercussions, contributed to a slower-than-usual free agent market this winter — but one that now appears to have entered a final, breakneck phase.
In the past few days, teams have handed out more than a quarter-billion dollars in free agent contracts, with most of that total attributed to Springer’s new deal with the Blue Jays and infielder DJ LeMahieu’s six-year, $90 million deal to remain with the New York Yankees. The Blue Jays also added reliever Kirby Yates and starter/reliever Tyler Chatwood for a total of $8.5 million this week.
Among the big pieces that have yet to fall into place are pitcher Trevor Bauer, catcher J.T. Realmuto and designated hitter/outfielder Marcell Ozuna — and with the Yankees and Blue Jays having made their signature moves of the offseason, leaving a dwindling number of suitors willing to go to those levels, these negotiations could find resolution soon.
That Springer, rated by some as the top free agent on the entire market, would wind up in Toronto in many ways makes perfect sense. The Blue Jays are a classic, upwardly mobile franchise — situated in a major media market, coming off a playoff appearance in 2020 and hungry to make the leap from good to great. Springer, 31, fills their primary need: a center fielder/leadoff man with the production and veteran leadership to lift a young, talented roster to the next level.
Springer, a three-time all-star, averaged 31 homers per season with an adjusted on-base plus slugging plus of 132 — which indicates he was 32 percent better than the average hitter — over the four full seasons between 2016 and 2019. He is also one of the great postseason performers of this generation: He was named World Series MVP in 2017 with the Astros and has amassed 19 homers in 63 postseason games, seven of them in the World Series.
But that 2017 Astros team, of course, was the one whose World Series title was tarnished by later revelations of a sign-stealing scheme, in which Houston personnel stole signs from opposing catchers with a center field camera and signaled them to their hitters by banging on a trash can. The scheme was revealed following the 2019 season and resulted in suspensions for the Astros’ manager and general manager at the time.
Springer becomes the first core member of that 2017 Astros lineup to test free agency, and based on the dollar figures of his new contract, the Blue Jays had few if any worries that Springer’s production in Houston was enhanced by his participation in the scheme. As evidence, they could point to Springer’s strong numbers in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, including 14 homers and a 140 OPS+ in 51 games.
But talent evaluators across the game have warned that 2020 statistics, representing about 37 percent of a normal, 162-game season, are difficult to judge — and most other 2017 holdovers in the 2020 Astros’ lineup suffered significant drop-offs in production this past season. The Blue Jays, then, are putting an enormous amount of faith, not to mention dollars, into Springer’s continued production in his new home.
They will be paying him like a superstar; three-time MVP Mike Trout is the only center fielder in baseball who will be earning a higher average annual salary than the $25 million per year the Blue Jays have committed to Springer.
By agreeing to go to six years with Springer, who will be 37 at the end of the deal, the Blue Jays are counting on his offensive production remaining high. Though he is considered an above-average defensive center fielder and his arrival will allow the team to keep emerging star Teoscar Hernández in right field for the next few years, it is widely presumed Springer will need to shift to one of the corner outfield spots by the end of his contract.
The Blue Jays were upended more than most teams by the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, forced by travel restrictions enacted by the Canadian government to play their home games in a minor league stadium in Buffalo, and there have been no indications those restrictions will be lifted in 2021 — at least by the April 1 Opening Day. The NBA’s Toronto Raptors, for example, are playing their home games this season in Tampa.
Other large-market teams in baseball, facing far less uncertainty than the Blue Jays, have essentially chosen to sit out this free agent market and in some cases have actively shed payroll. Whether it stems from opportunism or sheer ambition, the Blue Jays should be commended for extending themselves to give their fans a title contender in 2021 and well into the future.
But at a time when everything in life seems to contain some element of risk and when attempting to launch a new baseball season amid a raging pandemic feels like tempting fate, the Blue Jays saw Springer as a risk worth taking and did what they had to do to get him.