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Jays make free-agent splash by landing star outfielder Springer with lucrative deal

TORONTO — The Toronto Blue Jays' brass appeared confident through a quiet off-season that the team was in position to be a player in 2021 and beyond.

TORONTO — The Toronto Blue Jays' brass appeared confident through a quiet off-season that the team was in position to be a player in 2021 and beyond. 

It took a deep dive into the wallet, but the Blue Jays finally hit their main free-agent target — in a big way.

Outfielder George Springer and the Blue Jays agreed to a six-year contract late Tuesday worth a reported US$150 million. The deal came after reported one-year agreements with Kirby Yates, the 2019 MLB saves leader, and fellow right-hander Tyler Chatwood. 

All deals, which would be pending physicals, have yet to be formally announced by the team. 

Considered a good club with potential entering this season, the Blue Jays now look like they're ready to try for an exponential climb. 

"I think it is surprising for Blue Jays fans because we've just been conditioned in this market to not expect those big splashes," said Mike Naraine, an assistant professor with Brock University’s department of sport management. "We expect the Red Sox, we expect the Yankees, Cubs and Dodgers. We have always felt like the middle child."

Toronto did make a significant signing just over a year ago when ace Hyun-Jin Ryu inked an $80-million, four-year contract. He helped the team rebound last season, setting the table for a 2021 push to contention.

After a three-year roster teardown and rebuild, Toronto posted a 32-28 record in 2020 and made a wild-card series appearance. 

There is still work to be done and a few needs to be addressed. The starting rotation could use more depth and some infield question marks remain.  

But the batting order looks to be a doozy and Springer's arrival gives the Blue Jays' young core a playoff-tested anchor. Win-now mode appears to have arrived and could last several years.

The financial outlay by owner Rogers Communications comes at an interesting time. 

Border restrictions forced the Blue Jays to play home games in the U.S. last season and it remains unclear when they'll return to Rogers Centre. Allowing spectators back is another issue altogether.

Rumblings of potential plans for a new stadium as part of a downtown redevelopment surfaced last fall. And while the team may continue its nomadic ways in the short-term, it's clearly not impacting present spending. 

Springer, a three-time all-star, brings a big bat to the lineup and a steadying presence in centre field.

"It signals that the Jays mean business and that Rogers is willing to invest in the product after all," Naraine said. "But it's tied to the fact that they see their (team), that they've had since 2000, being more valuable than it's ever been. 

"It's because of its ability to unlock real estate and continue to galvanize fans to the Rogers platform in a highly competitive environment."

Outbidding other teams to land top free agents had become a rarity for the Blue Jays. The move harkened back to the team's early-90s World Series glory days when Toronto was a big spender.

Save for a couple seasons in the mid-2010s, the Blue Jays have essentially been mired in mediocrity ever since. 

"From a business perspective, it's just a huge signal that the Blue Jays' leadership team is willing to spend going forward," Naraine said from Thorold, Ont. "But it's tied to a much more interesting future for the Jays and Rogers over the next 10 years."

"They can loosen up the purse strings because they see the jackpot at the end of the rainbow," he added. "That being a new stadium, a new facility and a new trajectory for the next decade."

Springer, 31, was the 2017 World Series MVP when Houston beat the L.A. Dodgers, a title now tainted by the Astros' sign-stealing scandal. The native of New Britain, Conn., won the AL Silver Slugger Award in 2018 and '19.        

Springer made his big-league debut with the Astros in 2014 and has 174 home runs and 458 RBIs over his career along with a .270/.361/.491 slash line. His deal is the largest in Blue Jays history, ahead of the $126-million, seven-year contract that Vernon Wells signed in 2006.

University of Connecticut baseball coach James Penders, who coached Springer from 2009-11, said his energy and dynamism is "just undeniable." 

"He just has a special way about him," Penders said from Mansfield, Conn. "People are drawn to him. He's got a great magnetism. People talk about what is that 'it' quality? Whatever it is, George has it. 

"It's very special to be in his presence and I think the people of Toronto are going to learn that very quickly."

Springer had career bests of a .292 average with 39 homers and 96 RBIs in 2019. He hit .265 with 14 homers and 32 RBIs in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. 

Penders described Springer as "uber-athletic" who is as close to a full package — as a player and a person — that a team is likely to find.

"He plays as hard as he possibly can to win," he said. "So you'd want to make sure that the padding is right in those walls in Toronto because he's going to be crashing into them to try to make a play. 

"He doesn't think of holding back or conserving. He only knows one speed and that's 100 miles per hour with his hair on fire. That's just how he plays."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 20, 2021. 

Follow @GregoryStrongCP on Twitter.

Gregory Strong, The Canadian Press