Jays GM Atkins excited about potential in off-season to build upon team's progress

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TORONTO — With a strong core anchored by some of the game's top young players, Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins is feeling bullish about the team's possibilities entering the off-season.

A September surge nearly put Toronto in the post-season this year. Atkins is hopeful the club can build on that for the 2022 campaign.

"Obviously we're not where we want to be yet," Atkins said. "We need to be playing deep into the playoffs to take that next step. But we do feel like the organization has continued to get better and improve.

"We're in a better position than we were a year ago as we go into this off-season."

The Blue Jays have not been afraid to spend big over the last couple years. Free agents Hyun Jin Ryu (US$80M over four years) and George Springer ($150M over six) signed lucrative long-term deals after the team completed its rebuilding process.

Atkins, speaking Wednesday on a season-ending video call with media, said team ownership has always been flexible regarding payroll and he expects that to continue.

"That is our desire and that is our understanding," he said. "As we sit here today, we feel as though we will have the support."

The Blue Jays' top two pending free agents are second baseman Marcus Semien and left-hander Robbie Ray. Both players are set to cash in after building their value significantly with excellent performances over their one-year contracts.

Semien was an offensive powerhouse with 45 homers, 102 RBIs and an .873 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage). Ray, a Cy Young Award contender, led the American League with a 2.84 earned-run average and 248 strikeouts.

Atkins hopes conversations will continue with both players.

"That dialogue will be constant where we're talking about their interests, our interests, and hoping that they're aligned," he said, adding the team is also interested in left-hander Steven Matz, another pending free agent.

Depending on who returns, Toronto may also look to upgrade at third base and search out more left-handed bats. Boosting pitching depth may be a consideration as well.

"As we think about complementing our infield and continuing to make our rotation better, we feel that there's opportunities this off-season via free agency and trade to do that," Atkins said.

The 91-71 Blue Jays swept Baltimore on the season's final weekend but it wasn't enough to catch Boston and New York, who finished one game ahead of Toronto to claim the AL wild-card spots.

Some in-season acquisitions - notably the trade-deadline pickup of starter Jose Berrios - helped stabilize Toronto's pitching staff. Springer's return after a third stint on the injured list boosted the lineup and helped move the Blue Jays into wild-card contention.

However, a series split against Minnesota on the penultimate weekend and a series loss to New York last week proved costly.

Winning their last three games against the Orioles made things interesting, but the Blue Jays didn't get the help they needed from other teams to move into a tiebreaker or qualify for the post-season.

Even though the playoff bid came up short, there were plenty of bright spots from a campaign that had Canada's lone big-league team play over half of its home schedule in either Dunedin, Fla., or Buffalo.

Vladimir Guerrero Jr., had an MVP-calibre season, starter Alek Manoah was one of the game's top rookies and Jordan Romano blossomed into a solid closer. Bo Bichette was second in the majors with 191 hits and Teoscar Hernandez was third in the big leagues with 116 RBIs.

The Blue Jays led the majors with 262 home runs, topping the previous franchise best of 257 in 2010. Guerrero shared the big-league lead with 48 homers.

The team returned to Rogers Centre in late July and capacity was doubled to 30,000 last week after a loosening of provincial restrictions. The Blue Jays had a franchise-best .694 winning percentage (25-11) at the stadium.

"We certainly don't need wholesale changes," Atkins said of future plans. "We are open to (being) a team that looks a lot like the team that we had at the end of the year."

The Blue Jays reached the expanded playoffs in last year's truncated season but were swept in the wild-card series by the Tampa Bay Rays.

Toronto last reached the AL Championship Series in 2016 and last won the World Series in 1993.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 6, 2021.

Gregory Strong, The Canadian Press

Note to readers: This is a corrected version of an earlier story. Robbie Ray struck out 248 batters, not 284.

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