Blue Jays trade and subsequent signing of José Berríos is GM Ross Atkins’ best work to date
Ross Atkins has been employed by the Blue Jays for almost six years. During that time, he has made several big moves in free agency and pulled off dozens of trades.
There were lucrative contracts for outfielder George Springer and veteran lefty Hyun Jin Ryu. Astute deals for Teoscar Hernández, Robbie Ray and Adam Cimber. No team in baseball made a better signing than the US$18 million the Jays handed to infielder Marcus Semien last winter.
Atkins’ resumé looks a lot better than it did a few years ago when the Jays were still in a rebuild. The list of positives is starting to grow for a team that could be on the verge of something special and yet a case can easily be made that this year’s trade and subsequent signing of José Berríos is his best work to date.
It’s easy to say as an outsider but getting players to commit through free agency shouldn’t be that difficult. Being Major League Baseball’s lone Canadian team presents its own set of problems because of tax and border issues, combined with athletes’ unfamiliarity with the region, yet players often go to the highest bidder, rendering most of those problems moot.
The Jays got Ryu because they were the only team willing to include a fourth year. They beat out the Mets for Springer thanks in large part to an offer that reportedly was worth at least an additional $25 million. While there were a lot of other things that went into making those contracts possible, money was the most important factor, as it usually is.
The situation with Berríos is different. Atkins along with his front office staff convinced the 27-year-old to forego free agency entirely and leave cash on the table while doing so. Considering Berríos was a year away from what was expected to be an even bigger payday than the $131 million he received from the Jays, that’s a huge coup.
“We made the decision because we believe in what Ross and Mark (Shapiro) are building here,” Berríos said during a news conference to announce his new deal Thursday afternoon.
“That brings me a lot of confidence, a lot of inspiration … My wife and I, our three kids, we enjoy the city. We feel like we’re at home. We have an amazing group of players, and I believe, and I can promise, that we can go out there and do a lot of good things for the city.”
To understand the significance of this deal, one only needs to circle back to comments that Berríos made around this time last year when he was still a member of the Minnesota Twins. With two years of control remaining, questions began to surface about whether Berrios would be willing to commit long term.
Berríos didn’t seem that interested, telling reporters that he would have been waiting “six, almost seven, years to get to where every player wants to be, a free agent, to maximize our value.” That sounded like a guy who wanted to go to the highest bidder, not someone interested in a hometown discount.
Despite those previous remarks, when Berríos arrived in Toronto following the mid-season trade for prospects Austin Martin and Simeon Woods Richardson, the sales pitch began right away. The social media team made a big show of his arrival, and they were on hand for his August return to Minnesota, documenting every step.
The support staff made his family feel comfortable, even at a time when Berríos’s three children couldn’t visit the city because of the pandemic. Most importantly, the players embraced him from Day 1. Everyone from the top of the organization, all the way through the bottom, made him feel special.
Add in a fair deal for Berríos — one that should be considered slightly under market with an $18.7 annual salary across seven seasons, but one that also offers protection in the event of an injury — and a long-term commitment became something both sides were interested in. Suddenly that free-agent process didn’t seem so enticing.
“I’ll be honest with you guys, I never thought I would be playing for the Toronto Blue Jays,” said Berríos, who posted a 3.54 ERA in 2021. “But when we had a chance to come to this beautiful city, and also this great team, made me change my mind. God put me in this situation, in this place, to do something special.”
Seven-year deals are risky for any player, especially pitchers, but if you’re going to bet on someone, it might as well be a guy like Berrios. The native of Puerto Rico has proven to be one of the most durable and consistent pitchers across baseball since the day he broke into the league.
Dating back five years, Berríos has gone 57-40 with a 3.74 ERA and he has tossed at least 192 innings in each of the last three full seasons. He might not be a bona fide ace quite yet, but at the very least Berríos is an extremely reliable No. 2 and as someone just entering his prime, the best might be yet to come.
“I think the most important factor was the mutual interest,” said Atkins, who typically saves most of his extension talks for when his off-season is complete. “Once we gauged that early on, we wanted to make sure we maximized that opportunity and made sure that interest was felt.”
One year ago, Berríos was a man destined for free agency. Now the Jays have one of the top young pitchers in the game locked up for at least the next five seasons, with an opt-out clause not set to kick in until after 2026.