George Springer deal the start of a new era for Blue Jays

The Toronto Blue Jays have completed their rebuilding plan with the George Springer signing.

In the summer of 2018, shortly after the Toronto Blue Jays dealt their former MVP Josh Donaldson for an obscure minor league pitcher, general manager Ross Atkins insisted it was all part of the plan.

“If we’re not a contending team in three years,” Atkins said following the Donaldson trade, “We’ll be extremely disappointed.

We want to make sure we’re fielding a major-league caliber team that is not just a group of guys that are transitioning at the same time; they need to learn from experienced veterans and we want to make sure we have them around.”

If it was Atkins’ strategy all along to build on the core of young stars the Blue Jays had in their organization — led by Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette — and surround them with veterans, it’s mission accomplished. Atkins put the biggest piece into that puzzle on Tuesday with reports that the Blue Jays are signing free-agent outfielder George Springer to a six-year, $150 million contract, a deal first reported by Brendon Kuhn.

George Springer represents a new era for the Blue Jays

In the five years Atkins has been at the helm of the Blue Jays front office, he’s transformed the roster into his own image. Gone were the high-priced veterans like Donaldson, Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista. At the 2019 trade deadline, he dealt the closest thing the Blue Jays had to an ace pitcher, Marcus Stroman, harping on how many years of team control they were getting back. It was enough to leave fans frustrated as the team, three years removed from back-to-back ALCS appearances, was on its way to its worst record since 1980.

But before the 2020 season, Atkins sprung into action, signing Hyun Jin Ryu to an $80 million contract. Guerrero, Bichette and Cavan Biggio developed into dependable players on the brink of stardom. Behind this trio and Ryu’s pitching, the Blue Jays made the playoffs for the first time since 2016.

It was a gigantic step in the right direction, and Atkins showed this offseason he sees it only as a starting point for the franchise. They missed out on Francisco Lindor and Liam Hendriks but got just as big of a prize in Springer. The 31-year-old has manned center field and the leadoff spot in the lineup for the Houston Astros, winning World Series MVP in 2017. Since that championship year, he leads all leadoff hitters in home runs (109, 21 more than Lindor) and RBI (283, 50 more than Mookie Betts).

The only outfielders with a higher WAR than Springer over the last five years are Betts, Mike Trout and Christian Yelich, all former MVPs. Since the start of the 2019 season, he’s behind only Trout, Yelich, Nelson Cruz, Cody Bellinger and Juan Soto in slugging percentage. His offensive WAR in that span is similar to Betts and higher than Ronald Acuna Jr.

Springer hit 14 home runs in just 51 games in the abbreviated 2020 season, a year after he set a career high with 39 and an OPS of .974. He’s added 19 homers in the postseason, tied with Albert Pujols for fourth all-time.

He’ll bat at the top of a Blue Jays lineup that can now claim to match up with anyone in 2021. Biggio, Bichette, Guerrero, Randal Grichuk (43 home runs over the last two seasons) and Teoscar Hernandez (16 home runs in 2020, fifth in the AL) will be behind him. Atkins and manager Charlie Montoyo will have to figure out how to squeeze all these weapons into their lineup on a daily basis; they’re now so deep that Lourdes Gurriel, with a .874 OPS since 2019, may be the odd man out.

The roots of the Springer signing lie in what Atkins did years ago. Fans might have complained as one franchise player after another was let go, but Atkins knew — as the fans now realize — that in building a successful baseball organization, patience pays off. The rebuild is over; the Blue Jays are ready to contend now, just as Atkins predicted years ago.

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