TORONTO — Conversations will be “constant,” but nothing is certain.
Toronto Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins made that clear in his end-of-season media availability on Wednesday when fielding questions about the possibility of bringing back star free agents Marcus Semien and Robbie Ray.
Ray and Semien emerged as two of the most coveted names in free agency, with Cy Young and MVP-worthy seasons, respectively, during the Blue Jays’ 91-win year.
“That dialogue will be constant,” Atkins said on Wednesday. “Where we’re talking about our interest and their interest and hoping that they’re aligned.”
There’s optimism for the future around the front office and beyond, even though the Blue Jays fell one game short of making their way back into the playoffs, ultimately missing out on a Wild Card spot to the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox.
Though the club has made clear it’s set on building upon the successes of this year, Atkins’s vague statements seem somewhat warranted.
Toronto has made a name for itself as one of MLB’s biggest spenders in recent offseasons. The six-year, $150-million, franchise-record deal signed with George Springer at the start of 2021 is a good case-in-point. So is Hyun-Jin Ryu’s four-year, $80-million contract from 2019.
It would likely take another round of high-calibre spending to re-sign either of the team’s current free agents, which begins to explain the lack of optimism or commitment toward any specific player.
“I think it bodes exceptionally well for us that we were a part of such significant years,” said Atkins. “Being a part of that and having the team success — albeit not what we ultimately were striving for — I think how we finished, and finishing in this stadium on such a positive note … all those things bode exceptionally well for us as we strive to make our team better.”
A left-handed starter, Ray signed a one-year, $8-million deal with the Blue Jays last offseason after joining the club via trade in mid-2020. With a 2.84 ERA, 248 strikeouts and a 6.7 WAR, the 30-year-old is the frontrunner for the American League Cy Young award and will certainly command a long and lucrative deal in the coming months.
Semien, a converted shortstop, set a new MLB record for most home runs by a second baseman in a single season, finishing the year with 45, along with a .265 average, 102 RBIs and a .873 OPS. The one-year contract he signed with the Blue Jays last offseason paid him $18 million, and the 31-year-old is also likely to see a big pay raise wherever he ends up.
Starter Steven Matz is also a name worth observing, as he became a solid and reliable piece in the Blue Jays’ rotation, especially by the end of the season. He will also hit free agency this year.
“All three of them, we have interest in,” said Atkins about Ray, Semien and Matz.
At least two of them, Ray and Semien, have expressed the interest goes both ways.
Among the several questions hovering over this team in the offseason, a significant one is what to prioritize. It’s possible the Blue Jays won’t have the financial capacity to sign Semien or Ray — let alone both of them.
It will come to Atkins and the rest of Toronto’s front office to decide whether to invest on a strikeout leader with the potential of pitching around 200 innings in a season, or to go for a power hitter with defensive upside and the disposition to play all 162 games.
“Really, we don’t want to pin ourselves into boxes,” said Atkins about the Blue Jays’ free-agency plans. “We want to make sure that we keep all avenues for creativity open, and that’s what we’re focused on now: How do we continue to make this organization as good as it can be … what are the best possible, most creative ways to do that?”
Both Ray and Semien are veteran leaders who command clubhouse respect. Bo Bichette, for example, didn’t hide how much admiration and gratitude he has for Semien, who took on the role of mentor for Toronto’s sluggers, and assisted in the development of the team’s young core.
Ray, on the other hand, had an important part in the development of youngster Alek Manoah, who turned heads in his rookie season with limited experience coming out of triple-A.
“I’ve had a lot of time to spend with them over the last month,” said Atkins. “Much more on a personal level, to just learn from them, talk about how we can improve here and, you know, congratulate them and thank them for us to be a small part of what will be, ultimately, an exceptional year for them in their careers.
“And I hope they go on to continue to, obviously, have those years, year in and year out, and hopefully we can be a part of that. But having been a part of it for one year was very fulfilling and gratifying, not only for what it meant for wins and losses and our overall team performance, but also what it means for our environment, to have guys come in and have such exceptional years like that. It says a lot to our coaching staff, it says a lot about our support staff, about our resources and facilities, and I think that we’ll be exceptionally attractive to players moving forward.”
And then there’s the rest of the organization.
One certainty Atkins did offer is that there will be no major roster churn, whether on the field or within the coaching staff, as the Blue Jays intend to bring back all of their trainers and coaches for the 2022 season.
With Bichette settled in at shortstop and MVP candidate Vladimir Guerrero Jr. constantly improving at first base, second and third seem like the most pressing issues to address in the offseason, along with bullpen arms and a solidified rotation. While Atkins sees Nate Pearson and Ross Stripling as starters in the long haul, other components such as workload and development will determine where they fit.
The Blue Jays also believe they have good internal options for the infield, but won’t discard going after outside possibilities.
“We’re in a really good position,” said Atkins. “Player development, performance, all scouting departments have done an incredible job to ensure that we continue to add talent from within to complement this team, and if we have to make trades, that we have the talent to do that as well. And Mark (Shapiro) has done an incredible job of communicating with Rogers and all of the stakeholders that ultimately support us in the most significant way of helping them understand our plan.”
Set to get underway once the World Series wraps up, the upcoming free-agency period has a significant twist, as MLB’s collective bargaining agreement is set to expire on Dec. 1. If for any reason the league and players’ association fail to reach a new agreement, it will prompt a work stoppage and a freeze in deals until a potential stalemate is resolved.
One more wave to keep track of on the offseason radar.
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Atlantic Division Preview: Nets remain title contender despite Irving drama – Sportsnet.ca
The NBA is back, and Sportsnet is breaking down everything you need to know about each of the 30 teams in the lead-up to tipoff on Tuesday, Oct. 19.
Today, we look at best- and worst-case scenarios for the Eastern Conference’s Atlantic Division. (Teams are listed in the order in which we believe they’ll finish in the 2021–22 standings.)
2020–21 finish: 48-24, second in the Atlantic, lost in the second round.
Major additions: DeAndre’ Bembry, James Johnson, Patty Mills, Paul Millsap.
Major subtractions: Jeff Green, Mike James.
Best-case scenario: Don’t let the Kyrie Irving drama distract you from the fact that the Nets should be an elite title contender. Even if Irving doesn’t play this season – choosing to sit out on his ill-intentioned anti-vaccine stance – the Nets should still be alright because this is a team that still features James Harden and probably the best player in the world today Kevin Durant, along with a star-studded supporting cast including Blake Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge, plus sharpshooters Joe Harris and newcomer Patty Mills. So even without Irving, the Nets should be considered a legitimate contender and their goal of a championship shouldn’t change.
Worst-case scenario: The talent is there, and hopefully so will the health to allow this team to make a playoff run proper. But outside bad injury luck, the worst thing that could happen to this Nets team is if Irving proves to be too much of a distraction this season and it begins to impact his teammates on the floor. For as talented as Irving is, he doesn’t exactly have a reputation for being a great locker room presence and there’s bound to be a time when the constant questions about him will grate on his teammates. How the Nets themselves deal with it will be interesting to witness.
2021–22 season prediction: 56-26, first in the East.
2020–21 finish: 49-23, first in the Atlantic, lost in the second round.
Major additions: Andre Drummond.
Major subtractions: George Hill.
Best-case scenario: The best thing that the 76ers can do for themselves is to find an amicable end to this saga they’ve had going with Ben Simmons dating back to the off-season. Even if it means that the Sixers will need to get pennies on the dollar for Simmons he can’t be with the team anymore. Philly is a legitimate power in the Eastern Conference with realistic championship expectations that can’t be met if Simmons remains with the team.
Worst-case scenario: It feels like the Sixers are going to try to re-integrate Simmons back into the team, which, on one hand does kind of make sense given his talents, but to do so feels like a major mistake and will result in tempers eventually boiling over later in the season that could de-rail everything for the 76ers.
2021–22 season prediction: 49-33, third in the East.
2020–21 finish: 36-36, fourth in the Atlantic, lost in the first round.
Major additions: Al Horford, Enes Kanter, Josh Richardson, Dennis Schroder, new head coach Ime Udoka.
Major subtractions: Evan Fournier, Tristan Thompson, Kemba Walker.
Best-case scenario: The Celtics shook up their front office with Brad Stevens succeeding Danny Ainge as the president of basketball operations and then removing himself as head coach, opting to hire long-time NBA assistant Ime Udoka as the new bench boss. Under Udoka, the Celtics are going to want to play a more modern, ball-movement-focused offence which could prove beneficial for the team’s two stars of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Boston looks like good team, but compared to the likes of Brooklyn and Milwaukee it feels like there’s still some more left to be desired, even given how good Tatum and Brown are.
Worst-case scenario: The Celtics need to keep their house in order. During the pre-season both Brown and Al Horford have been forced into health and safety protocols. Given the fact the season is just getting underway this won’t impact Boston all that much, but it can’t be allowed to happen again.
2021–22 season prediction: 44-38, sixth in the East.
2020–21 finish: 41-31, third in the Atlantic, lost in the first round.
Major additions: Kemba Walker.
Major subtractions: Reggie Bullock, Frank Ntilikina, Elfrid Payton.
Best-case scenario: The Knicks finally returned to the playoffs last season, and it wasn’t by fluke. The addition of Tom Thibodeau as head coach, the emergence of Julius Randle becoming an all-star and the step forward that R.J. Barrett took, not to mention the steady play of Derrick Rose coming off the bench all played significant factors in a good 2020-21 campaign for New York and now with the addition of Kemba Walker, who has had many memorable moments in Madison Square Garden dating back to his time in college, the Knicks added another dangerous offensive weapon to the mix. They didn’t get much better, but they also didn’t get much worse, either, meaning they should have a very similar season to their last one.
Worst-case scenario: The end of Walker’s tenure in Boston wasn’t the greatest as injuries robbed him of his signature quickness, plus his fit with Tatum and Brown wasn’t the best as all three needed the ball in their hands to be most effective. A similar situation could shape up in New York with Walker sharing the ball with Randle and Barrett. Hopefully, Walker will take a bit of a step back to let the Knicks’ true stars take over, but that’s not a guarantee.
2021–22 season prediction: 43-39, seventh in the East.
2020–21 finish: 27-45, fifth in the Atlantic, didn’t qualify for the post-season.
Major additions: Precious Achiuwa, Dalano Banton (R), Scottie Barnes (R), Goran Dragic.
Major subtractions: Aron Baynes, DeAndre’ Bembry, Kyle Lowry.
Best-case scenario: The Raptors are, perhaps, the hardest team to figure out this season. They appear to be a club that’s trying to thread the needle by simultaneously keeping a small competitive window open while also trying to re-tool and shoot back up to the top of the Eastern Conference standings. Given the championship-calibre talent on the roster, it’s feasible to think they’ll be able to do it, and No. 4 overall pick Scottie Barnes looks like the kind of high-ceiling talent who’ll be able to help push the Raptors towards that inevitable goal. For this season, if Toronto can reach the play-in tournament and even the post-season, proper it’ll be a successful season.
Worst-case scenario: Unfortunately, what the Raptors appear to be attempting is incredibly difficult and for all the optimism you can point to in regards to the roster, you can also find some worrying flaws and difficulties, such as how this team will score consistently – particularly with Pascal Siakam not expected to be in the lineup until closer to U.S. Thanksgiving – and whether this experiment of going all-in on “position-less” basketball will actually work. If things go awry it could lead to Toronto stuck in a no-man’s land position where they won’t be good enough to compete for a post-season spot, but not bad enough to get a high draft pick again – that is, unless Lady Luck decides to smile on them once again.
2021–22 season prediction: 38-44, 11th in the East.
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NHL suspends Sharks’ Evander Kane 21 games for COVID-19 protocol violations – Sportsnet.ca
The NHL also announced Monday that its concurrent investigation into allegations of domestic abuse made against Kane by his estranged wife, Deanna, could not be substantiated.
Kane said he is in counselling in a statement released by the NHLPA.
— NHLPA (@NHLPA) October 18, 2021
“I would like to apologize to my teammates, the San Jose Sharks organization, and all Sharks fans for violating the NHL COVID protocols,” Kane said in a statement released by the NHLPA. “I made a mistake, one I sincerely regret and take responsibility for. During my suspension, I will continue to participate in counseling to help me make better decisions in the future. When my suspension is over, I plan to return to the ice with great effort, determination, and love for the game of hockey.”
The Sharks also released a statement.
Statement from the San Jose Sharks. pic.twitter.com/P25XxpiJgH
— San Jose Sharks (@SanJoseSharks) October 18, 2021
Kane will forfeit about $1.68 million of his $7 million salary for this season with the money going to the Players’ Emergency Assistance Fund.
Kane had previously been cleared by the NHL in an investigation into allegations made by Deanna Kane that he bet on hockey games, including some against the Sharks.
But the league did determine that Kane violated the COVID-19 protocols. A person familiar with the investigation said earlier this month that the league was looking into allegations that Kane submitted a fake vaccination card. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because details weren’t made public.
Using a fake vaccination card is illegal in both the United States and Canada, as well as against NHL rules.
Commissioner Gary Bettman said last week that only four players on active rosters hadn’t been vaccinated.
Kane had not been around the team since the start of training camp while these investigations were ongoing in an agreement between him and the team.
Kane, 30, is three seasons into a $49 million, seven-year contract. He’s with his third organization after being drafted by and debuting with Atlanta/Winnipeg and a stint in Buffalo.
The 30-year-old led the Sharks in scoring last season with 22 goals and 49 points in 56 games.
The Vancouver native has 506 career points (262 goals, 242 assists) in 769 NHL games with the Atlanta Thrashers, Winnipeg Jets, Buffalo Sabres and Sharks.
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