Amidst rumours regarding their top two free agents that had been swirling all week, the Toronto Blue Jays signed designated hitter Kendrys Morales to a three-year, $33-million contract on Friday in a move that many believe effectively ends their pursuit of Edwin Encarnacion.
The surprise signing came at the end of a week during which everyone from the front office to agents had added to the noise surrounding the Jays’ interest in and pursuit of re-signing Encarnacion and Jose Bautista.
As is their job, Paul Kinzer and Jay Alou, who are Encarncion’s and Bautista’s agents respectively, have both been vocal with the local media. Kinzer has been adamant that his client wishes to return to the Jays, stating that Toronto is Encarnacion’s preferred destination. While the reported asking price for Encarnacion is believed to be a whopping $125 million over five years, Bautista’s camp appears more flexible given the offensive downturn during his injury-plagued 2016 season. Alou has gone as far as stating that Bautista feels as though he has “unfinished business” in Toronto and is willing to play a myriad of positions, suggesting that perhaps there has been little interest in him on the open market.
While Jays’ general manager Ross Atkins has insisted that re-signing Encarnacion is a priority and reportedly made a push to do so, he stated in an interview on Tuesday that, “offers often times come on and off tables”, suggesting that perhaps whatever offer had been extended had an expiration date – which, according to Sportsnet’s Shi Davidi, has been confirmed by sources.
While there are some in Toronto’s fan base who will interpret this as the front office walking away from negotiations, this was a bold tactical move on the part of the Jays, who have effectively situated themselves in the negotiation drivers’ seat. With a relatively weak free agent class and several on-field needs that must be addressed this offseason, the Jays cannot afford to sit around and wait while Encarnacion engages with other suitors – which, of course, he should do, given that this is his one shot at a long-term lucrative deal. But, that doesn’t mean the Jays should wait for him to make his decision before pursuing alternatives.
That’s not to say that Morales is the answer to what ails the Jays. The thirty-three year old Morales had a slash line of 263/.327/.468 with 30 home runs and for Kansas City last season, which is home to one of the more pitcher-friendly ballparks in baseball. In twenty-eight career games (105 at-bats) played at the Rogers Centre, Morales has hit .276/.330/.438 with an OPS of .769.
While he certainly will not replace the offensive production of Encarnacion, who hit .263/.357/.529 with 42 home runs last season, he provides a modicum of lineup flexibility in that he is a switch-hitter with relatively equal career splits from either side of the plate. The downside is that he is incredibly slow – he has stolen just four bases during his decade in the majors – and is not an option to play the field, even at first base.
What is of greater importance, however, is that if signing Morales does indeed signify the end of the Encarnacion era in Toronto, the Jays have managed to replace some of that offense at a fraction of the price, providing them with the flexibility to pursue other needs, such as two corner outfielders.
That’s not to say that the Blue Jays are completely out on Encarnacion. Rick Westhead of TSN quoted Paul Kinzer yesterday as saying that the two sides were still talking and that both sides consider Encarnacion to be a first baseman, thus signing Morales does not preclude them from signing Edwin.
The question is, should they sign Edwin. Based purely on offensive statistics, the answer is an unequivocal yes. He is the best bat on the free agent market and his 99 runs scored plus 127 runs driven in represent 29.8% of the team’s 759 runs last season. Given that a lack of run production is what cost them a shot at the World Series, the Jays can ill-afford to squander run production. And, considering the black hole that is Justin Smoak at the plate, the Jays are going to need at the very least a platoon first baseman. Re-signing Encarnacion would solve these two problems with one fell swoop.
However, Edwin’s reported asking price of $25 million for each of the next five seasons is, in a word, steep. As Davidi points out, the Jays currently have $117.3 million guaranteed to ten players next season, which will end up closer to $123.2 million including arbitration projections. They began 2016 with a payroll of approximately $134 million, which rose to approximately $148 million by the end of the season. Mark Shapiro has all but stated openly that they have more payroll to work with for the 2017 season, and one can reasonably expect the opening day payroll in 2017 to be north of $155 million. That leaves roughly $33 million to allocate towards the corner outfield positions, first base, a backup catcher and bullpen pieces.
The notion that the Jays should simply shell out whatever it takes to retain Encarnacion is reckless. Whether fans like it or not, baseball is a business. And, like all businesses, there is a budget. It’s fine to believe that the payroll should be within the top five in baseball – the fact that the Jays surpassed three million people in attendance last season certainly suggests that to be true – but that negates the reality of corporate ownership. It also ignores the fact that payroll is not necessarily indicative of success. Cleveland, for instance, was twenty-first in payroll last season but was top five in runs scored. And, given the fact that no other team has offered Encarnacion what he’s hoping to get, including the Boston Red Sox, who were thought to be a likely destination for the aging slugger, one can assume that it isn’t just the Jays who value him differently than he values himself.
There are many fans who, of course, want Encarnacion to return because of his sentimental value. He’s “our” guy; affable and humble while hitting bombs and running around the bases sporting the Edwing. He’s one of the best hitters in baseball, and he loves Toronto; he wants to stay in Toronto. That’s all well and good, but the bottom line is he wants to get paid. And, that’s fine; he deserves to get paid, but not at the expense of whatever else the team still needs to do. As written by Davidi, Mark Shapiro, “made it clear there’s a balance to be drawn between a player’s past meaning to a club and his future worth.” In other words, one cannot get caught up in what a player has accomplished in the past when evaluating his worth in the future. While Encarnacion may continue to be productive over the next two or three years, in all likelihood, the team would have to eat his salary in the last year or two as he’s on the decline. That’s fine if ownership wants to be in the top five in payroll; Shapiro has made it clear that that’s not the case.
To re-sign Encarnacion to the detriment of what else this team needs to accomplish this season would be foolish. Instead, the Jays can spend wisely and allocate their money towards players who will not only provide roster flexibility, but whose contracts will not outlive their productive value. The Jays are said to be kicking tires on both Dexter Fowler and Josh Reddick, both of whom would fulfill their outfield needs while providing a different look at the plate (Fowler is a switch-hitter, while Reddick is a lefty). Meanwhile, they are rumoured as being interested in Steve Pearce as a guy to platoon with Smoak at first base.
With that in mind, consider this: the Jays could also re-sign forgotten man Jose Bautista to play first base at a relatively reasonable cost.
The bottom line is, the front office has an obligation to field the best team possible within the confines of their budget. Fans most certainly have their favourite players, with Encarncion chief among them. But, there’s a bottom line, both in terms of what the team is willing to spend on a particular player, and in terms of what a fan ultimately wants. I think it’s safe to say that, as a fan, the bottom line is for the Jays to field a winning team. If they can do that without re-signing Edwin Encarnacion, then all will be forgiven.
Because, let’s face it. This fan base has had its favourites. The Carols Delgado’s and Roy Halladay’s have come and gone, and yet, the fans still flock to the field. Why? Because this fan base wants to support a winning team, regardless of who puts on the uniform. Win, and the fans will flock to the field. Win, and they will buy the merchandise. Win, and this city will engage in celebrations that will surpass those of twenty-three years ago.
I want Edwin to remain a Blue Jay. I really do. But, not at all costs. Not at the cost of all the other holes this team needs to fill. I will applaud this team if they can fit Encarnacion into their budget.
But, I will cheer louder if this team can win, regardless of who steps on the field on Opening Day.
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