By Playing it Safe, the Jays May Have Put Themselves in Danger

The Toronto Blue Jays were given the option of re-signing their beloved sluggers before they had the chance to reach free agency, where they would surely find a bevy of suitors with bags of cash at the ready. They signed neither, riling up a healthy chunk of the fanbase in the process. If anyone was worth breaking the bank for it was one, if not both, of these two. And besides, the record ratings and incredible turnout should be enough to persuade ownership to loosen its grip on the team’s wallet – never mind the fact that payroll is already set to be at an all-time high. The team was close to a championship and the band needed to be brought back together.

Fast forward a few months and Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion are staring down a disappointing winter where neither has seen their market develop as predicted. As Matt Gwin pointed out, one of those big extensions would’ve hamstrung the team for the future. It’s safe to say that Mark Shapiro and company were on to something by deferring extension talks, which may have been little more than lip service to begin with.

The Jays, rightfully hesitant to dole out the megadeals that Bautista and Encarnacion were after, seemed to be operating with the intent of leaving their options open. By refusing to add long term payroll commitments to those of Troy Tulowitzki and Russell Martin, the Jays positioned themselves nicely should any one of several scenarios play out. They played it smart and hedged their bets, refusing to chase an unlikely reunion while spreading that money across multiple roster spots.

The first scenario is the most likely – where both Bautista and Encarnacion are playing somewhere else next season and the Jays turn to cheaper means of production. By submitting what were tantamount to mere courtesy offers to their big free agents, the Jays kept an eye on flexibility. The Jays quickly identified a replacement and got a deal done with Kendrys Morales, who is set to occupy the DH spot and deliver some thump at a fraction of Encarnacion’s cost. This “spread the wealth” approach is more than fine; we’ve seen the Jays make lots of unheralded or unorthodox pickups in the last year or two alone that have worked out wonderfully and they’ve earned the lease to work more magic with under the radar acquisitions. Morales’ reasonable contract allows the team to fill remaining needs across more dollars than they’d have otherwise have, while leaving enough money on the table in case a big time player emerged as a serious possibility.

The second scenario is one where a big time player emerged as a serious possibility; where the Jays use the freed up cash to land a top-flight free agent. In theory, they had enough money to get Dexter Fowler, who would’ve checked off several team needs in one fell swoop. They were outbid by the Cardinals and the second tier of the market has left a lot to be desired. The team is now left kicking around the underwhelming (which is a diplomatic way of saying “really bad”) alternatives of Ben Revere and Jay Bruce, amongst others. Barring something unexpected, the Jays’ Plan B looks unbecoming of a team trying to make a run at a championship.

And therein lies the rub; the Blue Jays now have a nice pile of money but are faced with a field of alternatives (the ones we’re privy to, at least) that ranges from mediocre to downright bad. With a roster that could easily look more Wild Card than World Series, some have begun to speculate that the Jays are avoiding large (i.e. unmovable) deals so they can quickly pivot into a rebuild if necessary. It’s not something that I buy, as the deals Toronto would love to move in such a world are the ones that already seem immovable, not to mention the fact that the team should contend for the postseason on the back of its starters alone, but the idea is out there and it’s not the craziest thing in the world.

The third scenario is the one that most would’ve scoffed at in October. The one where Bautista and Encarnacion are struggling to find a new home; where their demands have no hope of being met. It’s the reality we’re in now; one that makes the Justin Smoak extension look putrid and the Morales deal look regrettable. The idea that the Jays could retain either seemed like a 50/50 proposition at best, and the team’s decision makers simply couldn’t cling to hopes of a coin flip. No matter what played out, they were right to proceed without either if they never thought a reunion was realistic- which was completely fair to think.

Still, at the current expected price point, it’d be nice to keep one of the dynamic duo around. Toronto’s strategy of keeping its options open becomes easier to accept if some more impressive moves are on the way, but for now it’s looking like their conservative play will wind up looking silly when someone else capitalizes on a good deal.

There’s something to be said for the notion that value is value; everyone has a price that makes sense no matter their warts. If you can get Encarnacion for your first offer of four years and $80 million, and possibly less at this point, you almost have to do it regardless of the defensive logjam it creates. The same goes for Bautista, who was presumably offered considerably less. To lose out on either at an amenable price because you jumped the gun on signing Morales or won’t make Steve Pearce a full-time outfielder would be disastrous for the team’s image. If JB and EE sign elsewhere for relatively small potatoes, expect a strong dose of fan backlash. Rightly or wrongly, it’s an inevitable development.

The team made itself more flexible so it could pursue value on the free agent market in a variety of ways. If that value is presenting itself in the unlikeliest of ways, the Jays have to do something about it. Watching Encarnacion sign for four years and $80 million somewhere else while you might wind up with Ben Revere and a bench piece would be unacceptable, especially when the team is still on the precipice of greatness. The ability to maintain multiple paths at once is nice, but doesn’t work if the team stays directionless while good value for stars might be hitting you in the face. It works even less if your offseason checklist (younger, more left handed, more athletic) goes generally ignored as good players fly off the board.

Toronto was smart to wait things out with its two sluggers. It gave the team an opportunity to let the free agent market develop while leaving them with an outside shot at a high level player. It sure looks like Bautista and Encarnacion are running out of potential landing spots and Toronto’s original offers might be as good as it gets, only the Jays no longer have room for both. The Morales deal was fine- good, even- considering the improbability of what’s actually played out. Unlikely results don’t ever invalidate sound process, and that holds here.

But the Jays, in making the safe, rational plays while looking to the future, have put themselves in a bit of a bind. The flexibility, the thing that could’ve served as Toronto’s greatest asset this offseason, may now turn out to be its undoing in the public eye.

Lead Photo: © Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

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12 comments on “By Playing it Safe, the Jays May Have Put Themselves in Danger”


The Smoak signing was putrid the day it was done, and a lot of people said so. And signing a one-dimensional player like Morales didn’t make a whole lot of sense either, unless you’re trying to trim payroll as much as you can. These guys are in win-never mode.


The Jays entered this off-season in a situation where all of the reasonably likely paths involve significant potential risks and/or downsides. They have too many holes and risks to be considered “on the precipice of greatness”. With another piece or three, they’ll be good enough to be a decent contender for a playoff spot, which isn’t the same thing.


They’ve clearly quit already. It’s a rebuild without saying so. They still want the crowds that winning teams generate. Greedy Rogers. Tickets mostly sold for next season and we’re hoping for the second wildcard. The Somali signing was dumb. And even taking Liriano salary is questionable if you can’t keep Eddy. The Cleveland crew will eventually be run out of town, and Rogers will be dealing with sib 20K crowds. Seeing as Rogers just wrote down $525m on their failed iptv experiment, they’ve gotta make somebody pay: and that’s blue jays fans.


Comments are being a bit harsh. I agree that they’re not committing the dollars (but really the term) that premium guys require but that isn’t really a bad thing given the composition of the roster.

Facts are that the Jays are paying two declining players 20M each per season (Martin & Tulo) for the next three years and we only have Donaldson (no spring chicken himself) under team control for another two. Those three eat up a lot of payroll and we have Stroman starting arb this year and Sanchez, Osuna, Pillar, and Travis all entering their arb years next season. That is a lot of payroll pressure starting next off-season. Too much to make big time commitments to yet more aging sluggers.

It’d be different if we had pre-arb guys ready to step in… but we don’t. So the team is (IMO prudently) looking for midrange options that won’t curtail their ability to keep the younger guys on the roster through arbitration while they wait for the depleted farm system to bare some fruit.

Pat Cashman

How on earth do you call Tulo and Martin as declining. Tulo is still terrific defensively and so is Martin. To call them in decline is idiotic at best.

Joshua Howsam

They very clearly are declining. They’re both still very much useful players, but Tulowitzki’s numbers the last two years are well off his career norms, and Martin is going to be 34 and is coming off his worst season in the last three years, after blowing past his career high in strikeouts by a very large margin and posting a career worst contact rate by over 4.5 percentage points.

Declining does not equal bad.


Is there any solid argument to be made against DFAing Smoak and bringing back Edwin at <4/$80M?

If he will accept 3/$60M, even factoring in 3/$64M if you count the DFA for Smoak, that's deal most Jays fans would jump on…

I understand the rationale of the FO approach, and it seems that their assessment of the market was a reasonable one, but as the article ably points out, there's now a high chance that it backfires.

James Fireman

I certainly agree that Sha/tkins has earned some latitude. Almost all of their decisions have been not only defensible but have worked out quite well.

Also, last offseason the entire fanbase was screaming to extend both Bautista and Encarnacion and accused the Jays and Sha/tkins of tanking/scrimping for not having done so. Quite clearly this was the right move as extention signed then would have been a huge overpay.

Love both EE and Bautista but they are both clearly in the decline phase of their career (both had their words years in a half decade and are in their mid-30s). Moreover, with the Jays pitching, maintaining their very underrated defence is critical and neither Bautista or EE offer any defensive value.

It’s still very early in the offseason. Moreover, by not investing heavily in the free agent market, they will have signficant lattitude to take on contracts during the season. That kind of flexibility can be really useful (recall David Price).

The rotation is good enough to keep them in contention. Let’s see where they go from here.

Mike Passador

That’s a good point. Mid-season improvements are definitely still on the table, it’s just curious that they don’t pursue fixes when it will “only” cost money.

That gives me the impression that the organization values the limited dollars left in the budget more than their prospects. Given the fact that those prospects require extra resources and time whereas money is just money, it’s not out of the realm of possibility. Not sure I agree with it, as it essentially boils down to Financial Cost > Partial Financial Cost + Future Value of Prospects but it’s certainly debatable. Not to hop on the Rogers Is Cheap Bandwagon, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s the case.

The other thing that suggests is they haven’t see anyone available now who fits what they’ve determined as their needs. That’s fine, and I disagree with that hypothetical assessment, but the team obviously works with more information than we do.

It just seems like they entered with this idea of being able to adapt to the market and haven’t yet done anything to actually adapt. I trust the front office though, so we’ll see what happens.


How much adaptation is it reasonable to expect given limiting factors such as the budgets that Shapiro and Atkins have had to work with, the contracts they inherited like Tulo’s and Martin’s, and the dearth of prospect capital to use in trades, which is also mostly inherited?

In addition, while the Jays aren’t in a position where they’re only a reasonably available player or two away from projecting to be at level of CHC or BOS, they’re enough of a playoff contender to make undertaking a rebuild unpalatable.


Only the insiders know what the budgets are for management…
The Owners ought to appreciate that this team made a significant amount of money this last year…Toronto had to be in the top four teams in all of MLB in revenues….i) fan attendance was high; ii) television viewing was high [being the only Canadian team]; and all the extra revenue that accrued from the Canadians who travelled to any game that the Jays were playing in the USA….toward the end of the season…on road trips there were more Jays fans in the stands, than for the home team…including Baltimore.

My point being the Jays have some money, and if it is spent well, then the Jays may be able to have a WS winning team…

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