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.
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