Atypical aggression in slugger market could wind up costing Blue Jays

Blue Jays radio analyst Mike Wilner preaches patience for the fan base, as Shapiro and Atkins are clearly not anywhere close to being finished assembling this team, but they have plenty of time still.

When Toronto Blue Jays fans think about the team’s front office some of the adjectives least-likely to spring to mind are words like “foolhardy” and “reckless.” Both the actions and words of Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins characterize them as “measure twice cut once” kind of guys.

Given that their job is to chart a course for an organization worth close to a billion dollars with a complex tapestry of goals, this is likely for the best. The last MLB general manager with a flying by the seat of his pants vibe was Dave Stewart, who made a number of borderline-ruinous personnel decisions in Arizona before being fired this fall.

It’s easy to find caution uninspiring, but the business of running a baseball team often demands it. That’s why the way the Blue Jays have approached the first base/designated hitter market this off-season is surprising and uncharacteristic.

As the off-season progresses it’s becoming clear that the baseball world is investing very judiciously when it comes to defensively-limited bats. Veterans Carlos Beltran and Matt Holliday have found homes, but the bigger names like Mark Trumbo, Mike Napoli, and of course Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, remain unsigned. As the days tick down towards the 2017 season prices will presumably be dropping, and it seems likely the paydays for power bats will be more modest than expected.

Front offices around the league seem collectively determined to slow play the slugger market, with the Blue Jays standing out as the notable exception. Toronto reportedly offered Encarnacion a four-year deal worth approximately $80 million shortly after the World Series and moved on to a three-year $33 million contract with Kendrys Morales shortly afterward.

With the benefit of hindsight, both moves could prove over-aggressive. By all accounts, Encarnacion’s camp had strong interest in returning to Toronto, so it seems like there was limited risk in letting him field other offers to gauge demand for his services.

Instead, the Blue Jays tried to get out in front of the market with a proposal that might be the best one Encarnacion gets all off-season. Although it would be hard to call the proposed terms a radical overpay by any stretch of the imagination, the offer stands out in the current free agent landscape. Ultimately, we won’t know how the four years and $80 million stacks up until Encarnacion signs, but it looks a bit like a shot in the dark for now.

The Morales move was another zig where the rest of baseball was zagging. Entering free agency the 10-year veteran looked like one of many possible power bat options, distinguishable from the pack mainly because of his switch hitting. Major contract predictions for the former Kansas City Royal fell well short of what he ultimately got:

Predictor Years Dollars
FanGraphs Crowd Sourcing 2 17.3 million
Dave Cameron (FanGraphs managing editor) 2 22 million
MLB Trade Rumors 2 26 million
Average 2 21.8 million

It appears that the Blue Jays dangled an additional year, and understandably the 33-year-old DH signed on the dotted line. Moving so rapidly and bidding so strongly on Morales was puzzling at the time, and looks more so now that the 1B/DH market has taken a buyer-friendly turn. Not only does the contract itself have potential to be questionable, it also made an Encarnacion reunion far more difficult — putting the Blue Jays in a poor position to retain their star even though his price may ultimately be reasonable.

Now, it is certainly easy to pick apart decisions made before the market took shape as if this progression was inevitable from the start. In fact, the idea that brand-name sluggers would be looking for work as 2017 approaches was far from pre-ordained.

The Boston Red Sox, for example, shifted the landscape by going with Mitch Moreland at first base instead of making a splashy signing to replace David Ortiz. As 2016 wound down it was a foregone conclusion in the minds of many that they would sign Encarnacion or Bautista. One of the off-season’s surprising buyers, the Colorado Rockies, decided to fill their first base vacancy with Ian Desmond, a move that’s such a head-scratcher many assume there’s another domino to fall.

So, there have certainly been some surprises in the 1B/DH market that have landed us here. On the other hand, the abundance of these bat-first free agents was visible on the horizon. On the MLB Trade Rumors top 50 free agent list, as many of nine of the players could be considered 1B/DH types depending on how you feel about the outfield defence of Trumbo, Holliday and Brandon Moss. Notable names not on the list include 41-home run non-tender Chris Carter, Pedro Alvarez and Adam Lind.

For these defensively-limited players, there are many teams that made no sense as landing spots. NL clubs with established first basemen like the Braves, Reds, Nationals, Dodgers, Cubs, Giants, Diamondbacks and Padres were out from the get-go. Ditto for American League squads set at first base and DH like the Angels, Tigers and Twins.

Free agents in the 1B/DH bucket were in a tenuous position when the off-season began, and when both the Red Sox and the New York Yankees went with relatively cheap options, their market took a major hit. It’s a situation that was impossible to foresee in its entirety, but the general supply and demand was far from a mystery.

That’s what makes the Blue Jays’ actions so perplexing. Their strategy seems have been to put out offers they felt were reasonable before terms were dictated to them by the market. That can be a wise course of action if you believe prices will skyrocket when many teams enter the bidding. However, that’s not how things have played out for this year’s free-agent sluggers and the relative bounty of big bats should have been a hint that a wait-and-see approach could have borne more fruit.

If the goal was to retain Encarnacion, Blue Jays needn’t have come up with an offer at starting gun, nor shut the door so quickly with the addition of Morales. If the goal was to find an affordable Edwin replacement, there was plenty of time to find the right fit at a modest price. Even if the team was set on Morales, it seems unlikely that he was going to be snapped up immediately.

Just over a year into their tenure, the Blue Jays front office has earned a reputation for being patient and calculating. In their pursuit of free agent sluggers this off-season neither quality has been as apparent as expected, and that atypical behaviour could ultimately cost the Blue Jays.