Blue Jays enter off-season of uncertainty after ALCS disappointment

Shi Davidi of Sportsnet.ca joins Barry Davis to talk about what was going through the minds of Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista as they might have had their last at bats at Rogers Centre.

TORONTO – The American League Championship Series was lost long before Ryan Merritt slopped his way to 13 fingers-crossed outs, before Marco Estrada made a few mistakes too many, before the 48,800 that filled Rogers Centre for one final rowdy time left the building.

By missing opportunities in the first three games of the series, the Toronto Blue Jays left themselves no margin for error against a Cleveland club that played with little slack. Becoming the second team to ever rally from a 3-0 deficit in the post-season was never likely, even if you could envision a path back to Progressive Field with the left-handed Merritt, who topped out at 87.4 mph and sat 86, starting Wednesday in a mismatch with Estrada, an all-star.

Really, a 3-0 win in the series clincher for AL Central champions makes little sense, but then, so many things in this wild, disjointed Blue Jays season didn’t play out the way you would have expected. Getting stymied by Merritt before the relief dragon of death Andrew Miller burned through what remained of their hopes and Cody Allen swept away the ashes?

Sort of fitting, in a twisted sense.

"We should still be playing," lamented Estrada, who allowed three runs, two earned, over six strong innings and, just as in a 2-0 Game 1 loss, deserved a better fate. "It’s pretty incredible that they took the first three games. It’s hard to come back from that, and we had our opportunities, and we didn’t take advantage. We barely lost the first two games. It’s just the way this game works sometimes. But I’m extremely proud of everybody.

"We should still be playing. Our team is stacked again. And we just couldn’t pull it off."

Now come the bigger-picture questions, starting with the pending free agencies of franchise icons Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista, along with Michael Saunders, Brett Cecil, R.A. Dickey and Dioner Navarro, among others. Industry sources believe Encarnacion is headed for a nine-figure contract or something close, while Bautista’s market may be more robust than some expect as teams that miss out on Encarnacion are likely to circle back to him.

The only thing clear is that this Blue Jays group will be substantially different when it returns in 2017 after back-to-back trips to the ALCS.

"I don’t know what’s going to happen next in my career and I know we have a great team," Encarnacion said in an interview. "I believed we can make it but you know how this game is, it’s not easy and good things didn’t happen for us and now we’ve got to start thinking forward."

One person definitely back is John Gibbons, who will manage 2017 in the final year of his current contract, team president Mark Shapiro told Sportsnet.

"There’s a level of consistency with him in approach that is unflappable and I think that translates into toughness," Shapiro said in an interview. "He’s the same guy and in a role like this, when people tend to go with the wind and get so impacted by the emotion that flies all around us, that stability, that strength and that toughness from a leader is a real asset.

"There’s no panic. He believes in the talent, he believes in his players, he believes in the process and he believes in all the work that’s been done to date. That gives us confidence, that gives the players confidence and the belief to hold true to the bigger picture. That’s a separator."

Less certain is how much money the Blue Jays will have to spend as the team is still working through off-season planning to determine a payroll number for next year. But the change at CEO from Guy Laurence to the incoming Joe Natale at team owner Rogers Communications Inc., is believed to be a good thing for the team.

Certainly the expectations for the Blue Jays have changed substantially, both from a fanbase that led the American League in attendance at 3,392,099 during the regular season, and perhaps from an ownership that continually cites the team’s revenue generation for the Media division in its quarterly reports.

The Blue Jays currently have $103.3 million in guarantees to eight players for next season, with Marcus Stroman expected to be only the substantial arbitration hit. Focal points this winter are likely to be on adding athletic, speedy left-handed hitters to the lineup, beefing up the bullpen and adding depth to an exceptionally strong starting rotation.

"I know some very, very key pieces are free agents this year and I hope we do our best to bring them back because we need them," said Estrada. "They’re not only great on the field, but inside the clubhouse most of those guys are leaders. We need them all back. If we get this core back for next year and you add a few more pieces, we’re going to be another unstoppable team. Hopefully these things happen. But right now that’s the last thing on my mind, I’m just thinking about this stupid game."

The Blue Jays’ right-handed heavy lineup was seen as a liability that contributed to a dismal 11-16 September that nearly pushed them out of the playoffs, and in Game 5, it didn’t help them against Merritt, owner of a 3.70 ERA and a 9.8 hits per nine rate at triple-A Columbus with all of 11 big-league innings under his belt.

Bautista noted Tuesday night that having never seen Merritt before was "something that could go either way" and then added, "with our experience in our lineup I’m pretty sure he’s going to be shaking in his boots more than we are."

That turned into motivating fodder for the 24-year-old, who retired the first 10 batters he faced, a run broken up by Josh Donaldson’s single in the fourth. Encarnacion followed with a double-play ball to short that ended the inning. Russell Martin blooped a one-out single in the fifth to prompt Cleveland manager Terry Francona to not tempt fate and bring in Bryan Shaw, who struck out both Ezequiel Carrera and Kevin Pillar to snuff out the threat.

"I heard it," Merritt said of Bautista’s comments. "But I didn’t let it affect me or get to me."

Said Bautista: "There’s never any disrespect meant. I simply gave my opinion on what I thought could’ve happened. I never said that he wasn’t good enough. I also stated that those type of matchups can go either way. Sometimes people step up to the occasion and he certainly did, and he did tremendous."

Miller, who recorded 28 outs in the ALCS, took over after Bautista’s one-out single in the sixth and on the first pitch induced a double-play grounder from Donaldson to kill another attempt at a rally.

Pinch-hitter Dioner Navarro delivered his second hit and the Blue Jays’ third hit off Miller in the series in the eighth, but things went nowhere there, either.

Bautista, in perhaps his last at-bat with the Blue Jays, led off the ninth with a double off Allen and made the Rogers Centre roar nearly as loudly as it did when he hit his bat flip home run in Game 5 of the ALDS last year. But Donaldson struck out as did Encarnacion, serenaded with chants of "Eddie, Eddie, Eddie" as he stepped to the plate for maybe the last time with the Blue Jays.

Troy Tulowitzki popped out to end it and Bautista walked from second to the dugout with his head down, greeted by a pat on the back from Stroman as he descended down the steps. Tulowitzki tossed his batting gloves to some fans, while Encarnacion slid his bat to another over top of the dugout, Cleveland celebrating by the mound the whole time.

"I love all the guys that are in here," said Martin. "We battled through the grind, through the marathon the whole year. I wish them all the best, the guys that are free agents right now. Do I wish they’d come back? Of course, man, those guys are awesome. But there’s nothing you can do. I can’t knock on the GM’s door and be like, ‘Hey man, let’s do this.’ You know? There’s really not much you can do, you just wish them the best and hopefully the best means that they’re going to come back here."

It may also mean goodbye, after a missed opportunity to lament, ahead of a winter of transition.