Blue Jays expected to have more big-league payroll in 2017

Toronto Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins joins Barry Davis to talk about the relationship with Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista plus having the financial backing to sign free agents.

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Mark Shapiro isn’t saying it directly and his vagueness on the matter is by design, but the Toronto Blue Jays will have more big-league payroll to work with in 2017.

The precise size of the increase is unclear – “it’s a competitive disadvantage to discuss payroll publicly,” the club’s president and CEO says during an interview. However, as the Blue Jays push to re-sign Edwin Encarnacion, there’d be no logic in bringing him back if they didn’t have the money to fill in around him.

“As we head into free agency, I’m confident that we’re being provided the resources necessary to both sign players and continue to field a championship team,” is the closest Shapiro would come to actually saying the payroll was going up.

The Blue Jays are believed to have spent roughly $152 million on the big-league club in 2016, when they entered the post-season as a wild-card and advanced to the American League Championship Series before losing in five games to Cleveland.

Already on the books for 2017 is $106.3 million in guarantees to nine players, a number that shoots up to $112.2 million when the arbitration projections for Marcus Stroman, Aaron Loup and Darwin Barney are factored in.

Encarnacion is a top priority and industry sources peg the floor for him at $80 million over four years. With a qualifying offer of $17.2 million extended to Jose Bautista, the Blue Jays would have to be able to absorb something near $40 million for the both of them next year, with money left to plug other holes.

Shapiro would not discuss the state of negotiations with Encarnacion – “Any comment about our efforts to sign him hurts our chances to sign him,” he said – but made clear the Blue Jays’ intentions for the winter.

“We absolutely feel we have a core of talent in place that objectively is a contending ball club if we can make some additions this off-season,” said Shapiro.

The payroll increase from team owner Rogers Communications Inc., comes after the Blue Jays led the American League in attendance at 3,392,099, the fifth highest total in franchise history. On TV, their average audience of 1.01 million during the regular season established a new record on Sportsnet, underlining the club’s economic reach.

In August, the Blue Jays announced an increase in ticket costs for the third straight year, with season-seat prices rising an average of nine per cent for early-bird renewals under a wide-scale matrix restructuring.

“There has been support, an understanding of the window of opportunity we’re in right now and the importance of trying to field a championship-calibre or contending team,” Shapiro said of ownership.

The challenge is in keeping everything going, both on the field and off it.

“I feel like the overwhelming support and success we had last season is sustainable but obviously the upside and growth is somewhat limited moving forward,” said Shapiro. “The approach on the business side has to be two-fold. Much like the baseball side, instead of looking for the one or two big areas of opportunity, we have to operate with excellence and high standards across our business and look for hundreds of little opportunities that can make a big impact. Two, in the longer term, the largest scale opportunity to help our business evolve and grow rests in the renovation of Rogers Centre. That represents the biggest upside opportunity for our business.”

More pressing is refurbishing the team on the field, with Michael Saunders, Brett Cecil, Joaquin Benoit, R.A. Dickey, Dioner Navarro, Scott Feldman and Gavin Floyd also free agents. None will be as emotional for the fanbase as Encarnacion and Bautista, two franchise icons deeply tied to the club.

Balancing the value of that bond with the bigger picture is tricky.

“It’s never easy to answer that question and there’s always some premium placed on players that have historical impact and whose character and talent we know well,” said Shapiro. “You’re balancing that premium with the understanding that those players on a losing team have limited value or meaning to anyone.”

The goal for the Blue Jays is, obviously, to avoid that scenario. If played right, they should have enough money in 2017 to build a roster capable of another run at the playoffs, and if they keep winning, to keep the payroll at record levels for years to come.

“What’s been incredibly apparent over the last year and a half is the incredible depth of this market and the level of support across the nation,” said Shapiro. “That is directly tied to a winning team, so it’s clear that if we continue to win, the level of support is going to be consistent if not growing.”