Blue Jays FAQ: What’s with the free-agency holdup?

The Jays president admits the club would have handled the Encarnacion situation differently if he had known the market would go the way it did, & acknowledges that Bautista is "if not the best, one of the best" solutions for his hole in the outfield.

TORONTO – It’s the middle of January and if you don’t know who’s in your favourite team’s outfield corners or who the primary lefty out of the bullpen is, you’re probably a fan of the Toronto Blue Jays.

The lingering uncertainty of this seemingly never-ending free-agent market continues to cause unease, especially with the first workout for pitchers and catchers Feb. 15 only a month away. With that in mind, here’s my latest instalment of frequently asked questions about the Blue Jays off-season.

Q. Dude, we’ve been patient like you suggested last month and still nothing but Kendrys Morales and Steve Pearce. What the hell is everyone waiting for?

A. First, I feel your pain, and know that your bewilderment over how long things are dragging is shared by some in the industry, as well. The impression I’ve gotten is that several teams remain reluctant to dive in and address their needs, preferring to wait things out a bit longer to get a better sense of how the market is valuing the remaining players.

That being said, I get the sense the Blue Jays are entering the end game of their process and the expectation is we’ll start seeing some things go down relatively soon, maybe even next week. The trades involving Seth Smith and Jarrod Dyson plus the free-agent signing of Colby Rasmus with the Tampa Bay Rays may act as catalysts that lead to other moves.

Q. So outfield help, right? Jose Bautista, obviously?

A. Yes, and maybe, but probably not. The market’s primary area of surplus is in outfield bats with Michael Saunders, Brandon Moss and Angel Pagan believed to be among the Blue Jays’ preferred options. The New York Mets are going to have to move either Curtis Granderson or more likely Jay Bruce at some point, you’d figure, too, but the guess here is they dip into free agency before making a trade.

Dialogue continues with Bautista, who is still prioritizing a return to Toronto, but you would think if he was really in their plans, he’d be signed already. After all, the Blue Jays made near immediate pitches for Edwin Encarnacion and Brett Cecil in unsuccessful attempts to retain them, while the extent of their known pursuit of Bautista is the extension of a qualifying offer, which he rejected. A one-year deal at that $17.2 million or a bit higher in all likelihood brings him back.

But the question to ask yourself is whether that’s better than a reallocation of the money more equitably on an outfielder, a backup catcher and a bullpen lefty, with the bonus of a compensatory draft pick when Bautista signs elsewhere. That’s likely the equation the Blue Jays are weighing right now, unless the price for the franchise icon drops.

Q. Bautista is indeed a franchise icon – how can the Blue Jays treat him like that?

A. Business is cut-throat and the regime of president and CEO Mark Shapiro and GM Ross Atkins is very disciplined in trying to remove emotion from the equation and assess matters as objectively as possible. Decide for yourself whether you like the approach, but judging by his continued availability on the market, the qualifying offer in combination with Bautista’s age and an off-year related to minor injuries appears to have largely handcuffed his market to this point.

Now, a few industry people I’ve spoken to believe he’s going to mash this year. If you’re a team that’s a bat away, the value of the draft pick it would cost to sign him isn’t nearly as expensive as failing to maximize an open window of opportunity. So on a subjective level, a Bautista return makes 100 per cent sense given what he’s meant to the organization and the fan base. Objectively, though, whatever the Blue Jays do, they simply must win.

Q. How much money are they working with?

A. The Blue Jays are now at $128.3 million in guarantees after avoiding arbitration with Darwin Barney, Ezequiel Carrera and Aaron Loup, with a hit of either $3.1 million or $3.4 million still to come after exchanging arbitration figures with Marcus Stroman. That would push them to either $131.4 million or $131.7 million, while another $5 million or so needs to be factored in for 0-3 service time players. That leaves them about $23 millon to work with on a payroll of $160 million, which is roughly what is believed they have to work with.

Q. Is that enough to patch all their holes?

A. Sure, but then it goes back to the reallocation debate from earlier and whether the Blue Jays are better off spending big on one spot (an outfielder like Bautista) and skimping elsewhere, or spreading the wealth around more evenly. Either way, I’d expect the focus for the Blue Jays to be on adding run creation as opposed to run prevention, as that’s probably what they need most right now.

That goes at backup catcher, too, as my sense is they’d prefer a backup catcher who wouldn’t be a black hole at the plate in the event something happened to Russell Martin (a nightmare scenario for them). Now that Chris Iannetta has reached agreement with Arizona according to Jon Heyman of Fan Rag, Kurt Suzuki, Dioner Navarro and Hank Conger make varying degrees of sense in that way.

Q. Why take Stroman to an arbitration hearing?

A. An arbitration hearing is the by-product of a failed negotiation in which the two sides simply can’t find enough common ground on value. Obviously that’s what happened here. Now, just because they didn’t settle before the deadline doesn’t mean the Blue Jays and Stroman still can’t reach a deal. But as a file-and-trial team in recent years, from this point on they’ll only do a multi-year deal outside a hearing room. They avoided a hearing last year with Josh Donaldson, when the sides were only $450,000 apart and ended up settling on a $28.65-million, two-year deal.

Examining the possibility of a longer-term deal with Stroman and Aaron Sanchez, who will be arbitration-eligible for the first time next year, would likely have been on the Blue Jays’ agenda this spring regardless. The exchange of filing numbers may only accelerate that.