DeMar DeRozan is what happens when a player really wants to stay in a city; it’s what happens when management and the player and his agent are committed to a common goal. The rest is just noise.
That’s not to pillory Edwin Encarnacion for choosing Door No. 5 and signing with the Indians. I’ve been pretty consistent: I would have had him locked up to a contract extension before the start of last season, just as I’d have Josh Donaldson signed up through his first year of free agency because even though the market for aging sluggers re-calibrated this winter, the simple fact is it’s always going to remain difficult to bring in new, premium free agents to this city. Forget that nonsense about crowds and winning breeding interest; there is a premium to free agents – any free agents – coming here to play baseball. (Get back to me when you find the ‘hometown’ discount in Russell Martin’s contract, OK?)
I’m not certain we’ll ever know what transpired between Encarnacion and the Blue Jays. He and his agent bollocksed this up remarkably by putting a spring training deadline on negotiations – for God’s sake, man, you’re 33 years old; if negotiating a deal for close to $20 million per year is a distraction, I’m not sure you should have a driver’s license let alone be a professional athlete – and then misreading the market. You’re right; most of us misread it, too, but the difference is you and I aren’t paid to read it for a living. Paul Kinzer’s paid to be smarter than us; regardless of how thin the market is, ongoing labour negotiations and a game trending younger might not make for the best time to take your guy to market.
In the end, Encarnacion left $20 million guaranteed on the table. Minimum. He might want to remember that if his knee explodes or his back gives out in June.
The Blue Jays share some culpability in this as well – if you assume they really wanted Encarnacion to return. Forget the imagined ‘deadline’ for Encarnacion to take their offer; these two sides had months to get a deal done without any other team being able to get involved in discussions. We know the Blue Jays offered four years and $80 million and you’re right – if you don’t want a player back, that seems like a hell of a gamble unless, of course, you’ve read the intentions of the player and the agent properly. In which case … well, could it be that, from their point of view, the Blue Jays actually didn’t mis-read this thing?
It’s been pretty clear since Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins took over the Blue Jays that the age of the lineup has been a major concern. It’s the first thing that Shapiro said whenever he sat down to talk to reporters after arriving in Toronto, and don’t believe for a second that watching what the New York Yankees started to do this season didn’t resonate in the team's offices.
Shapiro, the Blue Jays president and chief executive officer, knows that the Chicago Cubs have found the new market inefficiency: load up on cheap, tradable, versatile position players; trade or sign pitchers after someone else has wasted their money developing them and paying for the requisite Tommy John surgery and rehabilitation. That doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with developing your own, cost-effective starting pitchers; but at least attempt to bring in the odd position player, too – something that Shapiro’s predecessor, Alex Anthopoulos, did not do well enough.
So where do the Blue Jays go from here? The goal heading into the winter was to get younger, more athletic and less dependent on right-handed hitters and from that on-field point of view the off-season has, so far, been a flop. (Never mind the Blue Jays haven’t yet filled the holes in their bullpen – but, oh wait, I forgot: anybody can build a bullpen in, like, three minutes!)
The good news is there are still eight – nope – seven – uh, nope – six weeks left until pitchers and catchers report to Dunedin and $20-something million to dole out (most baseball observers believed it was going to be via trade that the Blue Jays addressed their most pressing needs).
Look: I understand why it hurts to lose Encarnacion because he has always seemed the happiest warrior of the group of players who have given many of us the two best baseball summers of our lives. He was the throw-in in a deal with the Cincinnati Reds aimed at acquiescing to Scott Rolen’s trade request; he was the guy put on waivers, lost briefly to the Oakland Athletics and repatriated by the Blue Jays en route to turning into a feared slugger.
Like Jose Bautista, Encarnacion was the best type of baseball surprise – the guy you never saw coming, the guy who just started to hit and kept on hitting and hitting and hitting. The Blue Jays signed Encarnacion to a contract extension in season in July, 2012 – funny, that particular in-season negotiation didn’t seem to bother him – because Anthopoulos’ numbers guys kept talking about the bat speed he generated through the zone. It was one of the best leaps of faith made by the organization.
My guess is most Blue Jays fans would have considered the off-season a success as long as Encarnacion returned. Bringing back Bautista isn’t going to be much salve for the wound, I’m afraid – a point of which ownership and management is likely well aware. In an odd way, this is a reflection of how far the franchise has come; there is a price for success in professional sports and the most you can hope for it is a title or two before it all comes due. Think about that the next time you see DeRozan on the court.