Looming contract decisions put Blue Jays in tricky situation

MLB insider Shi David joins Hazel to discuss the meet and greet between Jose Bautista and the new Blue Jays management team, and whether they’re any closer to locking up their slugger long term.

TORONTO – The recent signings of free agents Chris Davis, Justin Upton and Yoenis Cespedes offer a stark reminder of the looming dilemma the Toronto Blue Jays face with the expiring contracts of Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion.

By no means are any of the three big-money deals perfect comparables, for a number of reasons they are not, but they do provide a leading indicator of how power may be priced in next year’s open market.

Between the $161 million over seven years the Baltimore Orioles committed to Davis, the $132.75 million over six years the Detroit Tigers anted up for Upton and the $75 million over three years the New York Mets spent to retain Cespedes, the marketplace this winter pegged the average annual value of an impact bat at $23.04 million.

That’s some serious cake, and given the dearth of premium offensive players bound for free agency next fall, Bautista and Encarnacion are certainly going to be well-positioned as the top run producers potentially available.

Sure there are differences in age, talent, ability and contract term between the five players, but in terms of recent comparables, this is the neighbourhood interested suitors will have to play in.

All of which complicates things for the Blue Jays, who in an ideal world would like to retain their two star sluggers, but will surely need a significant payroll hike to comfortably re-sign one if not both of them.

Already they have $67.5 million in guarantees to only four players on the 2017 books, and that doesn’t include the roughly $20 million Josh Donaldson is likely to earn through arbitration. Remember too that the Blue Jays have seven other pending free agents and a gap in the farm system unable to at least fill some of those holes inexpensively from within.

There’s the payback for last summer’s trade deadline blitz.

If the payroll doesn’t move from the current $140 million range, it will be near impossible for the Blue Jays to keep both players and surround them with the pieces a team needs to succeed. And they probably won’t want to stay if they don’t feel they’ll have a real chance to win.

At the same time, losing Bautista and Encarnacion would gut a batting order that is the club’s strength, so in some ways the Blue Jays are damned if they do, damned if they don’t, making this an especially tricky spot in franchise history.

Now, a big 2016 that includes a post-season run could certainly pave the way for a higher payroll in 2017 and beyond, and that could resolve some issues. But the problem is that won’t be definitively settled one way or another for months yet, and the ideal time to extend both Bautista and Encarnacion is soon, before the season starts.

The incentive for a player to forego free agency lessens every day he gets closer to the open market. And once other teams get involved, there’s no telling how things play out, no matter how much a player may want to stay in a given spot.

One factor working in the Blue Jays’ favour is that both Bautista and Encarnacion like being in Toronto and would like to stay, although that’s not at all costs.

President and CEO Mark Shapiro and general manager Ross Atkins visited Bautista at his home last week and while they didn’t talk contract, the meeting is believed to have gone well, with both sides making a positive impression on one another.

It’s a starting point, but this process isn’t going to be a sprint, even if both players are the elite of the elite.

Since 2012, Encarnacion is second in the majors in home runs (151) and RBIs (423), fourth in slugging (.549) and eighth in OPS (.919). Over the same time period, Bautista is sixth in homers (135), 16th in RBIs (355), 11th in both slugging (.522) and OPS (.899).

Encarnacion will be heading into his age 34 season and Bautista his age 36 campaign in 2017 but when Carlos Gomez, Mark Teixeira and Adrian Beltre – the latter two in their late 30s – are the only other impact bats on offer, their demand is going to be very strong.

And a relatively thin pitching market headlined by Stephen Strasburg, Andrew Cashner, Clay Buchholz and closer Aroldis Chapman won’t eat up too much of the available money.

The Blue Jays, better than anyone else, know what they have in Bautista and Encarnacion. Getting all the moving parts to align is going to be their challenge.