Encarnacion’s return to Blue Jays unlikely after Morales signing

Former Kansas City Royals designated hitter Kendrys Morales. (David Banks/AP)

TORONTO – The Toronto Blue Jays began retooling their lineup by reaching agreement on a $33-million, three-year contract with Kendrys Morales pending a physical, a move that that essentially parts ways with Edwin Encarnacion and sets up Justin Smoak to see plenty of action at first base.

The deal, as reported by various sources on Friday, comes after a late push to re-sign Encarnacion, a franchise icon, fell short at the GM meetings in Scottsdale, Ariz. Multiple industry sources indicated the Blue Jays’ extended an offer with a deadline to their slugger and when it was rejected, they moved on to their alternatives.

Speaking in general terms Tuesday, general manager Ross Atkins said “offers often times come on and off tables.”

Morales, 33, will replace some of the lost pop but is a DH only, having played only 10 games and 74 innings defensively in 2016, split evenly between first base and the outfield. A switch-hitter, the Cuban is a good contact hitter who puts the ball in play, slashing .263/.327/.468 with 30 homers and 93 RBIs for the Kansas City Royals, but he doesn’t walk much and runs like a Molina.

Still, as a switch-hitter, he’ll provide some balance for a lineup that needs it as well as more batting average, as he’s a career .273 hitter and batted .290 in 2015. He also has a reputation as a strong and positive clubhouse presence.

Given that the Blue Jays also reached agreement with 23-year-old Cuban infielder Lourdes Gurriel on Friday, his presence should help the upper-level of the farm system prospect transition. A rival evaluator described Gurriel as an interesting bat without a defensive position who’ll need some time in the minors.

The expectation is he opens up at double-A or triple-A, and he gives the Blue Jays a badly needed infusion of young talent at the upper levels of the farm system without being penalized under international spending rules.

Morales also satisfies the now and later needs of the Blue Jays by minimizing their financial exposure over the next three years and leaving them more room to spend this year. Factor in that if Morales is due $11 million in 2017 – the contract’s structure wasn’t immediately known – the Blue Jays would have $117.3 million in guarantees to 10 players and $123.2 million if you include the arbitration projections for Marcus Stroman, Aaron Loup and Darwin Barney.

That leaves them wiggle room to pursue outfield corner help if Jose Bautista declines the qualifying offer as expected, and perhaps a right-handed complement to Smoak at first base such as the versatile Steve Pearce.

Regardless, the all-but-finalized departure of Encarnacion is going to be wildly unpopular, especially given his steadiness in the clubhouse and desire to remain with the Blue Jays. He made his feelings for the city clear with his actions, rather than his words, when he left the field slowly after the final home game of the regular season, and spoke passionately of Toronto after the club’s elimination in the ALCS.

Encarnacion’s walk-off homer in the wild-card game against Baltimore earned itself a place in franchise lore, while the fan base embraced his elbow-up parrot walk during his home run trots.

While Morales is only the first piece of the puzzle, a sizable segment is going to have to be sold on this retooling given how some had made Encarnacion’s re-signing an article of faith for the club.

In an interview with Sportsnet earlier this week, club president and CEO Mark Shapiro made it clear there’s a balance to be drawn between a player’s past meaning to a club and his future worth.

“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 same holds true for the players left behind, as the Blue Jays start crafting a new look for the 2017 season.

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