NEW YORK – The most pressing leverage point right now for the Toronto Blue Jays is, of course, the upcoming trade deadline and that’s rightly where the club’s focus currently lies. Still, it’s never too early to start thinking about the ideas for the off-season, and one avenue worth examination is what the Minnesota Twins cleverly did to bolster their lineup last winter.
In signing Nelson Cruz to a $14.3-million, one-year contract with a $12 million club option for 2020, they inserted a reliable, professional and productive bat into the three-hole, providing a stabilizing force for a core of young hitters. It’s not solely because of him that Max Kepler, Jorge Polanco, Eddie Rosario and Byron Buxton have taken steps forward, but his presence has certainly been a factor, an experienced resource delivering on and off the field.
One school of thought around the Blue Jays is that Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Cavan Biggio, Lourdes Gurriel Jr., Danny Jansen and the soon-to-arrive Bo Bichette could similarly benefit from the addition of someone like Cruz.
At this point, the AL Central leaders appear sure to exercise the 39-year-old’s option, so he’s probably off the table. But an intriguing potential fit is old friend Edwin Encarnacion, who is currently tied for second in the American League with 25 homers and may end up a free agent as it’s no certainty that the New York Yankees pick up his $20-million option.
Imagine, a reunion between Encarnacion and the Blue Jays?
“It’s something I can’t control, man,” the slugger says when the idea is broached to him. “When I left Toronto, I loved Toronto. I love that place. I’ve got great memories in that place, but it’s something I can’t control. Right now, I’ve got that option. I don’t know what’s going to happen, we’re going to wait and see.”
The topic, obviously, is a difficult one for the 36-year-old to discuss while under contract to the American League East leaders, but his affinity for Toronto is an opportunity should the Blue Jays decide to go back down the road.
That he ended up leaving after the 2016 season in the first place was a mistake for the club, especially since he wanted to return and has remained productive with 6.6 WAR as calculated by Baseball Reference over the past 2 1/2 seasons. Had the Blue Jays kept Encarnacion rather than signing Kendrys Morales, perhaps the 2017 season, at minimum, would have played out differently.
All that aside, bringing him back wouldn’t be a nostalgia play, but rather a move aimed at both helping the lineup’s production and development. As pitching styles have evolved in recent years, with an emphasis on velocity up in the zone and high-spin rate breaking balls to counter launch-angle hacks, Encarnacion has adapted, “working hard to keep my swing that way it used to be.”
“It’s not easy, man. Everything has been changing,” he continues. “Because I have experience, I know what I can do, I know what I can’t do. We have more scouting reports, I work hard on that, on my mentality, with video watching pitchers. Right now, there are a lot of pitchers I don’t know in this division, Toronto, Boston, Tampa has a lot of good pitchers I don’t know, so I’ve got to scout them.”
While Encarnacion’s strikeout rate has climbed from an impressively low 15.7 per cent in 2015 to 21.1 per cent this season, that’s also more emblematic of the wider trend across baseball. His walk rate remains consistent at 12.7 per cent, down from a peak of 15.5 per cent in 2017 with Cleveland but still above his career average of 11.7 per cent, while his slugging is down a tick from his career norms, but still in line with where you’d want a DH/first baseman type.
Such a knowledge base, from a player still doing it on the field, would be invaluable around a core of young hitters on the make. In Cleveland, he made positive impacts on emergent stars Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez, and with the Blue Jays he could do the same for Guerrero and crew.
It’s a role that at this point of his career, he relishes.
“In Cleveland, we had a lot of young players with great talent,” Encarnacion says. “They knew how to play the game right but sometimes you need a veteran guy. Sometimes they get in a slump and that’s a good opportunity to talk to those guys and it’s a pleasure for me to do that because when I was a rookie a lot of guys helped me with that. I feel blessed to help those young kids coming up.”
The Blue Jays don’t have such a player under contract next year. Morales was jettisoned before the season’s start while Justin Smoak is a pending free agent, leaving a hole at first base and opportunity at DH.
Rowdy Tellez, optioned back to triple-A after Sunday’s 4-2 loss to the Yankees, is a possibility, and there’s an advantage to spreading DH at-bats around. But having Encarnacion splitting time at DH and first base while anchoring the lineup and providing mentorship makes for an appealing package.
And for good measure, he’s got some history with Guerrero, as well.
“I’ve been scouting Vladdy since he was 14 with (former GM) Alex Anthopoulos, he had a little tryout and I went there and watched Vladdy,” says Encarnacion. “He’s going to be a superstar player. Even at 14 he was raking. He doesn’t swing at bad pitches – he’s not like his dad, his dad swung at everything. And from the time he was 14 and now he’s 20, he’s unbelievable, he’s an unbelievable kid and all those young players they have, they’re going to be good.”
Encarnacion can help both them and the Blue Jays. Once the looming subtractions are done, he’s the type of free-agent addition worth considering.