Blue Jays transformation underway as two franchise icons depart

Toronto Blue Jays' Edwin Encarnacion, left, celebrates his solo home run with Jose Bautista (19). (LM Otero/AP)

TORONTO – The final goodbye is still to come, once Jose Bautista signs with another team and puts on a different jersey for the first time since 2008. But much in the way the agreement reached with Kendrys Morales essentially marked the parting of ways with Edwin Encarnacion, so too does Monday’s rejection of the $17.2 million qualifying offer signify the slugger’s departure from the Toronto Blue Jays.

Separation from two franchise icons in four days?

Transformation is no longer nigh, it’s here.

This isn’t going to sit well with a sizable chunk of the fanbase, and you can understand why.

As the Blue Jays trudged through the wreckage when Alex Anthopoulos first took over as GM after the 2009 season, and Roy Halladay realized he wasn’t going to fulfil his goal of pitching in the post-season in Toronto, it was the emergence of Bautista and Encarnacion that provided hope for a better future.

Bautista’s 54-homer campaign in 2010 is one of the most exhilarating offensive seasons ever by a Blue Jays hitter. In the years that followed, he carved out a place in the club’s record books second only to Carlos Delgado. And then there’s his 2015 ALDS Game 5 homer against Texas that you can reasonably argue is the most electric moment in franchise history.

Dude’s established a real legacy.

After a rough beginning to his Blue Jays career, so too did Encarnacion, one of baseball’s dominant hitters the past five years, whose walk-off in the wild-card game against the Baltimore Orioles is another signature moment for the franchise.

Both played pivotal roles in helping the club make consecutive runs to the American League Championship Series after a 22-year playoff drought. If not for their presence on the roster, the Blue Jays don’t make the blockbuster trades with the Marlins and Mets ahead of the 2013 season, and the competitive window of the past four years is all rebuild instead.

That’s why the sentimental notion of them finishing out their careers with the Blue Jays would have been fitting.

Clear now, however, is that the new regime of president and CEO Mark Shapiro and GM Ross Atkins can be cutthroat when necessary, one unencumbered by notions of sentiment.

The Blue Jays made a legitimate effort to re-sign Encarnacion – with an offer likely in the range of $80 million over four years – and while the slugger is expected to beat that, it was a number worth thinking about. But that offer came with an expiry date, and once it passed, they turned their attention quickly to Morales, acting to lock down their preferred alternative to the slugger before other teams entered the fray.

Their price was their price.

A similar scenario may play out in the outfield now that Bautista has officially declined the qualifying offer, as they can lock up an alternative without fear of an unexpected $17.2 million hit. Free agent Josh Reddick is someone they pursued during the trade deadline and are expected to pursue again.

Whether it’s him or someone different, manager John Gibbons will have a much different toolkit to work with in 2017.

Initial judgment is sure to be harsh, especially right now when all the Blue Jays have put in the box so far is Morales, a switch-hitting slugger with a contact game who helps transition the lineup. Lourdes Gurriel Jr., was signed with the future in mind and he helps address a troubling gap in the upper levels of the farm system, one all the more acute because of the lack of young, upside position players on the big-league roster.

That made the potential of having four mid-30s players in Encarnacion, Bautista, Russell Martin and Troy Tulowitzki locked in at around $20 million apiece a season through 2019 a risky proposition.

The compensatory picks the Blue Jays will get once Bautista and Encarnacion sign elsewhere will help speed the system’s restocking, and with three selections in the 2017 draft’s first round, they’ll have a chance to really augment their talent base.

The extra picks could also give them the flexibility to sacrifice a draft choice to sign a qualified free agent – centre fielder Dexter Fowler addresses a number of roster issues. But the lean right now may be to keep all the selections and load up in June.

Such big-picture considerations will do little to assuage the disappointed and disgruntled, just as Morales alone won’t replace Encarnacion, and whichever outfielders are acquired won’t fill Bautista’s big shoes. The Blue Jays are banking on the totality of their off-season work producing a more complete whole, and at the risk of an AL-leading attendance of more than 3.3 million, they better be right.

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