CLEVELAND – Edwin Encarnacion doesn’t like seeing Jose Bautista available on the free agent market more than two weeks into the regular season.
Encarnacion still counts Bautista as a close friend, and when the two longtime teammates spoke Wednesday, Bautista said he continues working out in the hopes of playing this season. To the surprise and dismay of Encarnacion, however, Bautista has yet to sign.
"The player he is, he doesn’t deserve that," Encarnacion said. "It surprises me that he doesn’t have a job yet."
"Of course (Bautista) wants to be playing right now," he continued. "But it’s something that’s not his decision."
Now 37, Bautista’s looking to rebound from a 2017 season in which he hit 23 home runs with a .674 OPS in 157 games for the Blue Jays. He was a valuable player as recently as 2016, when he hit 22 home runs with an .817 OPS, and the year before that was a vintage season: 40 homers, a .913 OPS and perhaps the most memorable bat flip of all time.
Teams have expressed varying levels of interest since Bautista became a free agent, but front offices now value future production over past production more than ever, a shift that works against players entering their decline years. Plus, as Encarnacion noted, teams like the Marlins, White Sox and Tigers are willingly undertaking long rebuilds at the expense of present wins.
"A lot of those teams don’t want to win," he said. "It’s not about whether you want a young guy or an old guy, I think they don’t want to win. If you want to win, you want to go for those players like Bautista, Melky (Cabrera). There’s a lot of free agents that are still there that can help a lot of teams to win."
Along those lines, Bautista has spoken often about his desire to win, a factor could limit the options he considers seriously. On the other hand Bautista has experience at first and third base as well as right field. That versatility could theoretically make him more intriguing to teams seeking right-handed bench power.
"I still think if I was with another club and looked at his body of work and looked at what he’s two seasons removed from, I would say yeah, if you needed a right-handed bat, if you needed an outfielder, I’d say he’s a guy you should take a look at," Blue Jays president Mark Shapiro said at a Pitch Talks event last week. "The question’s [what he wants], which could be a variety of things. I don’t know what. It could be geography, it could be money, playing time — any of those things."
At this point it’s been more than six months since Bautista faced pitching in a game setting, so even if a team were to sign him he’d presumably require a minor-league tune-up assignment before facing big-league arms. Even so, Encarnacion has seen enough from Bautista over the years to believe in his ability to bounce back. The experience and focus he brings to the clubhouse would be a bonus.
"To have a guy like Jose Bautista, you learn a lot from him," Encarnacion said. "He’s a very smart player, a smart hitter, and he can help a lot of young players, too. To have him next to me as my teammate, he’s helped me a lot."
As for his own departure from Toronto last winter, Encarnacion still looks back fondly on his eight-year career with the Blue Jays.
"The way that Toronto treated me, I’m never going to forget those moments no matter where I am," he said. "I’m never going to forget the way that city treated me. I’ve got a lot of respect for that city."