Encarnacion experience offers lessons as Blue Jays continue pitching hunt

best-wild-card-games

Toronto Blue Jays' Edwin Encarnacion celebrates after hitting a walk-off three-run home run in the 2016 wild-card game. (Mark Blinch/CP)

TORONTO – All too often when it comes to free agency, the taking of chances for upside gets too bogged down by the potential pitfalls of signing a bad contract, and the collateral damage in committing big money to the wrong guy.

There are legitimate risks in handing out big cheques, to be sure, and the historical record isn’t particularly kind to binge-spenders on the open market. If you’re trying to build your team through free agency, the strong likelihood is that it won’t end well.

At the same time, there’s an opportunity cost for teams that refuse to take chances, for those perennially sitting on the sidelines because they’re dug in on their valuations and refuse to budge.

To that end, it was interesting to hear Ross Atkins pick Edwin Encarnacion when asked which veteran parting was most emotionally difficult for the general manager during his tenure with the Toronto Blue Jays. The split after the 2016 season remains regrettable, a product of pivotal miscalculations by both sides, and the way things went down represents an important lesson in how teams stand to lose just as much by not spending on a player as they can in making a big-money mistake.

“Eddie, for me,” Atkins said in response to the question during the Toronto chapter of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America’s annual awards luncheon Wednesday. “He’s just such an incredible person, he was such a great piece to the equation that we were really aggressive in trying to (retain) him and it didn’t work out. In hindsight, we could have handled that differently, for sure. But that one was a tough one for me and I still remain very respectful of him and am in touch with him and his representation.”

The beloved slugger, author of one the franchise’s greatest moments with his walk-off homer in the 2016 wild-card game, presents an intriguing opportunity in free agency, which I’ll get to later. But a question that’s long lingered for some who were part of the 2017 Blue Jays is how that season and the ones that followed might have been different had Encarnacion re-signed.

Encarnacion was a three-WAR player for Cleveland that year while Kendrys Morales, signed to, in large measure, replace him in the middle of the Blue Jays lineup, performed at a replacement level. On its own, a switch there wouldn’t have been enough to get a club that finished 76-86 over the hump, but when you factor in other possible spin-off effects, maybe they hang around long enough to reel in the 85-77 Minnesota Twins for the second wild-card.

As Aaron Sanchez, moments after he was traded July 31 to the Houston Astros, put it: “I still even think in ’17 we had a chance to win, just a couple injuries here and there kept us away from that. Me not being able to throw over 38 innings probably didn’t help, we had an MVP that didn’t play the majority of that season, too, that could have been a big piece of that puzzle. So there’s always what-ifs. For us that year, it’s kind of unfortunate that it happened the way it did.”

We’ll never know, obviously, but retaining Encarnacion would have dramatically altered the trajectory and perception of the past few years (although had he stayed the Blue Jays wouldn’t have top prospect Nate Pearson, selected with the compensatory draft pick they got in return).

Still, thinking through what was lost by not re-signing Encarnacion reinforces how sometimes it pays to overpay, especially as more and more options come off the current pitching market.

The Blue Jays were involved to some degree on Zack Wheeler, who reached agreement with the Philadelphia Phillies on a $118-million, five-year deal Wednesday, just as they were with Jake Odorizzi and Kyle Gibson and Mike Moustakas. Save for Odorizzi, it would have required irrational overpays to lure them to Toronto.

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Atkins was tight on details – GMs are understandably skittish discussing free agents after the players union put Atlanta Braves GM Alex Anthopoulos on blast for some innocuous comments – but did say, “there’s not a free-agent pitcher that we haven’t touched base with.”

“We have been aggressively trying to understand every opportunity and we’ll continue to do that. There remains opportunity out there,” he added. “Our confidence (in eventually landing someone) comes from the opportunities that still exist and that we have the flexibility to do it with, and not just in free agency but also on the trade front.”

The reality is that the heavy lifting in rebuilding a non-existent rotation will likely come via free agency, since “giving up talent that could be paired with Vladdy and Bo and Pearson and that group for a player that might only be here for one or two years is a hard thing to do.”

And when asked if the Blue Jays could participate in the upper tier of the market, Atkins responded, “Yes, we have that flexibility.”

If so, then do it, because as much as free-agent contracts usually come with an unpalatable back end, there’s also a price to be paid for doing nothing, or minimizing risk with shorter-term, less-dollar, lower-impact guys.

With Encarnacion three years ago, the Blue Jays came out with the high bid – $80 million over four years with the potential for a fifth-year option – but wanted a decision before he was ready to make one. Encarnacion misread the market and held out for more, watching in shock when the Blue Jays quickly pivoted to Morales to avoid being left without a middle-of-the-order bat.

The Indians ended up signing him to a deal that guaranteed him $60 million over three years and now he’s back on the market after the New York Yankees, having acquired him mid-season from the Seattle Mariners, declined a $20 million option for 2020. He produced a cumulative 7.4 WAR over that span, while the Blue Jays paid more than $10 million for Morales to not play for them this year and he delivered 0.1 WAR on a $33-million, three-year contract.

As I wrote in the summer there’s logic in a reunion with Encarnacion. Pitching remains the priority, but the sides have spoken in recent weeks. Having him play a role similar to the one Nelson Cruz did with the Twins should really help a young lineup.

For now, throw it into the list of possibilities for a Blue Jays team that needs to start thinking not only about what they stand to lose by taking risks with free agents, but what they stand to gain, too.

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