Free agencies of Bautista, Encarnacion a major test for Blue Jays

Shi Davidi of joins Barry Davis to talk about what was going through the minds of Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista as they might have had their last at bats at Rogers Centre.

TORONTO – The Toronto Blue Jays and their most iconic players have never done goodbyes well. Dave Stieb left after an injury-marred year and faded from the game before a brief comeback. George Bell felt discarded when he joined the Chicago Cubs as a free agent. Same with Tony Fernandez when he was traded to the San Diego Padres. Roberto Alomar had a bitter parting. Carlos Delgado was seen as a payroll albatross when he was allowed to walk. Roy Halladay was subjected to a failed public auction at the trade deadline before he was finally dealt to the Phillies.

So what happens next with the pending free agencies of Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista – and let’s be clear, they’ve had Level of Excellence careers in Toronto – is going to be tricky for the Blue Jays to navigate. Especially given the sentiment around a fanbase eager to see some reciprocity after leading the American League in attendance at 3,392,099.

The adoration for the two sluggers was clear during the ninth inning of Wednesday’s American League Championship Series clinching 3-0 loss to Cleveland. A crowd of 48,800 roared and sang the "Jose, Jose, Jose" song so familiar at Rogers Centre over the past seven years as Bautista led off the inning, and he obliged them with a leadoff double that suggested there might be some more magic left. Then they chanted "Eddie, Eddie, Eddie" in unison when Encarnacion came up two batters later, his at-bat ending in a strikeout.

In the end, there was no more magic, only an emotional sendoff, just in case it really was goodbye.

"It was very tough when the fans started standing up and yelling my name," Encarnacion said in an interview. "It’s something that you really appreciate everything they do for you. They supported me all the time so it was a great feeling."

Added Bautista: "As a player you notice when the crowd gets a little bit louder than normal and obviously potentially that being my last at-bat as a home player here, it’s in the back of your head. But once I stepped into the box I blocked it off, just trying to focus on the task at hand and was able to tune it out a little bit. But it was great being in that position and knowing all those people are rooting for you and are behind you."

What the fans want and the business of baseball don’t always intersect, however, which is why this off-season is a major test for team president and CEO Mark Shapiro and GM Ross Atkins. If the two sluggers depart, how the money it would take to re-sign them gets allocated will be closely judged.

Encarnacion – after hitting 42 homers with 127 RBIs with an OPS of .886 in the type of season that makes agents salivate – is going to get paid. Industry sources peg his value anywhere from four years at $80 million to five years at $125 million. While much of the speculation about his future has centred around the Boston Red Sox, the Texas Rangers have long had interest in him and have had both money freed up with the retirement of Prince Fielder and a need with Mitch Moreland bound for the open market.

The Blue Jays are expected to take a run at him, but will they be willing to risk some potential bad money at the end of a deal to make sure he stays? Encarnacion turns 34 in January, one of the reasons in the spring the team suggested an extension of two years plus two options.

Those talks went nowhere but if they’re competitive financially this winter, he’s likely to stay.

"I was never thinking about my free agency," said Encarnacion, who didn’t want any contract talks during the season so he could focus on the season. "I always was thinking about winning – winning games, help this team to win games, that’s all I was thinking all year long and at the end of the year, I put up the numbers I needed to be a free agent. Now we’ll see what’s going to happen.

"I’d love to stay here but it’s not my decision, I’ve got to wait and see what’s going to happen."

The market for Bautista, who turned 36 Wednesday, is more difficult to gauge after injuries limited him to 116 games, in which he hit 22 homers with 69 RBIs, 87 walks and an .817 OPS. Those are a bit off his norms although worth noting is that he selflessly offered to bat leadoff to help the lineup be more effective, a decision that impacted his production.

During the spring, the Blue Jays asked him what number it would take for him to sign an extension – which isn’t really a negotiation – and he offered a widely speculated upon figure that’s never been confirmed. Industry sources suggest it might be hard for him to get four or more years, but they also see teams that miss out on Encarnacion or Yoenis Cespedes (who is expected to opt out of his deal with the New York Mets) circling back to Bautista and bidding him up.

The Blue Jays will extend qualifying offers to both him and Encarnacion, so if they walk, they’ll at least receive compensatory draft picks.

"I haven’t given it much thought to be honest with you, we’ll see what happens. We just got done, I haven’t thought much on it," Bautista said of entering the open market. "If I were to tell you that it never crossed my mind (during the season) I’d be lying to you, but every single day coming in here I was completely focused on helping the team win, and I didn’t think about it too much."

Bautista, acquired from Pittsburgh in 2008, is the longest serving Blue Jays player, with Encarnacion and Brett Cecil, another pending free agent, both playing their first games with Toronto in 2009.

As such, they’ve lived through many of the low points in recent years on the ascent to consecutive trips to the ALCS. The Blue Jays needed Josh Donaldson and Troy Tulowitzki and Russell Martin and their pitchers to get over the hump, but they’re the cornerstones the Blue Jays were built around.

"That’s one of the things that made me so emotional," said Encarnacion. "I’ve spent a long time in this organization, and I came when this thing was nothing, we didn’t make the playoffs and now this is one of the top teams in the league. That’s one of the things that made me very emotional to leave this team now. But if I’m leaving, the team is still in good hands, they have great young and talented players and I know sooner or later they’re going to be in the World Series."

Added Bautista: "I don’t think it’s just me, I don’t think it’s just me and Eddie. There’s a great group of guys here, there have been a lot of changes since I got here for the better, things that have put this organization in the situation they’re in right now where they could be a competitor for the next three to five years with a solid core that they have now. It feels good having your contributions be meaningful to the team in the period of time that I was here."

The cold reality is that once players hit the open market, they become less and less likely to re-sign with their original club. An aggressive suitor that presents an interesting situation can be tempting. And of course money talks, bull-doody walks.

"I don’t know what’s going to happen next in my career and I know we have a great team," said Encarnacion. "I believed we can make it, but you know how this game is, it’s not easy and good things didn’t happen for us. Now we’ve got to start thinking forward."

Bautista’s bat flip in Game 5 of the ALDS last year and Encarnacion’s walkoff in the wild-card game this year are in the past. Their tenure with the Blue Jays may very well be, too.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.