TORONTO – The time for action on the monumental decisions facing the Toronto Blue Jays begins either Wednesday or Thursday, depending on when the World Series ends, with the fates of Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista front and centre.
The two sluggers will be among the top players to file for free agency the day after Cleveland or the Chicago Cubs pop bottles in celebration of a championship, and teams have five days to extend qualifying offers of $17.2 million in order to ensure draft pick compensation.
The deadline for players to accept or reject the offer is 12 days after the World Series ends, although there’s no drama on this front for the Blue Jays with Encarnacion and Bautista. Barring a deal during the exclusive five-day negotiating window teams get with their own free agents, both are going to market.
Michael Saunders is the only other free agent the Blue Jays may qualify, but his market is uncertain enough that he may accept and it’s unclear how a $17.2 million hit for the Canadian outfielder would fit into their payroll. Still, he was their only impact left-handed bat and would leave a void.
Reaching quick agreements with Bautista and Encarnacion when they’re on the verge of being able to speak with 29 other teams is highly unlikely, even though both have made clear that they want to stay in Toronto.
Texas and Boston are considered two likely suitors for Encarnacion with the Mets, Red Sox and Astros possibilities for Bautista and unless blown away, they owe it to themselves to see what the market offers.
Regardless of how the talks turn out, once the five days are up president and CEO Mark Shapiro and GM Ross Atkins should have a sense of how likely it is they re-sign one or both.
With that information in hand, they can shift focus to the free agent market, assessing which players they have common ground with, and can help in their quest to get more athletic, flexible and balanced in the batting order. The Blue Jays tied Pittsburgh for the second-fewest at-bats with platoon advantage in the majors at 40 per cent, and had the sixth-fewest stolen bases in the majors at 54.
Cubs outfielder Dexter Fowler, a top-of-the-order switch-hitter with a career on-base percentage of .366, would be an ideal option, although the market for him is expected to be very strong. He’d fill the Blue Jays’ need for a leadoff hitter and give them the kind of versatile hitter they’ve lacked.
Josh Reddick is another free agent they’re believed to have interest in, a left-handed batter who posted an .871 OPS against right-handed pitchers in 2016. His .366 OPS in 104 plate appearances versus lefties was well off his career rate of .640 and is a concern, but he could be platooned with Melvin Upton Jr., to provide manager John Gibbons some of the flexibility he lacked this year.
First baseman/outfielder Brandon Moss is another left-handed batter who would allow Gibbons to do different things with his lineup given the defensive versatility. Shapiro and Atkins were both in Cleveland when he was acquired Dec. 8, 2014 and subsequently dealt to St. Louis on July 30, 2015, where he played this season, so there’s some internal familiarity with him. And Moss could compensate for some lost thump given that he’s hit at least 21 home runs in four of the past five seasons.
An interesting possibility for left-handed power is former Blue Jays outfielder Colby Rasmus, a Gold Glove finalist in left field coming off a down year with Houston in which he was hampered by physical issues. He underwent a pair of surgeries Oct. 18 – one to repair his core muscle, another to shave down a bone spur and repair the labrum in his left hip – but will be running at full strength by January and healthy for spring training. A reunion seems unlikely, but he may fit a need.
Should the Blue Jays forego attempts to balance out their right-handed heavy lineup, Cleveland first baseman Mike Napoli is another option for power, with a history of helping teams win adding to his appeal.
Rangers centre-fielder Ian Desmond is someone the Blue Jays will talk to, a well-rounded offensive player with substantial experience batting second, fifth and sixth plus 93 games in the leadoff spot. With 900 games at shortstop before his position switch this year, Desmond could also offer some protection against an injury to Troy Tulowitzki.
The trade market is sure to offer other options, but things first start with Encarnacion and Bautista, and how the initial talks go later this week, and what opportunities arise as the Blue Jays work on parallel fronts.
“Without getting too in-depth into negotiating strategies, I think it’s a matter of being transparent as you are considering your alternatives,” Atkins said of balancing separate tracks during his season-wrap session with writers Oct. 24. “So it would be something as simple as letting others know that you’re weighing alternatives as you make these certain offers. But I don’t see a scenario where we would walk away from someone who is available to us in the market.”
The process of paring down the options starts soon.