Futures of Encarnacion, Bautista key in determining Blue Jays’ window

MLB insiders Shi Davidi and Ben Nicholson-Smith discusses the developing news on Edwin Encarnacion and the Blue Jays, and wonder whether free agent Mark Buehrle has engaged in talks with any MLB teams.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – As the Toronto Blue Jays spent the winter meetings’ first day trying to augment their 2016 roster, an issue for 2017 and beyond emerged when industry sources revealed that Edwin Encarnacion plans to test free agency if he’s not extended by the start of the regular season.

The designated hitter/first baseman and right-fielder Jose Bautista are both eligible for free agency next fall, and their long-term status is an issue for the team that’s simmered in the background while assistant GM Tony LaCava has focused on rebuilding the rotation.

The Blue Jays’ plan was to kick around extensions once the club had taken care of its business for 2016 – and it largely has at this point following the re-signing of Marco Estrada, acquisition of Jesse Chavez and signing of J.A. Happ. But the team is expected to meet with Encarnacion’s representatives Tuesday, a meeting that may give the Blue Jays an idea of the slugger’s expectations.

Like Bautista, Encarnacion qualified for 10-and-5 rights last season (10 years of service time, five with the same team) that gives him the ability to veto any trade, among other benefits. Speaking to Sportsnet at the time, he said he wanted to remain in Toronto long term.

"I’m very happy with the five years I’ve had here, and time goes fast," he said then. "I remember when I got traded in 2009 and now I have five years here, and I feel like it’s home, I feel like I want to stay here and we’ll see what’s going to happen."

Encarnacion is in the final season of a $27-million, three-year contract that included a $10 million option that covers 2016 signed back in July 2012, a deal negotiated in the first half of that season and finalized during the all-star break. This time around, he doesn’t want to deal with the process when the games are on.

LaCava said Monday that the Blue Jays haven’t yet heard from Encarnacion about his desire to not negotiate in season, but added "when he decides to tell us what the rules of engagement are, we’ll respect that."

"Those guys are special players and we’re fortunate to have them both," LaCava said of Encarnacion and Bautista. "You add Josh Donaldson as well, we’re pretty fortunate to have that type of right-handed power, and you can throw (Troy) Tulowitzki in that mix and (Chris) Colabello, we’ve just got a lot of guys who can hit for power. That being said it is a commodity and the market for it continues to rise. At some point they’re going to potentially be eligible for free agency and to stop them from getting there you’re going to have to pay the price."

What happens with the two premium sluggers will go a long way in determining what the competitive window looks like for the Blue Jays beyond 2016.

The Blue Jays at this point have $67.5 million committed to Tulowitzki, Russell Martin, Marco Estrada and J.A. Happ for 2017, when Donaldson could be in the $20 million range in arbitration. Questions for the club to wrestle with include whether the team could accommodate extensions for both Encarnacion and Bautista, and whether that makes sense given their age.

Encarnacion will be 34 in the 2017 season, Bautista 36, but both are due to get paid in a major way given how rare power is in the game these days. Last season Victor Martinez signed a $68-million, four-year contract with the Detroit Tigers that started with his age 36 season, a contract that is at best a floor.

"You always have to look at the 25-man roster and you have to work to allocate the money properly," said LaCava. "It’s possible you can have both those guys, it would be at a cost of putting the money somewhere else. You’d have to look on balance at what was best for the 25-man."

In the shorter-term, what’s best for the 25-man roster is more pitching help, particularly in the bullpen. While a run on free-agent relievers led into the meetings, that hasn’t meant any additions for the Blue Jays, who checked in on Joakim Soria, Ryan Madson and Mark Lowe but didn’t want to ante up.

The Blue Jays have also checked in on Tony Sipp, who remains in play, but again, his market may carry beyond their comfort zone. Already this off-season they’ve spent $36 million for three years of Happ and $26 million for two years of Estrada, with Chavez projected by MLB Trade Rumors to earn $4.7 million in arbitration.

"We jumped out early on (the pitching market) and we anticipated it getting pricey, and it has," said LaCava. "Fortunately we’ve done a lot of the work we’ve wanted to do replacing the starts we’d be missing. We’re going to continue to look at it and see if there are other opportunities but it’s an expensive market."

The Blue Jays are also looking for a middle infielder to help cover the gap while Devon Travis recovers from shoulder surgery, but at this point seem prepared to use Josh Thole as their backup catcher for 2016.

They’d still like to add some depth behind the plate there as A.J. Jimenez, the fading prospect who missed most of 2015 with a wrist injury, and minor-league signing Humberto Quintero are slated to be their top options at triple-A Buffalo. But using Thole will keep Russell Martin from having to catch knuckleballer R.A. Dickey.

"I think it did take its toll on Russ a little bit," said manager John Gibbons. "It’s not an easy thing to do. That’s Josh’s speciality and he’s very good at it. Russ did very good with him. Dickey had some great games with him back there. It’s not an easy thing to do. It did take its toll on him."

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