With Morales deal complete, Blue Jays face new set of questions

Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins joins the show to discuss the chances of his team re-signing Edwin Encarnacion, what Kendrys Morales will bring to the team & what other moves could happen in the near future.

TORONTO — The Toronto Blue Jays had long admired Kendrys Morales from afar, so when the chance to sign him presented itself early in the off-season, they moved quickly.

Impressed by Morales’ long track record of offensive consistency and intrigued by his potential in a hitter-friendly park, GM Ross Atkins completed a three-year, $33 million contract that was officially announced Friday. The deal raises a whole new set of questions, but we probably won’t know the answers to those before the Winter Meetings take place early next month.

For example: does this spell the end for Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion?

"It makes things slightly less likely for Edwin, but doesn’t impact us on Jose in any way," Atkins said. "We still feel that both are realistic for us. When you sign someone like Kendrys Morales, that does decrease the likelihood of Edwin coming back to the Blue Jays, but it by no means eliminates that possibility."

The Blue Jays will keep in touch with Encarnacion, who could theoretically share first base and DH duties with Morales were he to return to Toronto. Realistically, that scenario seems unlikely given the market that’s sure to emerge for a player coming off of a 42-homer season and the various needs the Blue Jays must address around the diamond.

Another question raised by the signing: what position does Morales play, if any?

According to Atkins, the Blue Jays are considering using Morales on defence depending on who else they acquire. The 33-year-old could be asked to play some outfield, a little bit of first base or even a “good deal” of first base, even if relying extensively on his glove seems excessively risky considering that he played the field just 21 times over the course of the past two seasons.

Either way, Morales can hit, which is why he appealed to the Blue Jays. He has a career batting line of .273/.331/.465 and just completed a 30-homer season in Kansas City. There’s even a chance that the hitter-friendly AL East parks will work in Morales’ favour over the next few seasons.

"We feel like there’s some upside to him coming to the AL East and playing in some smaller ballparks and being at home here," Atkins said. “It wasn’t a driving factor, but it did give us some confidence that he has upside with the bat: the fact that he’d performed so well in bigger ballparks like Seattle and Kansas City."

With Morales in the fold, the Blue Jays are turning much of the attention to the outfield market with real interest in both trade candidates and free agents. Lourdes Gurriel Jr., whose $22-million signing was recently completed, has experience in the outfield, but the Blue Jays will "most likely" use him at second, third or shortstop and he’s expected to open the 2017 season in the minor leagues.

“He’s a very, very good athlete and a lot of the (positional) decision will come down to how we view his athleticism once we get a more objective view of that," Atkins noted.

The free agent market includes top tier options such as Yoenis Cespedes, Dexter Fowler, Ian Desmond and Bautista, all of whom are linked to draft pick compensation. The Blue Jays say they’re open to signing players who declined qualifying offers, though they place a high value on the draft picks they’d save by avoiding that segment of the market. The likes of Jon Jay, Sean Rodriguez and Steve Pearce could be signed without surrendering picks.

The Blue Jays typically cast a wide net in free agency and trade talks, surveying the entire market before targeting individual players. Michael Saunders, for one, is "squarely" on the Blue Jays’ radar. With so many free agents unsigned, though, there are dozens of potential alternatives for the Blue Jays to consider.

"We are going to be aggressive in trying to add one or two pieces to our outfield depending upon what’s available," Atkins said. "We’re extremely active in trade discussions and free agent discussions … The outfield is certainly a need for us."

One of many needs for a Blue Jays front office whose off-season is still just getting started.

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