Eyes On Toronto

After making the playoffs the past two seasons, the Toronto Blue Jays have been challenged with plenty of tasks at hand. With some major core players eligible for free agency, the Blue Jays need some retooling in hopes of making another post-season trip.

There’s tons of buzz around Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion as they are now free agents. Both players have been key contributors to the teams recent success, but it’s uncertain how interested they are staying in Toronto. Naturally, the Jays’ decision on the two cornerstone players will shape out the rest of the decision making for their off-season. It’s impossible to keep both of them since they would be committing millions to two players in their mid-to-late-thirties since they already have an expensive, yet aging roster. Signing one of them is more ideal.

Jose Bautista came out and said he was worth $150-million way back in Spring Training. He’ll likely be a lower price tag and he carries big question marks teams must look at with caution. The 36-year old hit .234 with 22 home runs and two lengthy stints on the disabled list (DL) with a sprained knee and turf toe. Bautista was considered a slugger years ago but now after suffering three injury seasons in the last five seasons, his age, health, and declining defense may have him as a potential DH/1B moving forward (Bautista had stints as in an infielder before moving to the outfield with the Blue Jays).

Edwin Encarnacion wants to stay in Toronto. It’s damn obvious and the Blue Jays seem committed to keeping Encarnacion. While he’s not known for his fielding abilities at first base, he is capable of playing the position. Encarnacion had a year to remember. Hitting 42 homer runs (42 times Blue Jay fans saw the infamous Edwing) and a league-leading 127 RBI. At 33-years old, most teams, including the Blue Jays, won’t give him a contract for more than four-years. However, $20 million per seasons seems ideal for what Encarnacion is looking for.

The Blue Jays reportedly offered Encarnacion a four-year, $80-million deal. A larger contract for Encarnacion, but the Blue Jays did sign DH Kendrys Morales to a 3-year deal. That signing might damper fans hopes of keeping the beloved Edwin, but there is hope.

General manager Ross Atkins and Encarnacion’s agent, Paul Kizner, both said that the door is still open for both sides to get a deal done. Kizner said on Tuesday that Encarnacion will probably sign a contract later this week, or early next week. The Boston Red Sox, Houston Astros, Texas Rangers, New York Yankees and the Blue Jays have been linked to the 33-year old. The Jays are showing Edwin the most love, and two teams have made serious offers to him with one of them being the Blue Jays. If both players do sign elsewhere, the Blue Jays will at least get two first-round compensatory draft picks for 2017.

The team was also interested in 1B/DH Mike Napoli. The 35-year old signed a one-year, $7-million deal with the Cleveland Indians last season. He put together 34 home runs, 101 RBI in 150 games, while playing in 98 games at first. Napoli is a key factor to the Blue Jays considering his role at first. Encarnacion or Napoli are an upgrade over Justin Smoak to play first base.

Canadian Michael Saunders  never received a qualifying offer. After an All-Star caliber first half, he had a very rough second half that overshadowed his season overall. The Blue Jays can retain Saunders, and that would give them a much needed left-handed bat in their lineup. The team could move quickly to replace Bautista, Encarnacion and Saunders.

In all honesty, the Blue Jays should make it a priority of putting their payroll to work this off-season. It’s ideal for them to sign a free agent such as Dexter Fowler than to trade away someone like Marcus Stroman. On paper, Fowler would be a match for the Blue Jays’ needs as the 30-year old is a switch-hitter and the club is looking for a leadoff hitter. They can’t seem to get Jay Bruce off their minds as he is on the Blue Jays radar once again. He was nearly dealt in February when a three-team deal between the Cincinnati Reds (Bruce’s former employer), the Los Angeles Angels and the Blue Jays was held off last minute due to health concerns surrounding a prospect from the Angels. With his age and abilities at the plate and in the outfield, Bruce is an upgrade over Bautista.

Josh Donaldson signed to a two-year extension last February that covered two of his remaining arbitration years.The 2015 AL MVP and the Jays would have common interest in talking to the superstar third baseman about a longer-term deal to keep him beyond the 2018 season.

There is a “plan B” as the Blue Jays could look internally through the team as another option. Melvin Upton Jr. is a fit for either left or right field, but he struggled for the majority of his time with the Blue Jays. He could split time with Ezequiel Carrera and Dalton Pompey– if he’s proven to be a well enough hitter for the big leagues. Ryan Goins and Darwin Barney are the utility infielders, if Tulo or Travis suffer another injury. The Blue Jays will need to decide if they will tender the contracts to Barney and Carrera and they have until Dec. 2 to decide. A back up catcher to Russel Martin will need to be addressed since Jose Thole has no value after knuckleballer R.A. Dickey signed with the Atlanta Braves. Dionner Navarro could be an option, but he too struggled in 2016.

The starting rotation was dominant last season. Arguably, the most consistent rotation in the American League. The Blue Jays already lost Dickey to the Braves and southpaw reliever Brett Cecil to the St. Louis Cardinals. It’s not a huge loss considering the Blue Jays already have their five-man rotation solidified with Marco Estrada, Aaron Sanchez, J.A. Happ, Marcus Stroman, and Francisco Lirirano. Toronto’s rotation was seen as their weakest link heading into the season and it ended up being their biggest strength thanks to Happ, Estrada, and especially Sanchez who had a breakout year.

When it comes to the bullpen, expect the Blue Jays to sign a left-handed reliever though free agency. With Cecil gone possibly Aaron Loup, some names have become an interest for the team including; Boone Logan, and Jerry Blevin. Joaquin Benoit was a pickup from the trade deadline and the Blue Jays could very well have him back. Jason Grilli will return as the setup man for closer Roberto Osuna and then, there’s Joe Biagini. The most consistent reliever on the team last season,  he didn’t give up a home run until September. He blossomed into a proven reliever and next season he could find himself in late-inning role, depending how the bullpen turns out over the winter.

President Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins will have to be creative this winter. Their payroll has been in the $136-$137 MM range over the past few seasons. There isn’t a whole ton of room to maneuver a big deal, but a payroll increase should be strongly considered by Rogers Communications. With Josh Donaldson along with solid young and veteran players, the Toronto Blue Jays can be contenders in 2017. That’s if they find those critical missing pieces to the puzzle.

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