Blue Jays: Wisdom vs. Sentimentality with Bautista, Encarnacion


I was in a California pub surrounded by bemused locals when Jose Bautista launched his now legendary ‘bat flip’ home run that subsequently cost me hundreds of dollars in free drinks to a group of absolute strangers. That’s not necessarily a declaration of my altruistic baseball nature, but it does reveal the extent of how I feel about the Toronto Blue Jays and this particular player.

After years of mediocre regular seasons and the inevitable heartache which comes from missing the playoffs for over two decades, it was initially difficult for me to grasp the sheer magnitude of what his home run actually meant to the fans in Toronto. The perpetual promise of waiting and waiting and waiting for competitive baseball year after year after year.

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Oh, and also in the face of annual ridicule and completely warranted emotional abuse from unforgiving New York and Boston fans. No longer was Toronto relegated to being the laughingstock of the American League – for the first time in an exceptionally long time, the Jays were taken seriously and the franchise’s credibility restored – with one magnificent swing and a swagger to match what was unequivocally and irresistibly.…Jose Bautista.

The Absolute Wisdom of signing Jose Bautista

Undoubtedly we’ve all heard about concerns related to his age – Jose will be 36 in October and is looking to maximize what will likely be his final long-term contract in a brilliant major league career. The commitment to the Martin-Tulowitzki-Donaldson triumvirate doesn’t have to necessarily leave Bautista as the odd man out – in fact, the case could (and should) be made that by re-signing him for another 2-3 years, the franchise is adding an absolutely intrinsic piece of the puzzle that combines the pivotal franchise player of the old regime with the competitive ambitions of the new order.

Jose’s .250/.377/.536 slash line and 40 home runs with 114 RBI last year effectively made him a top-10 MVP candidate and in doing so further dispelled any notion that his skills were diminishing – or at least starting to wane. Granted, I wasn’t thrilled with his low batting average and highly questionable throwing decisions – I still haven’t forgotten his infamous attempt to nail a runner at first which resulted in a lingering shoulder injury suffered during an April game against Baltimore last year.

“It’s also important to remember that this is a player who threw out 56 base-runners between 2010 and 2014. That’s Alex Gordon territory…”

I remember cringing the moment it unfolded and thinking that perhaps our Dominican gladiator had finally lost his mind altogether (much like Brett  Lawrie did when his temporary insanity led to an attempted steal of home with the bases loaded in front of an incredulous Jose at the dish a few years back) – but that’s easy to do when considering just how competitive a player Bautista truly is and how badly he wants to win.

It’s also important to remember that this is a player who threw out 56 base-runners from right field between 2010 and 2014 (!). That’s Alex Gordon territory for anyone keeping score at home and a fierce reminder of Jose’s competitive nature and extraordinary athleticism.  I for one am not prepared to completely write him off as a defensive stalwart even in the face of mounting evidence that his assists are dwindling with every passing year and that he’s no longer considered an upper tier defender in the American League.

I’m also not quite ready to proclaim him a Lion in Winter, especially given his stellar strikeout to walk ratio and uncanny bat control. While other aging sluggers like David Ortiz and BJ Upton are mercilessly pummelled for their dubious plate coverage and inability to move ducks on the pond, Bautista remains the quintessential third hitter in the Jays lineup protecting the reigning MVP while getting on-base frequently enough to impress any pundit on the planet.

“It’s easy to dismiss him due to age and injuries, but his stellar accomplishments in this league include 6 straight all-star appearances, 4 top 10 MVP finishes and three silver slugger awards.”

Bautista has produced near-identical walk and strikeout totals since his first All Star season as a Blue Jay in 2010, and such consistency shouldn’t be ignored at a time when station-to-station baseball is essentially what the Kansas City Royals used to capture their World Series crown in 2015. Channeling the spirit of Earl Weaver is great when you’re rolling on all cylinders, but a bona fide power hitting threat who can also draw you a timely walk or move a baserunner along at a crucial time is essentially what makes John Gibbons the happiest man in Texas – and we all remember what transpired in game 6 when the dream collapsed.

It’s easy to dismiss him due to age and injuries, but we need to weigh the measure of this man based on his stellar accomplishments as a professional right fielder in this league – namely, 6 straight all-star appearances, 4 top-10 MVP finishes and three silver slugger awards – I find myself wholeheartedly endorsing a new contract which effectively allows him to end his career as a Blue Jay.

For how much and how long ultimately rests in the hands of Bautista, his agent, and Mark Shapiro, but I for one would be absolutely thrilled with Joey Bats returning under terms that won’t include a discount this time around, but will certainly be considered money well spent by management and the fans.

But then there’s this:

The Crazy Sentimentality of signing Edwin Encarnacion

An extraordinary reclamation project that arrived with minimal fanfare from the Reds in 2009, Edwin’s prodigious history with the Blue Jays is only matched by the bizarre circumstances that led him to the club in the first place.

Traded from Cincinnati for righties Josh Roenicke and Zach Stewart, Edwin suffered burns to his face when a firecracker exploded near him as he celebrated New Year festivities in his native Dominican Republic during the off-season – this after hitting an impressive 8 home runs in 42 games while on his inaugural stint with the club.

Such amazing surrealism was immediately followed by a tumultuous stretch in his career which resulted in a demotion, waiver claim (Oakland), non-tendered release, and ultimately resulting in Alex Anthopoulos picking up a $3.5 million dollar club option before settling on an extremely friendly long-term contract for three years at $29 million dollars – oh, and a ridiculous $10 million dollar option. Yes, an option which produced the 40th WAR in all of MLB and gave new meaning to the term “value” for your organizational budget.

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Not bad for a player that was fairly unwanted in 2010 and who was horribly maligned for a perceived hole in his swing and a less than enthusiastic clubhouse demeanor (which had more to do with a language barrier than having any sort of bad attitude).  You’ve come a long way, Eddie – you and your imaginary winged parrot capable of deploying baseballs into the farthest reaches of an aging stadium designed almost exclusively for a hitter like you. Is there anyone on this team with more raw power and trajectory capacity? Props to Alex Anthopoulos (of the Los Angeles Dodgers?! Still not used to that one) for taking a gamble on a player that the rest of organized baseball had completely written off.

Edwin has become a loyal soldier and a universally admired teammate who has quietly endeared himself to the fans of Toronto with his extraordinary power and timely hits. He’s 33 years old, coming off a stellar campaign at the plate, and has gradually accepted his defensive shortcomings with a (quiet) conversion to a regular DH role with the club. It should be noted that since the Reyes clique era (which included Bonifacio, Izturis, Cabrera and the greatest collection of handshakes and poseur celebrations ever orchestrated under one roof) came to an ignominious end in this city, Edwin has asserted himself with dignity and class as a clubhouse leader and essentially become our “Big Papi.”

The fans love him, the camera adores him, and as fans rushed to their feet to applaud his hat trick of 3 HRs/9 RBI on August 28th against the Tigers last year, one truly wondered where this team would be without him.

Although I wouldn’t mind the team offering him another contract, there’s no doubt in my mind that Edwin’s agent will be looking to have his client rewarded handsomely for the previous years of sublime performances. And therein lies the dilemma – punctuated further by his gentle nature, prolific plate coverage, and a penchant for outrageously glorious and incredibly destructive barrel-rolls to first base – which my next door neighbour famously attempted to replicate in my own backyard. For the record, that stunt cost him a day off work – but in Edwin’s case, it cemented a disturbing trend of nagging injuries which have limited his ability to stay on the field over the past few years.

For all intents and purposes, Eddie heads into the 2016 campaign as the team’s designated hitter and can no longer be considered a serious late-inning option in a defensive infield that is now considered one of the league’s best. Especially when you have a player named Justin Smoak.

Let’s be clear – accepting a ‘home town’ discount is extremely unlikely for either player given the amount and length of their previous contracts, but in Edwin’s case it clearly won’t be an option. The Blue Jays are looking to stay competitive for the next few years before their core group of long-term contract commitments reach the unenviable point of diminishing returns – a fact further underscored by the collective ages of their MVP (30), elite shortstop (31) and brilliant catcher (32).

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By my estimation, securing the services of Encarnacion for any reasonable length of time (3-5 years), will not only take a king’s ransom, but will surely limit Atkins and Shapiro in maintaining their projected payroll levels with ownership. Furthermore, the status surrounding key bench players with infinitely more manageable contract scenarios – Chris Colabello and Smoak –  and positional flexibility (DH/1B), creates a redundancy that eliminates any notion of dedicating significant resources to bringing back Encarnacion.  Throw in his 10-and-5 status along with his agent’s demands to bring this to a head before spring training ends and suddenly this has all the traces of a fait accompli.

Sentimentality needs to then be put aside and, believe me – there’s an enormous amount of it circulating given Edwin’s magnificent LDS performance, along with perpetual fanbase admiration for how he’s turned himself into a bona fide elite player and an All Star. But as Jonah Keri himself proclaimed on multiple occasions, it doesn’t make sense to spend money and hope that a diminishing free agent asset will miraculously bring you the incremental reward you deserve at just the right time.

A quick glance at Baseball’s worst contracts reveal a chronic short-sightedness that our new regime is simply not willing to risk, and as an admirer of Encarnacion and also someone who genuinely feels he ‘deserves’ every penny that’s coming his way,  I’d hate to see him land on this list alongside the likes of Josh Hamilton, Ryan Howard and Andre Ethier – players who cashed in and ultimately found themselves unable to live up to the gold standard established at an earlier point in their illustrious careers.

At 33 years of age and lacking the athleticism that his Dominican brethren possesses in right field, along with the redundancies put into place by management, signing him to a long-term contract simply doesn’t add up and ultimately risks becoming a genuine albatross which could cripple any franchise hopes for financial competitiveness beyond the 2016 season.