Blue Jays: Looking back at the first 18 months of the Ross Atkins Era in Toronto

Baltimore Orioles v Toronto Blue Jays
Baltimore Orioles v Toronto Blue Jays / Cole Burston/GettyImages
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Dealing with José Bautista and Edwin Encarnación contracts

Going into the 2016 season, both José Bautista and Edwin Encarnación were going into the last year of their contracts before becoming free agents.  The two players contract routes were very different that season, so we’ll start with Bautista.  From the start of Spring Training, Bautista made it known to media that he wanted a massive five-year deal worth $150 Million, stating the contract (five-years, $65M) he was coming off of worked out as a home-team discount.  There is no question that the contract worked out nicely for the organization, but when he signed the deal, he was a 31-year old that had two good seasons, albeit super star seasons.  The Blue Jays made a gamble and it paid off.

The $30M per year contract that Bautista was pushing for was risky as it would pay him through his age 40 season.  It did not appear that the Atkins and Bautista’s camp got anywhere close to signing a deal throughout the season and unfortunately for Bautista, he spent two stints on the disabled list, once with a toe injury and once with a knee injury.  In total, he played in just 116 games and had his worst season since before he broke out in 2010 as he finished with just 22 home runs, 69 RBI and a slash line of .234/.366/.452. 

At the end of the 2016 season, Atkins would offer Bautista a qualifying offer, which he turned down.  After some back and forth, Bautista would sign a contract shortly before Spring Training, unfortunately it was nowhere near the $150M deal he wanted a year prior.  Bautista would not receive any significant offers from other teams so he settled on a guaranteed $18.5M deal over one-year with some mutual options that would get it near $60M over three years with the Blue Jays.  The contract was structured that if the power-hitting outfielder returned to his superstar numbers, he could potentially hit free agency and secure a big payday.

Bautista's 2017 season would be an even bigger decline as despite staying healthy he hit 23 home runs and 65 RBIs while batting just .203.  The Blue Jays declined their side of the contract option, which made Bautista a free agent leading into 2018.  For the second straight offseason, Bautista would not get much interested and he would spend the season bouncing around to different teams on close to league minimum deals. By the end of that season he found himself completely out of baseball. 

Had Atkins caved and signed Bautista to the deal he was demanding at the start of the 2016 season, he would have still been under contract until the end of 2021 season.  Bautista is 100% a Blue Jays legend and deserves his spot on the Level of Excellence, but this deal would have hampered the organization for several years.

Encarnación's contract talks were a lot more silent and I even remember an interview with him at the start of Spring Training in 2016.  A reporter brought up Bautista’s contract demands asked Encarnacion what numbers he wanted, which he replied 40 and 100, stating he wanted 40 home runs and 100 RBI. 

Encarnación delivered on his numbers as he finished the 2016 season with career highs with 42 home runs,127 RBI (league leader) and 76 extra-base hits. Shi Davidi of Sportsnet had a great article breaking down the timeline of Atkins and Encarnación's contract talks.  Initial discussion had Atkins offering a four-year deal worth $70M, while Encarnación wanted a five-year $125M or a guarantee of $100M over a shorter deal.  Atkins would increase the offer to $80M over four years, but Encarnación wanted to wait on free agency.

It appeared as there was a lot of mutual interest from both sides to have Encarnación back in a Blue Jays uniform, however the power hitting first baseman may been too slow to make his decision and Atkins may have reacted to quickly to wanting to ensure they had power in the middle of the line-up.  In the end, Atkins decided to sign Kendrys Morales to replace the longtime Blue Jay and Encarnación signed in Cleveland on a guaranteed $65M deal over three years with a team option for a fourth year that would bring the deal to $80M.

I would have liked to see Encarnación back on a deal similar to the one he signed in Cleveland, however that type of deal did not appeal to Encarnación until the market started to shrink for him.  During those three seasons, Encarnacion averaged 35 home runs and 100 RBI a season, but the bright spot about losing Encarnación in free agency was that the club got a compensation pick, Atkins used that pick in the 2017 draft and selected Nate Pearson 28th overall.  The 6’6” right-handed pitcher has battled injuries throughout his development, but he was once one of the best prospects in baseball and still has a lot of potential.