This was already going to be an interesting winter for Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins. It’s his first full hot stove league with Toronto after getting hired away from the Indians last December in the wake of Alex Anthopoulos’ departure, but he’s clearly coming into it ready to strike early and often. Atkins already had to make big decisions about whether to make qualifying offers to two of the team’s biggest stars, Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista. But little more than a week in, the Jays are already making major impact moves, signing both free-agent DH Kendrys Morales and Cuban defector Lourdes Gurriel Jr. on Friday.
These are equally important moves in their own right. But what impact will they have on the Jays keeping Encarnacion and/or Bautista? It probably means that both are gone.
Landing Morales for $33 million over three years shouldn’t be that much of a surprise, given how early the deal was struck. After he more than validated the two-year-plus-option deal the Royals gave him after 2014 -- which was greeted by a lot of analytical carping -- some pegged him for something similar this winter. Perhaps getting him signed this early in the offseason took that third year, but the risk of committing to his age-34 through age-36 seasons looks pretty good after seeing him deliver a .199 isolated slugging rate for the Royals. He’s a fly-ball hitter coming to a ballpark that helps turn big flies into instant runs.
However, signing Morales means the Jays’ DH slot is stocked with a full-time player. Morales might have re-established his durability (missing just 10 games between 2015 and 2016), but he hasn’t played in the field since logging nine games at first base for the Royals in 2015, and he hasn’t played as much as a third of his team’s games in a season at first since 2009. So the DH at-bats are his, and that has an impact on what the Jays can do with their two big 30-something free agents, Encarnacion and Bautista.
Does signing Morales mean they can’t still re-sign Encarnacion to play first base? As Scott Lauber explained last week, keeping Encarnacion was initially seen as job one for the Jays, but still doing so would mean pushing payroll past $160 million before getting someone for left and/or right field, as well as effectively forcing the Jays to find a taker for the two years and $8.5 million they’ve committed to first baseman Justin Smoak. Maybe the Jays are up for that, but that’s well beyond the roughly $137 million they were committed to at the start of last season, and that’s without getting into whether Encarnacion really wants to stay.
If Encarnacion is dead-set to depart, keeping Bautista might make sense. However, his declining range in right field already was becoming a problem as he puts his 35th birthday behind him, reflected in minus-8 defensive runs saved in just 90 starts last season. And is he a sure thing at the plate? His OPS dropped nearly 100 points to .817, and his strikeout rate went up four points to a 19.9 percent whiff rate. So he’s older and injury-prone, and his numbers are down -- does that sound like a guy you really want to pay well past $10 million per year for multiple years? On the other hand, if Bautista accepts his qualifying offer, they could have him split time between right and first base in 2017.
Unless Bautista decides to accept his qualifying offer, I think it’s becoming overwhelmingly likely that Encarnacion and Bautista are both gone, having given Jays fans 17 seasons combined plus 504 home runs. One rumor is that Toronto might pursue Steve Pearce as the other half of a first-base platoon with Smoak, definitely meaning no Encarnacion. If that happens, then their shopping needs really become all about the outfield, and if Bautista’s defense is seen as that much of an issue on top of the expense of employing him for his age-36 seasons and beyond, that’s the end of his days with the Jays.
In isolation, what else can the Jays do on either side of center fielder Kevin Pillar in the outfield? Melvin Upton Jr. has value as part of a platoon in one slot, but more importantly they could probably bring back Michael Saunders. Not giving the veteran Saunders a qualifying offer made all sorts of sense -- why risk the Canadian accepting a one-year, $17.2 million deal (as Colby Rasmus did with the Astros last winter), when you could potentially keep him in-country for more years at a significantly lower annual average value? Even with a free-agency case weakened by a second-half slump and poor defense, Saunders is just turning 30, and he might be considerably cheaper to keep. I won’t be surprised at all if they find a way to re-sign Saunders to play left -- adding another reason why Encarnacion and Bautista could both be gone.
In happier news, getting a prospect of Gurriel’s magnitude wasn’t that much of a surprise after he defected with his brother, Yulieski Gurriel, in February. The Jays were immediately expected to go after him last winter, but after a September showcase, they had to wait this long to see him hit his 23rd birthday in October and age out of counting against Toronto’s international amateur bonus pool money. Waiting a few months meant keeping that money to help shore up a farm system that Keith Law ranked 25th before last season, while also getting Gurriel.
Gurriel could also be an extra piece to help cover them in the outfield in the second half, because he could end up being the Blue Jays’ multi-positional rover, a la the Cubs' Javier Baez. That might happen after Gurriel initially logs time in the minors -- perhaps at shortstop in Double-A, as Yahoo! Sports' Jeff Passan tweeted Friday. Gurriel ultimately has 20-homer power and the plate coverage to hit for average, and he demonstrated a good walk/strikeout ratio in Cuba, so the bat might get him called up sooner rather than later. But Atkins can’t count on a definite ETA right now.
Add the draft choice (or choices) the Jays should get from the departures of Encarnacion and Bautista to landing Gurriel, and you can credit Atkins for doing a great job of balancing his offseason equation by expanding the long-term talent pool while also fielding a win-now team in the always-tough AL East. With a lineup still relying on Josh Donaldson, Russell Martin and Troy Tulowitzki, and with a rotation already staffed up for 2017, the Jays might have to say goodbye to two of their best in Bautista and Encarnacion, but they should still be capable of contending.