The common belief, locally, was that the Blue Jays would wait until Edwin Encarnacion had made his free-agent decision before moving forward with alternative plans to replace their own trio of free-agent power bats in the middle of the order that also included Jose Bautista and Michael Saunders. But they did not.
The other incentive to be patient was that perhaps Bautista might accept the Jays’ one-year qualifying offer, of $17.2 million in order to re-establish his free-agent bargaining power with a healthy season, prior to Monday’s deadline. That Bautista decision could affect the team’s direction, plus money available for payroll. But, on Friday, it seemed that, for Jays GM Ross Atkins, discretion lost out to valour.
Instead of waiting for other dominoes to fall, the Jays stepped up five days into free-agent season, agreeing to a three-year, $33-million deal with switch-hitting first baseman/DH Kendrys Morales, rendering the repatriation of Encarnacion into a long shot. The Morales contract was first reported on Twitter by Chris Meola.
Morales hit .263, with 30 homers, 93 RBIs and a .795 OPS with the Royals in 2016. Originally signed by the Angels in 2006, Morales also played with the Twins and the Mariners, before moving on to the Royals, aiding in the 2015 World Series win.
The 33-year-old Cuban arrives at about half the annual salary that will be commanded by Encarnacion. He will not be as consistent with power; he is not as good a baserunner; and he will not be as good with the glove at first base. Importantly, Morales will never be as popular with fans as was Encarnacion, but he comes at a far cheaper salary leaving payroll flexibility for president Mark Shapiro to reload.
The $11-million average annual value for Morales was not a surprise to experts, but the third year guaranteed raised eyebrows and is what likely made the difference. If the Jays continue to insist that they still have interest in Encarnacion, it will be hard to believe. It’s difficult to see how GM Ross Atkins could fit a returning Edwin at about $23 million, Morales and Justin Smoak, an estimated three-player total of $39 million, to fill just two positions.
The primary need now becomes the corner outfield, especially left-handed bats. If they don’t continue to pursue Encarnacion, they do have salary room for Bautista, if Atkins decided to go in that direction, with a three-year offer.
But the biggest 2016 weakness for the Jays, in terms of success in the post-season, according to manager John Gibbons, was a right-hand heavy batting order, with the only significant left-handed bats belonging to Saunders and Ezequiel Carrera, the second biggest threat from the left side.
Atkins has taken the first step to correct that imbalance with the signing of the switch-hitting Morales. In terms of outfield help, if Bautista rejects the qualifying offer and signs elsewhere, left-handed hitting outfield help might include the return of Saunders, or free agents Josh Reddick, Dexter Fowler and platoon candidate Matt Joyce.
It has been a big week for Canada-Cuba relations. In addition to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announcing his plan to visit the island nation to visit with brothers Fidel and Raul Castro, as his father Pierre did before him — and in addition to Friday’s Morales free-agent deal — the Jays also agreed to a seven-year, $22-million free-agent contract with 23-year-old Cuban infield prospect Lourdes Gurriel, a deal first reported by Jesse Sanchez of MLB.com.
The six-foot-four, 205-pound national team member, who plays multiple infield positions, defected at a tournament in the Dominican Republic in February of this year, along with his 32-year-old brother Yulieski, now a member of the Houston Astros.
The younger brother, Lourdes, held a showcase in September in Panama City attended by scouts from the majority of major-league teams, but he waited until after his 23rd birthday in October to sign a deal. By rule, at that age, international free-agent signing money does not count against mandated MLB team maximums.
Coincidence? One aspect that cannot be overlooked regarding the Jays’ pair of aggressive transactions is that both players, Morales and Gurriel, are represented by the Wasserman agency and that the extra year for Morales may be linked to the willingness of the agents to deliver the younger Cuban, a coup for the Jays.
Richard Griffin via The Star | Photo: Orlin Wagner via AP (Kendrys Morales)
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