Bautista back, En­car­na­cion gone

The Hamilton Spectator - - SPORTS - IAN HAR­RI­SON

It’s time for Canada’s Ma­jor League Base­ball en­try to do some re­tool­ing

Only one of the two slug­gers who helped turn the Toronto Blue Jays into a con­tender will still be play­ing ball north of the bor­der this sea­son.

Un­for­tu­nately for the Blue Jays, it’s not the one they wanted the most.

Ed­win En­car­na­cion, whose 11thin­ning home run beat Bal­ti­more in last year ’s AL wild-card game, called Toronto his “first choice” in free agency fol­low­ing a Cham­pi­onship Se­ries loss to Cleve­land. Later, he turned down a four-year, $80 mil­lion of­fer from the Blue Jays, ex­pect­ing to hit it big on the open mar­ket. In the end, he signed a three­year, $60 mil­lion con­tract with the In­di­ans that in­cludes a team op­tion for a fourth sea­son.

Fel­low free agent Jose Bautista, whose mem­o­rable three-run homer and re­sult­ing bat flip pro­pelled Toronto past Texas and into the 2015 ALCS, lan­guished on the mar­ket for months be­fore sign­ing a oneyear, $18.5 mil­lion deal to re­turn to the Blue Jays. His deal in­cludes a mu­tual op­tion for 2018, and vest­ing op­tions for 2019.

Few ex­pected a Toronto re­turn for Bautista, whose of­fen­sive pro­duc­tion dipped badly dur­ing an in­jury-plagued 2016 sea­son. Still, if Bautista’s bat bounces back and he suc­ceeds on a short-term deal, the sur­prise re­u­nion could pay big div­i­dends for player and team alike.

New look

Wary of miss­ing out on their pre­ferred al­ter­na­tives af­ter En­car­na­cion turned them down, the Blue Jays acted swiftly to sign DH Kendrys Mo­rales to a three-year, $3 3 mil­lion con­tract, then gave 1B/OF Steve Pearce a two-year, $12.5 mil­lion deal.

Toronto tar­geted the switch-hit­ting Mo­rales to help bal­ance a lineup that was right-handed heavy in 2016, while also hop­ing his power will play up at Rogers Cen­tre and other hit­ter-friendly AL East ball­parks.

Rook­ies to watch

Toronto’s most in­trigu­ing off­sea­son move was the sign­ing of Cuban prospect Lour­des Gur­riel Jr. to a seven-year, $22 mil­lion con­tract. The younger brother of Astros in­fielder Yulieski Gur­riel and the son of a Cuban base­ball great, the 23year-old will likely start the sea­son at Dou­ble-A.

They’re set

While the of­fence is still stacked, start­ing pitch­ing is Toronto’s top as­set. Bos­ton’s off-sea­son ad­di­tion of ace left-han­der Chris Sale may have made the Red Sox early favourites to re­peat as Amer­i­can League East cham­pi­ons, but it’s the Blue Jays who boast ar­guably the league’s best ro­ta­tion. The staff is led by reign­ing AL ERA cham­pion Aaron Sanchez and 20-game win­ner J.A. Happ, with Mar­cus Stro­man, Marco Estrada and Francisco Liri­ano round­ing out a strong start­ing five.

They’re not

Mid­dle re­lief and left-handed op­tions could be sore spots for fifthyear Blue Jays man­ager John Gib­bons. Toronto lost two vet­eran re­liev­ers over the win­ter, with lefthander Brett Ce­cil leav­ing for a four-year, $30.5 mil­lion deal with St. Louis and right-han­der Joaquin Benoit get­ting a one-year, $7.5 mil­lion deal from Philadel­phia.

Shortly be­fore spring train­ing, the Blue Jays beefed up their bullpen by sign­ing left-han­der J.P. How­ell and right-han­der Joe Smith .

On deck

With few po­si­tion bat­tles in play, the Blue Jays will spend spring train­ing sort­ing out bullpen roles and set­tling on a backup to catcher Rus­sell Martin, with mi­nor league sign­ing Jar­rod Sal­ta­la­mac­chia the most likely can­di­date. Gib­bons and his staff will also have to de­cide who to bat in the lead­off spot.

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