En­car­na­cion’s agent sets bar

Free-agent first base­man look­ing for five years, $125M

Toronto Star - - SPORTS - Richard Grif­fin

Let the games be­gin. When Ed­win En­car­na­cion’s agent, Paul Kinzer, spoke to TSN’s Rick West­head and re­vealed that his client would be look­ing for a five-year con­tract worth $125 mil­lion in free agency — and that up to 11 teams might be in­ter­ested — it sim­ply marked the ex­pected launch of yet an­other free-spend­ing free-agent sea­son in Ma­jor League Base­ball.

Us­ing me­dia to re­veal to the pub­lic the hoped-for max­i­mum con­tract and length of deal, then throw­ing out the num­ber of teams in­ter­ested, rather than nam­ing names, is an easy pro­mo­tional ex­er­cise for agents, per­fected by Scott Bo­ras.

The En­car­na­cion re­veal, not co­in­ci­den­tally, co­in­cides with the ma­jor-league dead­line for teams to make qual­i­fy­ing of­fers to their free agents. The Jays made the re­quired one-year, $17.2-mil­lion of­fer to En­car­na­cion and Jose Bautista, which was to­tally ex­pected. Play­ers have a week to ac­cept or re­ject the of­fer, but if they re­ject it, the for­mer team can still ne­go­ti­ate. If En­car­na­cion or Bautista signs else­where, the Jays re­ceive a com­pen­satory draft pick af­ter the first round in June.

There was never any chance the Jays would make a qual­i­fy­ing of­fer to out­fielder Michael Saun­ders or any of their other free agents. The ob­vi­ous risk in that de­ci­sion is that no other team would make any of­fer close to the qual­i­fy­ing num­ber, so that in­stead of get­ting a draft pick, you sud­denly end up with your player and pay­ing far too much. Saun- ders, af­ter miss­ing most of 2015, ended up 2016 be­ing pla­tooned and re­moved for de­fen­sive pur­poses. He needs to re-es­tab­lish his ca­reer in 2017 be­fore any­one will of­fer a multi-year deal, thus the Jays still have a chance.

There is no doubt, how­ever, that En­car­na­cion made the best de­ci­sion in his pro base­ball life when, at the win­ter meet­ings in Nashville last De­cem­ber, Kinzer no­ti­fied the Blue Jays that once open­ing day ar­rived, don’t even bother talk­ing. It would be all base­ball.

Of­ten teams will try to ne­go­ti­ate dur­ing the sea­son for a pend­ing free agent and some­times will ar­rive at a great con­tract for the team.

With no con­tract ne­go­ti­a­tions dur­ing the 2016 sea­son, En­car­na­cion went ahead and had a ca­reer year, hit­ting .263 with 42 homers, 127 RBIs and an OPS of .886. Now maybe he played dif­fer­ently in a free-agent sea­son, putting up big power num­bers to im­press suit­ors. It was his low­est bat­ting av­er­age since 2009 and the 138 strike­outs were 36 more than any other sea­son. The bot­tom line is he played 160 games and is a stu­dent of both con­di­tion­ing and hit­ting. Good for En­car­na­cion. He was the anti-Bautista. Cha-ching.

For­merly a des­ig­nated hit­ter first and a first base­man sec­ond, En­car­na­cion trans­formed him­self into a vi­able op­tion at first base this sea­son. His move to­ward more time in the field was aided by cir­cum­stances, like Justin Smoak’s sec­ond half slump and the fact that Jose Bautista needed a lit­tle DH time due to in­juries. But that brings any Na­tional League team that had doubts about En­car­na­cion on board.

The bot­tom line in terms of freeagent con­tract num­bers is that En­car­na­cion’s re­quest now seems like a bar­gain com­pared to the num­bers Bautista re­port­edly de­manded at spring train­ing — five years and $150 mil­lion, be­gin­ning in 2017. Un­less Bautista ac­cepts Mon­day’s qual­i­fy­ing of­fer, he will not be a Jay next year.

But what of En­car­na­cion’s fu­ture? He will sign for less than what his agent quoted. That’s just the dream, the max. The Jays could use his re­turn­ing of­fence. The Jays could use his con­tin­ued pres­ence to con­vince Josh Don­ald­son to sign a long-term deal be­fore he reaches free agency, af­ter the 2018 sea­son. If the Jays choose not to com­pete in 2017 by los­ing En­car­na­cion, Bautista, Saun­ders and their other free agents, Don­ald­son and oth­ers will no­tice.

Jays own­er­ship can af­ford En­car­na­cion, but only if they agree to bump team pay­roll from the cur­rent $140 mil­lion to about $160 mil­lion. And if En­car­na­cion chooses to go some­where else, the Jays can’t af­ford to put the saved money in their pocket.

Man­ager John Gib­bons loved the re­lent­less na­ture of his lineup in 2016, but and hated the right-handed na­ture of it. If Bautista and En­car­na­cion don’t re­turn, the Jays will need to spend that money for two left-handed hit­ting re­place­ments to keep the Jay train rolling. Pos­si­bil­i­ties in­clude free agents Kendrys Mo­rales, Josh Red­dick, Car­los Bel­tran and Dex­ter Fowler. Or how about fol­low­ing up on a trade for first base­man Joey Votto, a deal they pur­sued two years ago un­der GM Alex An­thopou­los.

In any case, En­car­na­cion’s con­tract de­mand shows he has risen in sta­tus. And the fact that the Jays did not take ad­van­tage of their ex­clu­sive ne­go­ti­at­ing win­dow for En­car­na­cion sim­ply means they did not want to set the bar for Kinzer to show other teams the min­i­mum for strik­ing a new deal.

RICHARD LAUTENS/TORONTO STAR

Ed­win En­car­na­cion could be at the top of the Jays’ shop­ping list, if they have per­mis­sion to raise the team’s pay­roll.

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