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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 11th-inning 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 US offer from the Blue Jays, expecting to hit it big on the open market. In the end, he signed a three-year, $ 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 one-year, $ 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.
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, $ 33-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.
Toronto’s most intriguing off-season 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 23-year-old will likely start the season at Double-A. Gurriel Jr. played both infield and outfield in Cuba, but is expected to get regular time at shortstop as he adjusts to a higher calibre of pitching.
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 AL 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.
Middle relief and left-handed options could be sore spots for fifth-year Blue Jays manager John Gibbons. Toronto lost two veteran relievers over the winter, with left-hander 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 to handle the innings ahead of veteran setup man Jason Grilli and dependable closer Roberto Osuna.
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. After walking 87 times in 517 plate appearances during the regular season last year, Bautista moved up from third to hit leadoff in Toronto’s final three playoff games. If Bautista doesn’t get the job, it could go to second baseman Devon Travis.