Jose Bautista's contract, or lack of one beyond this season, has garnered plenty of attention as the Toronto Blue Jays make camp in Dunedin, Florida, but he isn't the only slugger with an uncertain future.
The Blue Jays opened talks with Edwin Encarnacion on a potential contract extension earlier this month after the 33-year-old expressed a desire with remain with the franchise past this season. He went as far as to tell reporters that he wanted to finish his career with Toronto.
Encarnacion is in the final year of a pact that will pay him $10 million in 2016 under a club option. His deal projects to be one of the most affordable in the Major Leagues this season after he hit .277/.372/.557 with 39 home runs last year.
An extension for Encarnacion seemed very possible, perhaps even more so than one for Bautista, until an ESPN Deportes report on Tuesday revealed that talks stalled over the length of a new contract.
The Dominican Republic native told Enrique Rojas that there was "nothing new" to report and expressed a pessimistic outlook on the possibility of an agreement. The topic of money wasn't even broached in talks.
The Blue Jays have a new regime in place with president/CEO Mark Shapiro, who joined the club during the 2015 season, having hired Ross Atkins (general manager) and Tony LaCava (assistant general manager). The trio has quite a bit on their plate with a postseason run expected and the looming free agencies of Bautista and Encarnacion.
Bautista is two years older than Encarnacion and the pair have nearly identical service time. The issue for Toronto is that signing both to long-term deals could cripple the franchise in the not-so-distant future.
Barring injury or severe decline, neither player will find it difficult to land a four- or five-year deal worth nine figures next winter. It seems more likely that Encarnacion would take a discount to remain in Toronto, but even a "hometown discount" would likely pay him at least $60 million over four years (Nelson Cruz, a designated hitter with a performance-enhancing drug past, signed a four-year, $57 million deal with the Seattle Mariners last offseason).
If the Blue Jays have to give Bautista a deal in the five-year, $150 million range, can they afford to give Encarnacion even half that much?
Over the last four years Encarnacion has produced 17.4 WAR to Bautista's 18.8. That gap isn't huge and conventional wisdom suggests that Encarnacion has more in the tank, but as beloved as Encarnacion is, Bautista is the face of the franchise.
There is already a bitter taste following the departure of long-time executive Alex Anthopoulos -- would Shapiro be able to survive losing Bautista? He may not, especially since both Bautista and Encarnacion would likely land with an American League club on the open market.
The importance of retaining Bautista may prove to be a determent in keeping Encarnacion.
Ultimately, that may not be a bad thing for the Blue Jays' future.
You could argue that Encarnacion has been underpaid to this point in his career, and while the collective bargaining agreement is structured for players to make up that money on the back end of their careers, the Blue Jays aren't obligated to be the ones to do so.
It won't be long before he is relegated to designated hitter duty, a spot that could become reserved for Bautista in the coming years.
The Blue Jays don't have to look far to find an example of how your roster can become hamstrung when you sign middle-aged sluggers lengthy contracts. The New York Yankees have a lot of money tied up in players that can no longer field regularly (Alex Rodriguez) or can't stay off the disabled list (Mark Teixeira).
With Josh Donaldson, 30, in his prime and coming off an MVP season with less wear on his tires, the Blue Jays would be wise to not only avoid overspending on Encarnacion, but also to allocate any money they would have given him to improve the rest of the roster (namely, the rotation).
It may sting to see him in another uniform and it might even hurt the offense in 2017, but if the Blue Jays want to contend sentiment can't come before practically with a pair of linchpins hitting free agency at the same time.