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So, What’s Up With the Blue Jays’ Contention Window?

When the Toronto Blue Jays hired Mark Shapiro to be President and CEO just over a year ago, the baseball industry wasn’t really sure what to think of this. On one hand, Shapiro has a clear history of success with the Cleveland Indians, where he was the Executive of the Year in 2005 and 2007, and he led those teams to a number of successful seasons. On the other hand, though, this also could have been a signal that costs were coming down, that Rogers Corporation wanted an executive from a small market team that could deal with a team whose payroll was going south sometime soon.

Now that the Jays, a franchise that has had two wildly successful seasons where they have reenergized Toronto, enter 2017, and they find themselves shedding nearly $30 million in payroll, but that includes two franchise players in Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista. According to Shapiro himself, based on a quote from Blue Jays Nation, what they’re doing to do with them seems pretty clear:

“That off-season planning process is not a simple process. It’s a multi-pronged process that initially just involves internal meetings, meetings with player development, amateur and pro scouts, meeting with our major-league staff and then meeting with our front office to lay out a plan. And that plan, to me, would have a set of alternative payrolls and the implications involved with the types of teams those payrolls would support. Then it’s going and making a presentation to the ownership group here on what the implications are of different payroll levels, the projected revenue and collectively coming up with where we end up.”

This is team-speak. We know what this means. This means, in my mind, that the Jays want to lower payroll as much as possible without seriously jeopardizing their future. Is that even possible?

The first sign they’re doing this, trying to compete and reduce payroll, is that they signed Kendrys Morales to a three year, $33 million contract, clearly signaling to the market they will pass on Edwin Encarnacion. In the short term, it hurts. Encarnacion is likely a true talent 125 wRC+ next season, while Morales is about a 110 wRC+ hitter, with a much higher chance he’s a complete bust. In the long term, though, it probably makes more sense than not. Encarnacion is heading into his age 34 season, and he doesn’t really have a position; players of that caliber don’t tend to age well.

It also seems like they’ll be passing on Jose Bautista, even though that has yet to confirmed. MLB Trade Rumors predicts a three year, $51 million deal, which would surprisingly fit into the Jays’ payroll scheme. But, they could dip into the trade market, or into a lower scale tier of the free-agent market. It’s been reported that the Jays are one of the finalists for Carlos Beltran, they’ve shown interest in Josh Reddick, and they’ve also been rumored to be in contact with the Mets about Jay Bruce.

Honestly, they’re fools not to sign Bautista in this scenario. He’s a franchise player that essentially carried this franchise from bad times into good, and he means a lot to the fans in Toronto. Not to mention—he’s a much better player, and his age and injury concerns will likely force the market to give him a smaller deal. Beltran, Bruce, and Reddick, while decent options, likely downgrade your team by up to two or three wins. My money’s on Reddick being the best of the bunch, but Bautista blows them all out of the water. He’s a generational hitter who could be 40% better than league average on a good day, and that just doesn’t pop up on the free agent market, at that price, every day.

This is a franchise that has multiple stars with deals expiring in the near future: Josh Donaldson in 2019, Russell Martin in 2020, and Marco Estrada next season. The key there is Donaldson: without him, this team falls back to a level they were used to, a mediocre team with win totals in the mid-80’s. There’s still a great deal of talent on this squad, of course. Young sensations like Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez, Kevin Pillar, Devon Travis, and Roberto Osuna ensure that this team is more future-proof than we would have thought two years ago, and that means they could still survive without both Bautista and Encarnacion.

The sad thing about this sunset is that even though the Jays’ contention is probably not over, they likely won’t be the boppers of 2015 and 2016. The 2015 team was one of the best offensive juggernauts of modern baseball, so I suppose you can only go down from there. If Rogers plans on downsizing payroll—and it very much seems like that is the case—then GM Ross Atkins and Shapiro will have to get smart. They’ll have to roll the dice on one of the lesser outfielders and bank on a higher-than-median outcome from Morales, but with the wild card as it is, there’s incentive to merely be in the mix. This offseason may be a crisis of identity, but certainly not a crisis of performance: while a step back is likely, they are far from finished.

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Matt Provenzano is a recent graduate of Cornell University, where he studied Information Science and Law and Society. He has been a Staff Writer at SB Nation's Pinstripe Alley since 2013, and a baseball fan since 2002.

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