Last week, the Blue Jays signed Kendrys Morales to a three year deal worth $33 million. On the surface, there’s nothing wrong with that contract as it appears to be fair market value for the services he provides. However, it’s also hard not to connect the dots and question what it means for Edwin Encarnacion, and well, it’s suddenly really hard to see how he fits into the puzzle going forward.
Let’s take a quick look at three players currently under Toronto’s control:
- Kendrys Morales
- Just signed a three year deal (2017 -2019) worth $33 million. He’ll get paid $11 million each season.
- Morales has played 582 career games at DH, 386 at first base, and 23 in right field (He’s also only played 16 games at first base the last two seasons. In other words, he doesn’t have much position flexibility and will probably suck up most of the games at DH.)
2. Justin Smoak
- Smoak is owed $4.125 million in 2017 and another $4.125 million in 2018 (He also has a $6 million option for 2019 with a $250,000 buyout).
- Smoak has played 758 games at first base and 26 as a DH.
3. Rowdy Tellez
- Tellez is a 21-year-old first baseman who just completed a spectacular season at the plate in Double-A New Hampshire where he posted a .297 / .387 / .530 (.917 OPS) batting line in 124 games.
- While he likely wont start the season in Toronto (He hasn’t faced Triple-A pitching yet), he should be knocking on the door soon, and once he reaches the majors, he’s under Blue Jays control for at least six years of service time.
- Since signing with the Blue Jays in 2013, he’s played all of his games in the minors at either first base or DH.
So here we have three players who are all under control through at least the end of the 2018 season, and can’t realistically play anywhere other than first base or DH. For me, Tellez is the key piece of the puzzle that’s not getting enough attention here. He’s easy to overlook because he’s not likely to open 2017 on the Blue Jays 25-man roster, but the front office has to make long term decisions when constructing the roster, and it’s clear that Tellez is going to be part of the first base / DH equation soon.
Think of it this way: Now that Morales is under team control through 2019, what will the 2018 Blue Jays look like at first base and DH? Well, if all goes well Tellez will be adjusting to big league pitching and playing first base while Morales is doing his thing at DH. This leaves Smoak to fill in for each of them when they need rest and no room for Encarnacion. The only way this changes is if Morales or Tellez is traded.
There’s always the possibility that one of them suffers a major injury or Tellez just flames out in Triple-A, but signing Morales is not the move you make if you have intentions of inking Encarnacion to a long term deal. You can still make the case the Jays need more help in this area at the start of next season, and you’d be right, but Encarnacion is going to get a long term deal, and once Tellez is ready, you have a logjam here. The pieces just don’t fit.
In addition to this, the new front office has been at this long enough now to give us some clues about how they operate, and signs don’t seem to point to them handing out a massive contract to Encarnacion anytime soon.
First off, they stayed away from the top tier of free agents last off season. Instead of trying to bring back David Price, they spread out their resources and strategically signed pitchers like March Estrada and J.A. Happ off the market’s second highest shelf. You can make the argument that they’re doing the same thing this off season on the other side of the ball with the Morales signing.
The second, and probably more important point is that this group really wants to keep the farm stocked. One of the most impressive things they’ve been able to accomplish in their first year is that they’ve actually strengthened the farm system while keeping the team in contention. This was really evident in the Francisco Liriano trade with Pittsburgh last summer where they used their resources to snatch Reese McGuire and Harold Ramirez in the deal.
Since then, they’ve also added Lourdes Gurriel this month, which gives the them one more option to fall back in in the upper minors.
Knowing this, would it surprise anyone if the team allowed both Jose Bautista and Encarnacion to walk? If the Blue Jays did that and then didn’t sign another player on the market who declined a Qualifying Offer, they would have three of the top 40 picks in next year’s draft (possibly three of the top 35 depending on how things shake out). If the team is able to do that and add to the roster elsewhere, you could have a farm that’s solid from top to bottom by the middle of next summer, all while the big league team never stopped playing meaningful baseball.
But for now I’m getting ahead of myself. Encarnacion’s future is the first domino to fall, and while I don’t want to completely write off his return, the combination of Smoak's deal, the Morales signing, and the inevitable call up of Tellez sure makes it seem less likely than it did a few months ago.