Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista are free agents with qualifying offers from the Toronto Blue Jays sitting in front of them.

That means the door isn’t merely open for one or both players to return to the Jays—it’s swinging on its hinges.

As we wait for the 2016-17 offseason market to take shape, however, Toronto is showing signs of moving away from Encarnacion and Bautista, two sluggers who have defined the recent era north of the border.

First, let’s get this out of the way: Neither Encarnacion nor Bautista is likely to accept the QO. Yes, it means turning down a whopping $17.2 million for 2017.

Both, however, can assuredly land lucrative, multiyear deals in a weak free-agent class. The 33-year-old Encarnacion, in particular, will be a hot commodity after hitting 42 home runs and tying for the American League lead with 127 RBI.

The 36-year-old Bautista is coming off a down year that saw him hit just .234, but the six-time All-Star cracked 22 homers in 116 games and should be able to get a three-year commitment out of some power-starved contender.

Bautista has been with Toronto since 2008, and Encarnacion arrived in 2009. They were key cogs in an offense that propelled the Jays to back-to-back American League Championship Series appearances in 2015 and 2016, busting a 22-year playoff drought.

Watching them leave the nest won’t be easy for the Blue Jays faithful. The club doesn’t have the cash to re-sign both, however, barring an unexpected payroll bump.

Signs are pointing toward both men donning different laundry come next spring.

On Friday, the Jays signed former Kansas City Royals designated hitter Kendrys Morales to a three-year, $33 million deal.

That move alone made an Encarnacion reunion dubious, as Sportsnet’s Shi Davidi pointed out:

Also on Friday, Toronto inked 23-year-old Cuban defector Lourdes Gurriel to a seven-year, $22 million pact. Gurriel played 307 innings in left field in 2015 for Industriales and hit .344 with a 967 OPS.

According to Yahoo Sports’ Jeff Passan, Toronto plans to try him at shortstop in the minors, but “he may end up a corner outfielder.”

On top of that, layer this rumor from ESPN’s Jim Bowden (via MLB Network Radio):

That’s two more corner outfielders reportedly on the Jays’ radar. But that’s only a rumor. Mix it with the Morales and Gurriel signings, though, and you have a club that seems to be plugging a pair of impending holes.

If Encarnacion and Bautista reject their qualifying offers, the Jays will receive a pair of compensatory draft picks. They didn’t lose one for signing Morales since he didn’t get a QO from the Royals.

It’s possible Toronto will come out of this with enough offense to cover the losses of Encarnacion and Bautista in the short term and a strengthened farm system.

Morales, after all, slashed .263/.327/.468 with 30 home runs last season. Add Josh Reddick, who wouldn’t cost a draft pick since he was traded from the Oakland A’s to the Los Angeles Dodgers at the deadline, in a platoon with Melvin Upton Jr., and the Jays could keep rolling.

Jay Bruce, and the 33 homers he cracked last season between the Cincinnati Reds and New York Mets, would also be an intriguing addition, though it’s unclear how much the Jays would have to give up.

Either way, they still have third baseman and MVP candidate Josh Donaldson and a deep starting rotation headlined by Aaron Sanchez, Marco Estrada, J.A. Happ and Marcus Stroman.

Bautista and Encarnacion have meant a lot to Toronto, no argument there. Bautista‘s bat flip in the 2015 ALDS and Encarnacion‘s walk-off homer in the 2016 AL Wild Card Game will forever be embedded in franchise lore.

That’s not the only consideration when doling out contracts, however, as team president Mark Shapiro explained.

“It’s never easy to answer that question, and there’s always some premium placed on players who have historical impact and whose character and talent we know well,” Shapiro said, per Davidi. “You’re balancing that premium with the understanding that those players on a losing team have limited value or meaning to anyone.”

Encarnacion and Bautista aren’t gone yet. The door is open for their returns. At the moment, however, it sure looks like it’s swinging shut.


All statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.

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