TORONTO -- The Blue Jays haven't ruled out the possibility of re-signing Edwin Encarnacion, but they certainly don't sound like a team that's going to announce his return any time soon.Toronto general manager Ross Atkins reiterated Thursday afternoon that Kendrys Morales' three-year deal worth $33 million does not eliminate the
TORONTO -- The Blue Jays haven't ruled out the possibility of re-signing Edwin Encarnacion, but they certainly don't sound like a team that's going to announce his return any time soon.
Toronto general manager Ross Atkins reiterated Thursday afternoon that Kendrys Morales' three-year deal worth $33 million does not eliminate the possibility of bringing back Encarnacion, but it does make a deal "less likely."
Atkins' comments came at a time when the free-agent market for Encarnacion appeared to be heating up. His agent Paul Kinzler went on record earlier this week saying there was a good chance Encarnacion would sign by the end of next week's Winter Meetings, and there has been a seemingly endless number of rumors over the last 48 hours.
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"Two guys that do similar things is less than ideal for a team, and money has been spent," Atkins said when asked if re-signing Encarnacion was less of a priority after adding Morales. "It doesn't make it impossible, but it certainly made it less likely. We realized that the day we made the move, and we talked to Edwin about that as well."
It's possible there is a level of gamesmanship taking place on both sides throughout these negotiations, but there are a number of factors working against Encarnacion's return. The most pressing issue is the uncertainty about his ability to become an everyday first baseman for the foreseeable future.
Encarnacion has plenty of experience, with 388 career games at first, and he may be a little underrated defensively at the position. He also played there more regularly in 2016, but even then it was just 74 starts, which was four off his career high. Whether he can consistently play first base and remain healthy is the big question mark.
The 33-year-old is coming off a season in which he appeared in a career-high 160 games, but in the past, he has dealt with back, leg and hand issues. Encarnacion seems to be at his best when he gets at least semi-regular starts at DH, and that's something the Blue Jays can't really offer him because Morales played the field just 11 times in 2016.
So, knowing this, why did the Blue Jays move so quickly to sign Morales when Encarnacion's future was still unresolved?
"Character, contributions, excited about what [Morales] could mean for our clubhouse," Atkins said when asked that type of question. "Excited about what he could mean in this ballpark. We feel like there's upside to him. He has been in a larger ballpark the last two teams he was with and then, we like the deal."
For now, Justin Smoak is the projected starter at first base. That would obviously change if Encarnacion returns, but if the three-time All-Star leaves, Toronto would look to add another player. Free agent Mike Napoli is a potential fit, but he reportedly is looking for a three-year deal, and the Blue Jays likely would not be comfortable with a contract of that length for the 35-year-old.
Another possibility at first base is Chris Carter, who was recently non-tendered by the Brewers despite leading the National League with 41 homers in 2016. The problem is Carter also led the NL with 206 strikeouts, so he might not be a great fit for a team looking to increase its contact rate.
Other free agents who can play first base include: Mark Trumbo, Steve Pearce, Logan Morrison, James Loney and former Blue Jay Adam Lind. José Abreu could be a possible trade target as the White Sox ponder a possible rebuild.
The offseason might have started off relatively slow but the pace is about to change. Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association announced on Wednesday night that the two sides reached a tentative agreement on a five-year Collective Bargaining Agreement, and after Yoennis Cespedes signed a four-year deal with the Mets, the dominoes are starting to fall in place leading up to next week's Winter Meetings.
"We feel with Morales here, we are in a good position to stay aggressive on the players that we feel are closer to ideal fits," Atkins said. "More seriously consider on a daily basis all of the guys who were here, and also because Morales is here, we also feel like we will also be in a position to be more opportunistic later in the offseason."
Gregor Chisholm has covered the Blue Jays for MLB.com since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @gregorMLB and Facebook, and listen to his podcast.