TORONTO -- José Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion have seen it all during their time with the Blue Jays. The half-empty stadium that turned into Toronto's hottest ticket. The last-place finishes that eventually became an American League East title. The return of meaningful baseball to the Great White North.In a lot
TORONTO -- José Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion have seen it all during their time with the Blue Jays. The half-empty stadium that turned into Toronto's hottest ticket. The last-place finishes that eventually became an American League East title. The return of meaningful baseball to the Great White North.
In a lot of ways, Bautista and Encarnacion were the ones who helped put this sport back on the map in Toronto. Within the span of eight years, the Blue Jays went from being regular-season fodder for the Yankees and Red Sox to legitimate contenders and then division champions. They have been big-time players, playing in what turned out to be a big-time market.
Nobody would have expected that back in 2009, when Bautista and Encarnacion became teammates for the first time. The two Dominican Republic natives didn't know much about the city, the country, even the league. Eight seasons later, the duo is among the franchise's all-time leaders in every major offensive category, and the Blue Jays are fresh off back-to-back appearances in the AL Championship Series. Their runs here may have ended with a 3-0 loss to the Indians in Game 5 of the ALCS on Wednesday, but their influence will linger for years.
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"I'm really happy and really proud to be the face of this franchise with Jose," Encarnacion said through an interpreter after his team was ousted by Cleveland. "It was really hard for me during my first years here, but I thank the fans and the organization for being patient with me, and I accomplished whatever I wanted to accomplish during my time here."
The big question now is whether Wednesday's loss was the end. Bautista and Encarnacion are both set to hit free agency this offseason, and there's no guarantee that either player will return. Neither one of them will admit it, but it's almost impossible they'll both be back in a Blue Jays uniform.
The end of an era may well be upon the Blue Jays. Toronto is expected to make a qualifying offer to each player, but neither is expected to accept. They will instead almost certainly take their chances on the open market. That's when it will become more challenging for the Blue Jays, with any team having the ability to swoop in with an offer.
No matter what happens, it's almost impossible that there will be enough room for both of them in Toronto, not just on the payroll, but in the lineup. Bautista played right field in 2016, but at some point, he'll likely need to transition to first base or designated hitter -- and that's where Encarnacion resides. Add in the fact that Toronto has $107 million committed to eight players next season, and this current ride feels all but officially over.
"I don't think it's the right time to be talking about that," Bautista said when asked if he thought Game 5 was his last with the Blue Jays. "We just battled through a tough series. There's a lot of stuff in here, and I don't want to make this about myself and I don't really feel like I'm in the right state of mind to be talking about that. I know it's a possibility, but we'll see what happens."
The sluggers certainly made their mark on franchise history. Bautista ranks second in home runs (265), second in walks (719), third in OPS (.910) and fifth in RBIs (701). Encarnacion is third in home runs (239), fourth in OPS (.878) and sixth in RBIs (679).
Each slugger also has his signature moment with the team. Last year, Bautista cemented Toronto's victory in the AL Division Series vs. Texas with his bat flip heard 'round the world.
This season, it was Encarnacion's turn to take center stage with a three-run walk-off homer in the 11th inning of the AL Wild Card Game against the Orioles on Oct. 4.
These are the type of memories that will last a lifetime. Canadians will be telling stories for decades about where they were when those home runs left the bat, just like they do with Roberto Alomar's shot off Dennis Eckersley in the 1992 ALCS and Joe Carter's walk-off homer off Philadelphia's Mitch Williams in the 1993 World Series.
No matter what happens, it's only a matter of time before Bautista and Encarnacion join Carlos Delgado, Tony Fernandez, Carter, George Bell, Dave Stieb, Alomar, Cito Gaston, Paul Beeston and Tom Cheek on the club's Level of Excellence.
"I think their names rightfully belong somewhere on the Rogers Centre along with the rest of those names," Blue Jays outfielder Michael Saunders said. "What they've meant, not only for this team, but for this city, they kind of put the Jays back on the map. Incredible players."
Encarnacion and Bautista will take some time to let the sting from Wednesday's loss go away, but after that, it will be back to business. Encarnacion openly stated his desire to remain with the franchise during Spring Training, and he reiterated that stance in his final media scrum of the year by saying the Blue Jays were his No. 1 priority.
Bautista has been more coy about his plans, but both of these players know this is partially out of their hands. The only way either one of them will be back is if Toronto opens the vault on a lucrative multiyear deal. The longtime teammates could even be competing for the same money, so they likely will have to go their separate ways. But what a run.
"Both of them made their name here in Toronto," Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said. "But baseball is still a business. It's a game we play, but it's still a business, and guys earn the right to try free agency. They both love it here, but it's still a business."
Gregor Chisholm has covered the Blue Jays for MLB.com since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @gregorMLB and Facebook, and listen to his podcast.