The Blue Jays might have one of the most exciting lineups in baseball, but it's away from the field where most of the action will be taking place this spring.
Toronto's most pressing issue when camp officially begins on Sunday in Dunedin, Fla., is the future of Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion. Both players figure prominently into the club's 2016 season, but with free agency looming at the end of the year, questions continue to linger.
A lot of attention was paid to a recent FOXSports.com report which suggested contract talks had yet to take place between the Blue Jays and Encarnacion. That shouldn't come as a major surprise because it seems all along that the club intended to engage in more meaningful conversations once camp opened.
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"I guess the best thing to say is that it's a no-brainer that we want to keep them here," Blue Jays president Mark Shapiro recently said. "The sentiment is there, we've expressed that to both guys. We're not going to get into the specific negotiations until we get down to Spring Training. ... We've had a busy offseason in a lot of ways, but those conversations will be had."
Encarnacion's agent is on record saying his client will not negotiate a new deal once the regular season begins on April 3. Bautista hasn't publicly announced a similar demand, but realistically some progress needs to be made in the coming weeks to provide any hope that an early extension is possible.
Contract talks are complicated enough, but Toronto's current situation is even more problematic because there doesn't appear to be enough room for both Bautista and Encarnacion long term. There's a strong chance that two or three years into a long-term deal, Bautista would need to switch positions to either first base or designated hitter, but Encarnacion would block Bautista's path if both agreed to new contracts.
There's also a murky payroll situation that likely would force the Blue Jays to pick between the two. Troy Tulowitzki has $98 million guaranteed over the next five seasons, Russell Martin has $75 million owed over the next four and Josh Donaldson will make $28.65 million over the next two with even more on the way in 2018.
The Blue Jays have maintained a payroll in the $130-140 million range during each of the last few years so there will be money to spend, but the club has to be wary of not taking on too many big-ticket deals. That's why these negotiations could be about more than just dollars and cents with Toronto ultimately needing to pick the right long-term piece.
"It's a huge decision either way, either angle," Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins told MLB Network. "It's going to take a lot of work on our end and I think what we've been focused on to date is how do we make this team better without sacrificing our future?
"We'll continue to do that as we factor in the decision to extend them or hopefully come to terms with something that makes them happy. Would we like to have them here long term? Absolutely. As you guys know, the challenge is can we see eye to eye on what that value is going to be, and that will be the challenging part."