The 2016 season was a pivotal year for the Blue Jays. Fresh off an ALCS loss to the Royals in 2015, the Jays entered the year with reigning MVP Josh Donaldson set to play out his age-30 campaign and a series of notable free agents, headlined by Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion. They’d surrendered two MLB-ready arms — Daniel Norris and Matthew Boyd — for a David Price rental the prior summer and parted with another top pitching prospect (Jeff Hoffman) to escape their commitment to the declining Jose Reyes and swap him out for Troy Tulowitzki. Some of the dreaded “closing window” narratives were surrounding the club, and the Jays were clearly in win-now mode.
Toronto again made the playoffs, again won a Division Series matchup over the Rangers … and again fell to an AL Central club in the League Championship Series — this time the Indians. The offseason came around, and Toronto made issued a pair of no-brainer qualifying offers to Bautista and Encarnacion, who were two of the top bats on that winter’s market.
From the begining, Encarnacion seemed to be the bigger target. Bautista had dropped some jaws in Spring 2016 when talking about his asking price on a long-term deal, but Encarnacion was younger and seemingly more affordable. Toronto was aggressive early in the winter, reportedly putting forth a four-year offer that carried in the vicinity of $80MM of guaranteed money. There were some expectations that winter that Encarnacion could best that mark — we at MLBTR pegged him for four years at a slightly higher annual rate — and his camp seemed to prefer to explore the market before taking that offer. That decision blew up in Encarnacion’s face, though, as Toronto pivoted almost instantly and signed Kendrys Morales to a three-year, $33MM deal. By Nov. 18, it appeared Encarnacion had been replaced.
There were still some rumors about a potential reunion even after Morales was signed, but it never seemed likely that the Jays would commit to Morales at DH and Encarnacion at first base — tying up long-term dollars in a pair of sluggers best suited for DH work. Encarnacion drew varying levels of interest from the Astros, Yankees, Red Sox and Rangers, but in the end, his market bizarrely came down to a bidding war between two of the game’s smaller-payroll clubs: the Athletics and the Indians.
Oakland likely saw a chance to add a premium bat at an affordable rate. Encarnacion’s market had collapsed to the point where he was reportedly mulling a shorter offer with a roughly $25MM annual value (presumably a two-year deal) with the A’s. The Indians, fresh off a World Series loss, were in go-for-it mode with extra cash thanks to that deep postseason run. Encarnacion signed a three-year, $60MM deal with Cleveland that contained a fourth-year option which would get him to the $80MM mark he’d previously passed up.
The Jays took some heat from the deal both among media pundits and their fans. Encarnacion was the clear better player and ultimately cost less than twice what Toronto gave Morales. And from an on-field perspective, those criticisms were 100 percent valid. Over the first two years of each player’s three-year pact, here’s how they performed:
- Morales: .249/.318/.442, 49 home runs, 40 doubles in 1079 plate appearances (103 OPS+, 102 wRC+; 0.8 bWAR, -0.4 fWAR)
- Encarnacion: .252/.358/.490, 70 home runs, 36 doubles, two triples in 1248 PAs (123 OPS+, 123 wRC+; 4.7 bWAR, 3.3 fWAR)
Neither one played out the third year of his contract with the team that signed him. Morales was traded to the Athletics on the eve of Opening Day 2019, and Encarnacion had been moved to the Mariners in a complex three-team deal that sent Carlos Santana back to Cleveland with Yandy Diaz and others landing in Tampa Bay.
Many onlookers will say that the Encarnacion camp misread the market after their initial talks with teams. Some would argue that it was the Jays who misread things when they pivoted to Morales so quickly. You can argue that both parties failed to properly evaluate the free-agent landscape.
Encarnacion got his $60MM and then signed for another $12MM with the White Sox this winter, so he ultimately didn’t fall much shy of that reported four-year, $80MM sum. With the benefit of hindsight, it looks like the Jays came away with the short end of the stick — at least until you consider the compensatory draft pick they netted when Cleveland inked Encarnacion. Because the guarantee was greater than $50MM, the Jays’ comp pick landed between Round 1 and Competitive Balance Round A. That pick proved to be No. 28 overall, which Toronto used to select right-hander Nate Pearson.
Not only is Pearson now the runaway top Blue Jays’ prospect — he’s one of the best pitching prospects on the planet. The 23-year-old ranks among the 10 best prospects in baseball at Baseball America, MLB.com and FanGraphs, drawing considerable praise for his blistering triple-digit heater and a deep arsenal of secondary pitches. When ranking Pearson as baseball’s No. 8 overall prospect this winter, FanGraphs’ Eric Longenhagen wrote that he’s personally seen Pearson’s slider climb as high as 95 mph, adding that the pitch generally sits in the low 90s. Jim Callis and Jonathan Mayo of MLB.com write that Pearson has “as high a ceiling as any pitching prospect in the game.”
It’s true that Pearson has yet to demonstrate the ability to make 30 starts in a season, although that’s due largely to a fractured forearm sustained when he was hit by a comeback line drive. Pitchers who throw this hard will always give some onlookers a red flag, and Pearson did have a screw put into his right elbow during high school. He was healthy in junior college, though, and the Jays diligently kept his innings count down in 2019 after he threw just 22 innings in 2018. Pearson reached 101 2/3 frames last year, spinning a dominant 2.30 ERA with 10.5 K/9, 2.4 BB/9, 0.70 HR/9 and a ground-ball rate near 40 percent. He also topped out at Triple-A in his first full, healthy pro season and is widely expected to make his MLB debut in 2020.
Not every draft pick is guaranteed to be a hit, as evidenced by the Jays’ actual, organic first-round pick in the same 2017 draft that produced Pearson. Shortstop Logan Warmoth, selected out of UNC six picks prior to Pearson, has managed a .255/.332/.346 batting line in 947 pro plate appearances. He was a high-end draft prospect but doesn’t currently rank inside Toronto’s top 30 farmhands at MLB.com or their Top 38 at FanGraphs. Not exactly ideal for a recent first-rounder.
Luckily for the Jays, Encarnacion’s decision not to take their four-year offer — which would’ve run through the 2020 season — both saved them some cash and gave them a second bite at the first-round apple in 2017. And thanks to their scouting department’s decision to take a chance on a towering, flamethrowing righty in spite of a high school elbow scare, the Jays have a potential ace in the making who is on the cusp of reaching the big leagues.