The Toronto Blue Jays dipped into the early free agent market, signing Kendrys Morales to a three-year, $33 million contract.

It’s not the most notable move on paper. The 33-year-old is a slow, DH-only slugger. Morales had back-to-back solid seasons with the Kansas City Royals, hitting 52 home runs, including 30 in 2016. He’s not going to blow you away with his on-base skills but can take a walk (.263 AVG/.327 OBP). He’s a switch-hitter whose bat should play well at the Rogers Center. Morales deal is more significant than it might appear, however.

GM Ross Atkins and team president Mark Shapiro signed Morales, knowing the deal could block the potential return of Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista – both of whom are free agents.

Let’s start with the big kahuna – Encarnacion. The 33-year-old enjoyed another stellar season in The Six with 42 home runs, 127 RBI, and a .357 OBP. Encarnacion’s been the model of consistency with Toronto, hitting at least 34 home runs in five straight seasons. The Blue Jays were in constant contact with him, but Encarnacion’s agent admitted the team’s offer wasn’t “where the camp wanted it to be.” That offer is rumored to be $125 million over five seasons – not an unreasonable ask for EE, but a contract likely too pricey for Toronto given Encarnacion’s age. Morales isn’t the player Encarnacion is and will be locked up in his mid-30’s – but not at nearly the cost.

Edwin started a majority of his games at DH last season and unless he’s willing to go to first base full-time, his return is unlikely.

The signing also signals Toronto is ready for life without bat-flipper extraordinaire Jose Bautista. The split appeared inevitable following an injury-plagued season from the 36-year-old, but with the DH vacancy filled, there’s little room for Joey Bats. Despite having a great eye at the plate and incredible pull-power, Bautista took a large step backward in 2016. He batted just .234 with 22 home runs and 69 RBI. There’s a chance he could return to 40 home run form over a full, healthy season, but now, there’s not a spot for him in the lineup.

Unless he’s willing to shift to left field or first base, or switch all over the field, Bautista is best served at DH. Shoulder problems debilitated a once incredible throwing arm. Bautista doesn’t have the same quickness he once possessed. For Toronto to keep him in the fold, they’d have to get awfully creative with defensive positioning – which really isn’t a worthy gamble.

Atkins is acting proactively to sign a free agent early in the market to a reasonable, affordable contract. Morales doesn’t come with a draft-pick loss and fits exactly what the club needs at the DH position. In a perfect world, that doesn’t come at the cost of Encarnacion. But, the world is far from perfect. There’s a chance a deal can still be facilitated with the slugger, but taking the draft pick and spending elsewhere might be the best course of action, even if it depresses fans. All good things eventually come to an end.

[Ken Rosenthal]

About Liam McGuire

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