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I would be remiss if after the Blue Jays wonderful run last fall I didn’t comment on the current state of the team with the much anticipated season about to begin. Of particular interest at this point is the progress in negotiations between star sluggers Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion if there are any or it’s mostly white noise?

It’s fascinating how much different times have become regarding player contracts and the sabre rattling conjured up by whichever side senses they are in control. In the case of these two it’s still up in the air who holds the ace card in negotiations. Bautista joined the Jays late in 2008 from the Pittsburgh Pirates posting a .241 average, 43 home runs and 159 rbi’s over a 5-year period with the club. In 21 games with Toronto he managed a .214 average with 3 home runs and 10 rbi’s. His first full year with the Jays wasn’t much better, .235, 13, 40 (and 8 of those dingers came in the month of September). Now 2010 offensively, was a season for the ages, .261, 54, 124 and stellar defensive play at 3rd and right field was icing on the cake.

Suddenly the Jays faced a dilemma with Jose a free agent entering the 2011 season; is he for real, late bloomer, fluke or can anyone say Brady Anderson, the Baltimore leadoff hitter with a career sub .250 average and after 8 years in the Majors hit a total of 72 home runs. In 1996, Anderson balloons to a .297, 50, 110 season, from the leadoff position. Similar to Jose he was accused of steroid use and although nothing was ever proven, his production dropped sharply every year after and never came close to a season like 1996 again.

The Jays offered a $65 million 5-year guaranteed deal, that drew a lot of criticism, but to his credit, Jose delivered, outplaying the contract. That does not happen very often. The point is, Toronto took a big shot on him after one good year and it worked out for everyone. Jose now claims the Jays got a bargain for 5-years? Funny I didn’t hear any mention of bargains in 2011 when his contract was up, looking back on his numbers from the Pittsburgh years. This is not to slam Jose in the least. Love the guy.

Bautista has never played a full season and there is a growing concern his violent swing puts extraordinary strain on his back that will only get worse as he ages. At 35 he’s susceptible to more of the nagging injuries we have seen the last few years and his body has started to break down.

We can all sit back and play GM, which is half the fun of following sports, but realistically, emotions cannot take precedent over what’s best for the ball club.

Too many a team has over rewarded a player for past performance, based on the fact he is widely loved and respected by teammates or a fan favourite.

In 1992 there wasn’t a man who exemplified the model player described above more than Dave Winfield was with the Jays. He carried himself with class, both on and off the field with the defining moment coming in the top of the 11th inning in game 6 of the World Series. With two on, he delivered a two-run double to preserve a Toronto 4-3 victory and World Series Championship.

Chosen as the one of the players to raise the World Series Banner during the victory celebration a few days later at the Skydome, Winfield was summoned to GM Pat Gillicks office a few hours before the festivities were about to begin.
Pat informed Winfield that with free agency opening a few days later, the Jays weren’t going to resign or even protect him. Cruel? Heartless? Insulting? He was the hero of the clinching game! Maybe.

Edwin Encarnacion’s resume is a mirror of Bautista’s. After 4.5 years with Cincinnati, his best year was 2008, .251, 26, 68 but after 43 games the following season he was batting an anemic .209, 5,16. He finished the remaining 42 games of the 2009 campaign with Toronto totaling .240, 8, 23; marginal player numbers. To his credit, in the off-season he lost 40 pounds (at the urging of his father) worked on his game and slowly improved. The key for Double E’s was that the Jays stuck with him and he delivered. Should he be rewarded? Of course, but lets not forget he hasn’t been playing for nothing and while he will get paid by someone, similar to a good stock trade, take the emotion out of the equation and trade the number. In other words, management must decide what fits the pay scale, depth and term, based on the player’s value and durability. Simple enough? Edwin at last check has taken minimal swings in spring training, hampered by nagging injuries particularly the same finger that hurt his production in the post season last October. Anyone remember another finger problem during the World Series runs in the early 1990’s? Al Leiter ring a bell? A blister (yes hockey fans, a blister on his middle finger) kept him shelved for 2 years plus. This guy didn’t win a game for 4-years and when he finally righted himself, he paid the Jays back by jumping to the Florida Marlins.

Look I’m not here to judge Jose and Edwin for trying to leverage as much as they can for themselves, but it’s a two-way street. I’d love to see the day players are paid annually based on performance, durability and team successes. Do any of us have 5-year guaranteed contracts regardless of how we perform our jobs on a day-to-day basis (if any of you do please send me your agents name).

Would you tell the CEO on a day your company is making a presentation that will make or break their future, you might be late because you have to attend your college graduation ceremony in another city? Take a bow Vince Carter, ya stiff.

Obviously there is risk on both sides when contracts are signed and finding a happy medium eases the burden equally, to a degree. It’s rare an established star out plays his contract and this is the quandary that hampers most teams in sports. That happens simply because teams stretch their budgets and end up overpaying for the asset. Reward the player and keep the fans happy? Well that maybe fine and dandy, but now the rest of the locker room is either motivated to perform or jealously festers and all of a sudden a cohesive unit is fractured. And also keep in mind the GM offering out these contracts reports to an owner who isn’t in the business to give his money away or to continually make bad choices, reflecting not only through his pocketbook but the standings.

I want to be very clear as a season ticket holder that I want nothing more than to see 19 and double E’s finish their careers as Blue Jays. But having said that how do we know that Chris Colabello and Michael Saunders aren’t the new Jose and Edwin? How many “sure finds” become “sure outs?”

The key thing for us as fans is we have to separate emotion from what’s right for the team.
The best direction the Jays can take is to wait and negotiate at the end of the season if the demands are beyond the clubs budget. The two players will have to put up big numbers to strengthen their position and that can only help the ball club. It may hurt us short term but nothing strangles a franchise more than non-performing contracts. It just does not work. Weak organizations make safe decisions; consistent winning franchises make tough ones no matter who’s feelings maybe hurt.

And finally, after cutting Dave Winfield post his 1992 World Series heroics, Pat Gillick replaced him with Paul Molitor, who not only finished second in hitting in 1993, but was also named World Series MVP leading the Jays to back-to-back Championships.