Uncertain futures for Bautista, Encarnacion

Blue Jays sluggers can be free agents following 2016 season

Uncertain futures for Bautista, Encarnacion

TORONTO -- Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion have been the heart and soul of the Blue Jays for the past six years, but their time in Canada's only Major League city could be running out.

The two sluggers were pivotal in turning a once maligned franchise into an American League East champion with one of the best offenses in recent memory. It's hard to believe, with all of the team's success over the past 12 months, that the duo might be forced to break up. But it is a possibility -- such is the reality of professional sports. They are both eligible for free agency at the end of the 2016 season, and the Blue Jays have decisions to make.

Bodley: Blue Jays to Two Jays?

Bautista and Encarnacion have been joined at the hip since they became teammates in 2009. Bautista, 35, arrived as a castoff from the Pirates, a player who previously broke a record by going through five organizations in one year. Encarnacion, 33, was a throw-in to the Scott Rolen deal, included for no other reason but to offset the salary commitments going to the Reds.

Joey Bats will be assistant coach for NBA Celebrity Game

Neither player was expected to do much of anything, but together they formed the best home run duo in baseball over the next five seasons. They combined to hit more homers than anyone else in the game, and along the way solidified themselves as the core of Toronto's franchise, not to mention the heart of the lineup.

So why would the Blue Jays even consider letting such a proficient pair walk away? Well, like everything else in professional sports, the answer is a lot more complicated than the question. Here's a look at some of the things Toronto will have to consider.

Bautista will be 36 when his contract expires next fall, while Encarnacion will be on the verge of turning 34. With each player seeking a long-term extension, the advanced age is a dangerous proposition -- especially for a pair of hitters who rely so much on power.

According to Baseball-Reference, Bautista has averaged a 5.6 wins above replacement (WAR) over the past two years. Since 2005, there have only been four players to post a WAR above five after turning 36: Chipper Jones (2008), Manny Ramirez ('08), Adrian Beltre ('15) and Torii Hunter ('12).

Finding comparables in baseball is a tricky proposition because the economic landscape is constantly changing. An overpay one offseason might be considered a bargain the next, but history still offers some clues about what type of contracts these two players might be looking for.

One comparison for Bautista might be Victor Martinez, who signed a four-year contract worth $68 million prior to 2015. Martinez signed at age 36 and was coming off a 32-homer season, but Bautista has hit for more power throughout his career and will easily surpass the total amount Martinez got from the Tigers. Bautista is also a superior defensive player to Martinez, as he is still an effective right fielder.

Encarnacion is in a somewhat comparable situation to Nelson Cruz, who signed a four-year deal with the Mariners worth $57 million prior to 2015. Unlike Cruz, Encarnacion hasn't been linked to performance-enhancing substances, and his ability to play some first base could also help him surpass Cruz's final figure. A four-year deal seems likely, and a fifth year isn't out of the question, but the annual average could be much higher than what Martinez or Cruz got in their contracts.

Even if the Blue Jays had room in their budget to sign both Bautista and Encarnacion, it seems extremely unlikely they would have long-term fits in the lineup and on the roster for both players. Bautista is content in right field, but he'll likely have to switch positions at some point during his upcoming deal.

Bautista's range has diminished over the past two years, with a -6 Defensive Runs Saved in 2014 and a -3 in 2015. His biggest asset is a well-above average arm, but even that was hampered by a shoulder injury that lingered for most of the year. During the final years of his next deal, Bautista might have to fill the designated-hitter role or play first base, and that's where Encarnacion's presence would become an issue.

Encarnacion will market himself as a first baseman, but back issues over the past several years have limited his impact in the field. He's best suited for a full-time DH role, and his ability to stay healthy will become an even bigger question mark as he ages.

Brand loyalty
The Blue Jays' memorable run in 2015 never would have been possible without Encarnacion and Bautista. If Toronto successfully defends its AL East title in '16, there will be a lot of pressure on ownership to open the vault.

The Blue Jays spent approximately $140 million each of the past two years. Troy Tulowitzki, Russell Martin, Marco Estrada and J.A. Happ are the only players with guaranteed deals in 2017, but they combine to make $67 million. Add in a significant raise in arbitration for Josh Donaldson, and Toronto's payroll is in the $85 million range for five players.

Paying upward of $125 million for seven players isn't realistic unless the budget receives a significant boost. That will make these upcoming contract negotiations even more interesting to watch, because it doesn't appear as though there's enough money to go around for both sluggers.

Gregor Chisholm is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, North of the Border, follow him on Twitter @gregorMLB and Facebook, and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.