In back-to-back postseasons, Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion hit the two biggest home runs Blue Jays fans had seen in a generation.
But after making baseball history in Toronto, both might be about to become history in Toronto.
One year after a six-game AL Championship Series loss to eventual champion Kansas City, the Blue Jays fell to World Series-bound Cleveland in five-games Wednesday. Now a winter of change is expected. Bautista and Encarnacion highlight a list of nine Toronto free agents, including six on this year’s playoff roster.
Largely unheralded when each arrived by trade — Bautista from Pittsburgh in 2008 and Encarnacion from Cincinnati in 2009 — the Dominican sluggers developed into All-Stars. The team evolved, too, from an also-ran playing before sparse crowds to a contender that led the American League in attendance this season, reinvigorating a national audience across Canada.
After Toronto ended a 22-year playoff drought with an AL East title last year, Bautista blasted the Blue Jays into the ALCS with a three-run homer to win Game 5 against Texas, punctuating his shot with a memorable bat flip.
This year it was Encarnacion’s turn, with a three-run drive in the 11th inning to beat Baltimore in the wild card game.
The two homers are Toronto’s most indelible moments since Joe Carter’s World Series walk-off gave the Blue Jays a second straight title in 1993.
“They really helped put this team back on the map again, what they’ve accomplished,” manager John Gibbons said. “Both of them made their name here in Toronto. But baseball is still a business. It’s a game we play, but it’s still a big business and guys earn the right to try free agency.”
In a September radio interview, Blue Jays President Mark Shapiro said “probably the most likely scenario” was that Toronto’s free agents would be allowed to hit the open market. Outfielder Michael Saunders, right-hander R.A. Dickey, left-hander Brett Cecil and right-hander Joaquin Benoit are among the remainder of that group.
A sold-out crowd of 48,000 roared as Bautista and Encarnacion batted in the ninth inning Wednesday. Afterward, Encarnacion acknowledged mixed emotions about his future.
“I’m really sad because I don’t know what’s going to happen next,” Encarnacion said through an interpreterr. “But overall I feel really proud for the fans and what this organization has done for me.”
Bautista (265) and Encarnacion (239) rank second and third behind Carlos Delgado (336) on the Blue Jays’ career home run list.
Encarnacion signed a three-year, $29 million deal in in 2013 and is coming off a team option at $10 million. After matching a career-best with 42 homers and career-high 127 RBIs, he could command a nine-figure contract.
Encarnacion stopped to sign autographs and pose for pictures with fans still chanting his name as he left the stadium more than two hours after Game 5. Citing an affection for the city, he called Toronto his “first choice” in free agency.
Bautista signed a $65 million, five-year deal in 2011 and the team picked up a $14 million option this season. The six-time All-Star arrived at spring training openly demanding a big raise, but may not earn what he once hoped. Limited to 116 games by injuries, he finished with 22 homers, his lowest total since 2009, and 69 RBIs.
In a somber clubhouse Wednesday, Bautista said he wasn’t in the “proper state of mind” to consider whether he and longtime friend Encarnacion had played in Toronto together for the final time.
“I know it’s a possibility but we’ll see what happens,” Bautista said.
Even if their free agents find new homes, the Blue Jays still have several key players under contract next season, including 2015 AL MVP Josh Donaldson, shortstop Troy Tulowitzki and catcher Russell Martin. Toronto also controls closer Roberto Osuna, AL ERA leader Aaron Sanchez and four other starters from the rotation that posted a league-low 3.64 ERA.
Shapiro has said Gibbons will return for in 2017, the final year of his contract. The rest of Toronto’s coaching staff is also expected to stay.