Blue Jays lock up Edwin Encarnacion, but they’re still who we thought they were

When the Toronto Blue Jays made a big move Thursday by signing Edwin Encarnacion to an extension, it was probably done with an eye toward making a run at a postseason berth. The problem for fans, however, is that run probably won’t come in 2012.

The Blue Jays locked up the power-hitting designated hitter to a three-year extension worth $27-million, with a $10-million club option for a fourth year. Encarnacion would have been a free agent this winter, and one of the top sluggers available.

Encarnacion is an important asset for the Blue Jays going forward. The 29-year-old has blossomed into a reliable cleanup hitter and protection for major league home-run leader Jose Bautista. In 83 games this season he is batting a team-best .295 with 23 home runs and 58 RBI.

As the trade deadline approaches, his signing also appears to take the Blue Jays out of “selling” mode. An impending free-agent power hitter like Encarnacion would have been interesting trade bait for general manager Alex Anthopoulos.

But does that mean Toronto will instead be buyers at the MLB trade deadline? Earlier this week at the All-Star Game in Kansas City, Bautista told reporters he would like to see the team make a move to acquire some help for the Jays’ battered and bruised pitching staff and, sitting just 2.5 games out of a wild-card spot, make a playoff push.

But Anthopoulos and the Blue Jays should tread lightly on the trade front. As the second half of the season begins, the Blue Jays are who we thought they were – an improving, exciting, young team that is still a year or two away from truly being contenders.

The time for a big trade isn’t now. Anthopoulos has spent years accumulating prospects and building one of the best minor-league systems in the majors. The Blue Jays have a number of prospects that are nearly ready for The Show. Is it worth trading a prospect like outfielder Anthony Gose or highly touted catcher Travis d’Arnaud for immediate pitching help? Perhaps, if the pitcher is young and effective enough to be in Toronto for the next two to three years to be part of a contender. But it’s not worth it for a short-term solution (think Joe Blanton).

[Related: Encarnacion signs three-year, $27 million extension]

For every step forward the team has taken in 2012, there have often been obstacles that have forced the team to seek a detour. Injuries have been the main culprit. Everyone knew the Blue Jays could compete with any team in baseball offensively. But a slew of injuries recently have exposed a lack of pitching depth.

When Brandon Morrow, Kyle Drabek, and Drew Hutchison all suffered injuries the Blue Jays were left with a patchwork starting rotation. To make matters worse, ace Ricky Romero has struggled mightily for more than a month. His eight wins are largely a result of generous run support.

Toronto’s lack of balance on both sides of the ball is evident in the stats. The Blue Jays are 12th in the American League in earned-run average; 14th in walks, and 12th in WHIP. Offensively, the situation is much brighter: second in home runs, third in runs scored, third in RBIs and fourth in slugging percentage.

There’s no doubt the Blue Jays need pitching help. But even with it, making the playoffs in the AL will be extremely difficult, even with the additional wild-card spot. Two-and-a-half games behind doesn’t sounds like a much of hill to climb – but there are eight teams in contention for those two spots (in fact, there are currently only three teams in the AL under .500).

To make matters worse, the Blue Jays’ schedule in the second half is dreadful. In case you haven’t noticed, Toronto has only played the New York Yankees twice so far. That means a whopping 16 games are still to come against the first-place team in the AL East. Trailing the Yankees by 9.5 games at the moment, that could also be seen as an opportunity, if you’re a glass-half-full kind of person.

But it doesn’t get easier from there. Toronto has 10 more games against the Tampa Bay Rays; nine more against the Boston Red Sox and nine more against the surprising Baltimore Orioles, who show no signs of fading in the second half. And, there’s a 13-game stretch in August where the Blue Jays play the Rays, Yankees, Chicago White Sox and Texas Rangers.

The Blue Jays, with their bats and much-improved defence, are worth watching most nights and their ability to pile up runs will keep them in most games.

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Bautista, after a slow start, is again among the top hitters in baseball. Encarnacion is already just three homers shy of matching his career high. Colby Rasmus has become an offensive force since moving into the No. 2 spot in the lineup. Brett Lawrie has shown flashes of brilliance offensively and he regularly makes highlight-reel plays with his glove and strong throwing arm.

And with a number of top prospects chomping at the bit to make it to the big leagues, many of the pieces are in place for the Blue Jays to become serious, consistent contenders very soon.

In 2012, the Blue Jays appear to be destined for another season of .500 ball and another fourth-or-fifth place finish in the AL East. But for now, that’s really not a bad thing.

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