Three Blue Jays who could be next in line for the Level of Excellence
Photo credit:Nick Turchario-USA TODAY Sports
3 months ago
This past weekend, the Toronto Blue Jays honoured former right fielder José Bautista by inducting him into the Level of Excellence, making him the 11th player and the fourth position player to be named to the prestigious group.
Through parts of ten seasons with the Jays, Bautista won three Silver Slugger Awards, two Hank Aaron Awards, and was named to six consecutive All-Star games while also holding the franchise single-season record for most home runs with 54, while also ranking high in numerous offensive categories within the franchise.
Looking towards the future, there is still lots of room for players or office personnel to be added to the Level of Excellence. While the club has made no indication anybody else will be added in the near future, here are four individuals who could find themselves on the next shortlist for potential inductees.
Tom Henke – Closer
Looking back at the history of the Toronto Blue Jays, one name sticks out when it comes to the bullpen and that is Kansas City, Missouri native Tom Henke.
Originally drafted by the Texas Rangers, Henke joined the Jays as a free-agent compensation pick during the 1984/1985 offseason and would begin his tenure in Triple-A before becoming called up in late July, making 28 appearances for the Jays as they were trying to win the pennant. That year, the right-hander would pitch to a 2.03 ERA with 13 saves through 40 innings of work while also making three appearances in the postseason as well, although the Jays fell short of their postseason goals.
Looking at the next potential Blue Jays Level of Excellence inductee
Over the next seven years, Henke would become the club’s primary closer and would craft a 2.48 ERA through 446 outings and 563 innings, amassing 217 saves in the process, which is the current franchise record. Over the course of eight seasons, Henke would earn a 9.8 K/9 while limiting the walks (2.7 BB/9) and holding opposing batters to a .203 batting average and a .584 OPS, generating a 28.7 strikeout percentage. Looking at the franchise record books, Henke holds first place in saves, games finished (386), ERA+ (167), FIP (2.53), and K/BB (3.88) and he is historically one of the club’s best relievers, forming a deadly tandem from 1987 to 1992 with Duane Ward, who worked as a setup man and the other arm to rack up saves when needed.
Henke was a key part of the Jays’ postseason runs in 1989, 1991, and 1992, where he would earn a World Series ring with the club and collect five saves through the club’s ALCS and World Series run that season, striking out three batters and allowing just one run.
Overall, Henke is one key figure missing from the Level of Excellence and should be next in line given what he accomplished for the organization during his eight years with the team. If elected, he would be the first reliever to receive the prestigious honour.
Edwin Encarnación – 1B/DH
A product of La Romano, Dominican Republic, Edwin Encarnación was originally drafted by the Texas Rangers while playing baseball out of Puerto Rico back in 2000 but would later make his MLB debut with the Cincinnati Reds in 2005, finding regular playing time with the Reds at third base and first base.
At the 2009 trade deadline, the Blue Jays traded future Hall of Famer Scott Rolen to the Reds in exchange for Encarnación, Josh Roenicke, and Zach Stewart, with the Reds insistent that the deal included the slugger. After the trade, Encarnación spent the next two seasons as the club’s main third base option before moving across the diamond to first base in 2011, while also slotting in as the team’s designated hitter with the odd spot start at the hot corner as well over his career North of the border.
Standing at 6 foot 1, Encarnación was a power threat from the right side of the batter’s box, collecting 424 home runs through his 16-year career, 239 of which came with the Blue Jays (third all-time). Through 999 career games, Encarnación put forward a .268/.355/.522 slash line with 679 RBIs (sixth most) and a .878 OPS and a 136 ERA+. While Bautista has ‘The Bat Flip’ on his resume, Encarnación’s postseason franchise moment came next season, when the slugger belted a no-doubt home run against the Baltimore Orioles in extra innings in the AL Wild Card game, sending the Jays to the ALCS for a second straight season. With Toronto, Encarnación made three All-Star appearances.
Encarnación didn’t finish his career with the Jays, leaving the team via free agency following the 2016 campaign, but he has returned to the club since retiring after the 2020 season, working in a coaching capacity for the Jays this past season.
Looking back, both Encarnación and Bautista formed such a dangerous tandem for years, making some really tough Jays squads watchable with their plus power and ability to turn around games with just one swing of the bat. Given his plus bat and numerous rankings on the offensive leaderboards for the Jays, Encarnación is one position player to keep in mind for the Level of Excellence moving forward.
Jerry Howarth – Broadcaster
Over the years, the Toronto Blue Jays have had some fantastic individuals in the radio booth, including Jerry Howarth, who began his broadcasting career with the Blue Jays.
The following year, Howarth joined Level of Excellence inductee Tom Cheek in the radio booth and the tandem would form a partnership over the next 23 years, becoming one of the driving forces for Jays fans listening across the airwaves through some of the club’s biggest franchise moments.
Upon Cheek’s cancer diagnosis and unfortunate passing in 2005, Howarth would become the play-by-play broadcaster with numerous individuals over the years, including Warren Sawkiw, Alan Ashby, Jack Morris, Joe Siddall, and a few others before retiring in February of 2018 due to health concerns, as the York, Pennsylvania product was diagnosed with prostate cancer in November of 2016.
Howarth’s work in the booth did not go unrecognized, as he earned the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame’s Jack Graney Award in 2012, an honour given to a Canadian media member for their contributions to Canadian baseball.
Armed with the signature “And there… she…goes!” phrase for every Jays home run and starting every broadcast with a calm “Hello friends”, like he was inviting you into his own home for the evening, Howarth was an exceptional radio voice and garnered a lot of praise from fans across baseball, not just within the Blue Jays.
A gentleman who is synonymous with Blue Jays baseball, Howarth and his 36-year career with the franchise is deserving of the Level of Excellence, where he should take his rightful place alongside former colleague Cheek and forever be enshrined on the upper deck of the Rogers Centre.
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