Into the room he walked, a franchise icon, as if moving back into his old home prepared to give the marriage another shot.
Jose Bautista, sporting a toque and coat appropriate for Toronto’s January conditions, didn’t say too much in his Saturday press conference of approximately 12 minutes but this much was clear: Despite the weird offseason free agency market which hasn’t been kind to right-handed power hitters older than 30, he was happy to be back in Toronto.
“Everybody would love to be in a long-term deal basis but you get what you can get,” said Bautista. “The most important thing is being happy and being where you are and I’m happy and I’m where I want to be.”
Bautista is back for one year and $18.5-million guaranteed. The deal could last for three years based on mutual and vesting options.
“I think the desire was mutual; it was there all along,” said Bautista.
There’s some word play. The door to Bautista’s return, quite obviously, never was fully shut.
The story is different for Bautista’s good friend and long-time partner in home run hitting crime, Edwin Encarnacion. The details of Encarnacion’s departure need not be rehashed for an umpteenth time; but the man with whom Bautista combined to hit 504 home runs in a Toronto uniform will now ply his trade in Cleveland for less guaranteed term and less guaranteed money than the Jays offered him at the outset of free agency.
“He’s not here anymore, we’ve all got to accept that and move on,” said Bautista. “We have a very capable replacement in Kendrys Morales and hopefully he can have the type of year that he’s capable of having.”
So then what to make of this market? Encarnacion’s contract in Cleveland; Mark Trumbo taking far less to remain in Baltimore than what he’d anticipated; Chris Carter, who hit 41 home runs for the Brewers last season, hasn’t yet found work after Milwaukee wouldn’t tender him a contract. There are other right-handed sluggers dealing with similar, strange circumstances.
“It’s tough to read; it’s tough to say right now; I think time will tell,” said Bautista of the market. “I think you guys will analyze it; I think some experts will analyze it and the players, the ones that get opportunities to play, will go out there and try to do our best and focus on playing and hopefully everybody’s happy going forward.”
Bautista said his camp’s conversations with the Blue Jays turned more serious after December’s Winter Meetings and heated up once the calendar turned to 2017.
“I had other opportunities and other options but I wanted to be back here so here I am,” said Bautista.
“It does show me a lot about Jose and how much the city means to him,” said Bautista’s agent, Jay Alou, who was hesitant to offer comment. “I’ve always known it means a lot to him and now I can confirm he absolutely loves the fans. This is where he wanted to be.”
Alou predicted that at least one team would eventually reveal the offer it made to Bautista.
He’s going to have to play plenty of right field, one would think, because Morales is someone who needs to be kept out of the field as often as possible. The DH at-bats won’t be there. Bautista is willing to play some first base or elsewhere as required.
“I’ve always been open to that,” said Bautista. “I’ve played numerous positions well. I played numerous positions last year. I’ll do whatever it takes for my team to be in the best position to win. That’s always been a part of who I am as a player. I don’t see that changing now or forever.”
It would seem that Bautista will spend most of the time in his familiar position of right field, though, which gives the Jays some hesitancy despite what general manager Ross Atkins said earlier in the week. The game has long had advanced metrics to measure a player’s offensive contributions. Defensive measurements are improving as the years pass and they’re not kind to Bautista. Still, he thinks he’ll rebound this season.
“I’m feeling great,” said Bautista. “I haven’t done anything different to impact my durability. The injuries I had last year were because I ran into a wall and my cleat got caught in the turf. It had nothing to do with my preparation.”
Who knows whether this reunion will last beyond the first year? If Bautista performs to his lofty standards, he could opt out and test free agency next off-season. Should Bautista have a 2017 in line with his 2016 campaign, the Jays could elect to move on. Bautista’s off-field business interests account for a good chunk of income which may offset an increase in on-field salary he’d get elsewhere.
“If I could look into the future I’d be in Vegas right now,” said Bautista. “We’ll see. Time will tell.”
In the meantime, Bautista has the chance to add to his lofty Blue Jays statistics and further his place in Toronto sports lore. He’s far from finished, he insists, and wants no part of any chatter about his legacy.
“I’m hoping to play for a number of more years in the future and hopefully they’re all here,” said Bautista. “I’m not ready to have that conversation yet.”
Scott MacArthur, TSN 1050 Blue Jays Reporter