Jose Bautista’s path back to Toronto becomes even clearer

Jeff PassanMLB columnist

By this point in a typical winter, officials are readying to give themselves and the rest of the baseball industry the week off between Christmas and New Year’s, the offseason’s most pertinent business already tended to. Maybe a few free agents of consequence remain, their agents trying to squeeze out a couple extra dollars from teams with holes, but by and large the heavy lifting is done.

At this juncture, where bidding wars are rare, it becomes more about a player and team coming to an understanding they’re made for one another. It happened Thursday with Edwin Encarnacion and the Cleveland Indians. And it could again with Jose Bautista and the Toronto Blue Jays.

There is some wishful thinking involved here, because the Blue Jays are an almost unbendingly pragmatic organization. And that’s a compliment. Teams that map out a plan and remove emotion from it often make better decisions. When the presence of need and cost effectiveness complement that emotion, though, the best organizations recognize some intangible value exists in reminding their fan base the players with whom they formed what feels like an unbreakable bond actually do matter and aren’t fundamentally replaceable.

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Bautista is that player. He is this incarnation of the Blue Jays. He is the bat flip, the single greatest moment in Canadian baseball history since Joe Carter, and right up there for the best sports moment of the last 25 years next to Sidney Crosby’s golden goal. He may no longer be everything he has been, but everything he has been is spectacular enough to wonder why it’s Christmas and he’s still a free agent.

His case, actually, is quite fascinating. Bautista’s on-paper detriments are obvious. He is 36, old for a free agent. He is coming off an injury-hampered season that was his worst in more than seven years. He turned down the Blue Jays’ $17.2 million qualifying offer, so it will cost the team that signs him a first-round draft pick. It’s like the worst game of Press Your Luck ever, with a guy yelling “Big Bucks!” and getting a bunch of Whammies.

According to sources, Jose Bautista is willing to accept a one-year deal with Toronto, but there’s a catch. (Getty Images)
According to sources, Jose Bautista is willing to accept a one-year deal with Toronto, but there’s a catch. (Getty Images)

And with the glut of those whose markets overlap in at least one circle of his Venn diagram – Mike Napoli, Mark Trumbo, Brandon Moss, Colby Rasmus, Michael Saunders, Chris Carter and plenty more – Bautista has found free agency particularly inhospitable. He keeps waiting for the Blue Jays to step up. They haven’t.

Whether they should certainly is disputable. The fears about Bautista are fair. Older players are risky. They have trouble staying healthy. Bautista is right-handed and the lineup desperately could use another left-handed hitter. And this could be the big one: According to sources, while Bautista is willing to accept a one-year deal, he wants it to be at a higher value than the qualifying offer.

With Bautista, respect is paramount – it’s what makes him such an emotional and combustible on-field figure – and even though the Blue Jays organization owes him nothing of the sort, president Mark Shapiro and GM Ross Atkins do understand people. And they know a pissed-off Jose Bautista is not the sort of person worth having around. Every team knows this. It’s why Bautista’s salary in the end will be more reasonable than expected of someone in this market.

It’s not altogether prudent to play chicken with the only possible high-on-base hitter left in free agency. Even last season, as he struggled, Bautista managed the third-highest walk rate in baseball behind Mike Trout and Bryce Harper. An .817 OPS in a bad season will play, especially when the Blue Jays’ current outfield consists, left to right, of Melvin Upton Jr., Kevin Pillar and Ezequiel Carrera. Or, better put, a guy who couldn’t crack the Mendoza Line with Toronto last year, a guy with a career OPS below .700 and a guy whose career OPS+ of 83 puts him well below-average.

No matter how good Josh Donaldson and Troy Tulowitzki and Russell Martin – and even the two hitters Toronto has signed this winter, Kendrys Morales and Steve Pearce – may be, the Blue Jays’ lineup, as currently constituted, doesn’t pack nearly the jolt it has in recent years. Early in the Blue Jays’ run, Bautista was the star and Encarnacion best supporting actor. The roles have flipped in recent seasons, lessening Bautista’s value. Toronto’s lineup still looks naked without his name in it.

And looking at it from that perspective can be short-sighted. If Bautista is willing to take a one-year deal, though, it behooves Toronto in two respects. First, the truth is other bats are going to cost, too. Some may want multiyear deals and others cost too much in trade capital. Jay Bruce is $13 million and Curtis Granderson $15 million if they want to go the trade route, and even then, neither is Bautista. Second, the flexibility of a one-year deal gives the Blue Jays a chance to see if Bautista can be their David Ortiz.

It’s not just that he was the archetype for a late-career bloomer. Ortiz looked done after his age-33 season, to the point where the Red Sox wondered whether he’d even finish out his contract. Seven seasons later, he was the best hitter in the American League, all of them spent with Boston, where he belonged. Certainly Bautista wants to earn his next payday instead of how he’s going about it this year: hoping teams forget what he looked like in 2016.

Letting go of a franchise-type player, even one in his mid-30s, is difficult. The fickleness of fandom, one GM likes to say, cannot ever influence personnel decisions. Ignoring it, likewise, shows a certain tone deafness that fans hate as much as anything. Were Bautista asking for multiple years at bigger-than-qualifying-offer money, nobody could blame Shapiro and Atkins for passing it up. One year, even at big money, mitigates the downside.

Rogers Centre isn’t going to empty en masse if Encarnacion and Bautista aren’t there Opening Day 2017. It’s not like Bautista is some proven attendance generator. In his best season, 2010, the Blue Jays actually bottomed out in attendance at 1.6 million. This past season, his worst, they hit nearly 3.4 million, their highest total since 1993, their last championship season.

Still, the number of Bautista jerseys in the stands during the playoffs means something – or at least does to Bautista. “That’s where his heart is,” one person close to Bautista said. “He wants to go back there.”

This can happen, though the next move is the Blue Jays’. The internal concerns are clear. It would cost a lot. It would keep them from the draft pick. Bautista is not exactly Mr. Congeniality inside a sport that begs for conformity. It would not be a move without risk. Inside a league with Boston and Cleveland and Houston, however, risks aren’t just warranted. They’re vital.

If it takes Bautista compromising on salary for this to happen, it’s incumbent on him to meet Toronto closer to its desire. This is a deal that could happen, that should happen, but it takes both sides to realize it. Pragmatism and emotion don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Put them together and that’s how the best decisions – the right ones – are made.

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