Bautista contract situation really about Blue Jays’ future direction

Barry Davis, Shi Davidi and Arden Zwelling react to Jose Bautista’s comments on his contract and discuss the Blue Jays' options going forward.

DUNEDIN, Fla. – The decision faced by the Toronto Blue Jays isn’t just about whether or not to ante up and meet Jose Bautista’s expectations for a new contract.

No, what they do with the all-star right-fielder is really about the direction the team plans to take in 2017 and beyond, the outlook on the competitive window it’s in right now, and how much they plan to spend on players moving forward.

After all, if the Blue Jays don’t believe they’re going to be a club ready to win beyond this year – and with 10 players, or 40 per cent of the roster, eligible for free agency next fall that’s no certainty – does it make sense to spend big on Bautista, or Edwin Encarnacion or anyone else?

Without a significant payroll hike from the current $140 million range, the answer is probably not, since with $84.5 million already committed to five players, another big contract would make it awfully tough to fill in the rest of the roster with enough talent to field a legitimate contender.

And so while Bautista’s big-boy business ploy provided some great theatre to Monday’s first workout for pitchers and catchers – he gave president Mark Shapiro and GM Ross Atkins his price, and the number is the number – what he’s really done is force the Blue Jays to address their bigger-picture issues.

Are they pushing on with Bautista as part of this core for 2017 and beyond, or do they regroup at season’s end and take a different approach? Only once that question is settled can the team decide if the 35-year-old will be worth the massive outlay, or if they’re happy reaping the remaining surplus value from an expiring contract that will have paid him $78 million over six years by season’s end.

Whichever route they choose, there’s no grey in what it’s going to take to retain Bautista, who didn’t reveal specifics but is no doubt eyeing a nine-figure deal after saying he expects to play five more seasons.

“I’m not willing to negotiate even right now,” he said. “I don’t think there should be any negotiation. I think I’ve proved myself and the question has been asked, what will it take, and I’ve given them an answer. It is what it is. I’m not going to sit here and try to bargain for a couple dollars.”

The Blue Jays and the ownership at Rogers Communications Inc., have had some time to digest the request, as Bautista said he delivered his evaluation of his worth on the market during a roughly 15 minute meeting he described as “great” two weeks ago in Toronto.

“I didn’t want to waste any time,” he said. “If this is going to happen, I think it should be natural, organic, quick and easy, it shouldn’t be a pull and tug about a few dollars here or there. I didn’t want to waste any time, I didn’t want to waste their time or their effort, so they can start planning ahead, and if it’s not going to happen they have plenty of time to do so. …

“There’s no negotiation, I told them what I wanted. They either meet it or it is what it is.”

Later, he added: “Since, there’s been very limited conversation had, because there were attempts at negotiation, which then I said, ‘This is not happening. You asked me what the number would be, and I gave it to you.’”

While to some eyes Bautista’s approach is intransigent, his hard-line stance may keep the will-he-won’t-he-sign speculation to a minimum by trying to bring about an end-game now. He’s left the ball firmly in the Blue Jays’ court, with their decision sealing the fate of his tenure in Toronto, since the closer a player gets to free agency, the less incentive he has to forego the open market.

While in theory the two sides could talk again in the fall once he becomes a free agent, the reality is players are very unlikely to stay put at that point. Bautista replied “I don’t know,” when asked if his number would still be valid at season’s end, and said “I don’t have a magic ball,” when asked if he’d still consider the Blue Jays should he end up on the market.

“I’m not trying to be pessimistic, I’m positive, and I think they know and realize the things that I say and agree with me, it’s just a matter of are they willing to go there,” said Bautista. “And it’s not just necessarily Ross and Mark, I can’t say that, I don’t know. Some of that decision-making on a contract the size that I presented has to come from ownership. How much? I don’t know. I don’t really know how long their rope is to make exclusive decisions on contracts like that.”

Such decisions are made by the ownership on any team, and Bautista challenged the assertion that finding the available funding would be an issue. In coming up with his number, he factored in what he believes is his full worth to the team on and off the field, and stressed that, “I know what my value is.”

“Baseball has a great way of measuring each player’s value and it’s about how much of that they’re willing to share with a player,” said Bautista. “I understand the business, I don’t believe in the whole budget and payroll, I don’t believe in any of that stuff, I know exactly how baseball works, especially a team that’s structured the way we are.”

To that end he dismissed the silly notion of a hometown discount – “that doesn’t exist, not in my world; in my eyes I’ve given this organization a five-year hometown discount already” – and is understandably looking to score big this time around.

The contract he signed in the spring of 2011, a $64-million, five-year deal that included a $14 million option for 2016, came after his breakout 2010 season, with little track record to suggest he’d continue to perform at such a high-level. This time around, he’s got five additional elite years to support his case.

“I maximized on a great season back then, I just happened to outplay the contract to an extreme, even though I had to deal with a few injuries and missed a good chunk of games,” said Bautista. “That sort of thing happens and I never once complained it, and I haven’t still. All I’m saying is that facts are facts, I did outplay that contract and it did come out to be that the team got a huge hometown discount. Not by design on anyone’s part – they took a gamble, that was a big a risk, Alex [Anthopoulos] took a lot of heat for that and I just came through. I’m not going to apologize for that.”

Bautista is now asking the Blue Jays to take another gamble, confident that if they don’t, another team surely will.