TORONTO — So it’s a February Florida morning, and the free-agent-to-be slugger shows up for spring training, parking in a spot reserved for one of the major league team’s owners. And why not? He’s an icon in his city. It loves him, and he says repeatedly there’s no place else he wants to play. Own the team? Hell. He owns the city!
So he gets out of his black pickup truck, wearing cargo shorts and sunglasses, holding a couple of packages. He holds a 25-minute media session outside the clubhouse and says he dropped the hammer on negotiations with his current club "because you don’t want to bring distractions to the ballclub."
A city — no, a nation — wonders if this can end any way other than bad. Ownership wrings its hands. Call-in shows erupt. Everybody picks a side …
And the St. Louis Cardinals go on to win the World Series, with Albert Pujols missing 15 games and hitting below his career average, home runs and runs batted in, then goes off in the playoffs, hitting .478 in the National League Championship Series and posting a 1.064 OPS in a World Series win over the Texas Rangers. He bids adieu to St. Louis, and signs a 10-year, $240 million free-agent deal with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim at age 32.
The Cardinals? They make it to the playoffs the next four years and go to the World Series once, albeit a losing appearance. They use the compensation picks they receive from the Angels to draft and sign pitcher Michael Wacha and outfielder Stephen Piscotty. Life goes on, and it goes on very well, in fact.
OK, so this is likely the best of best-case scenarios. We may never see a repeat of it. But as the Toronto Blue Jays and their fans settle in for what might be a season-long contractual issue with Jose Bautista, it probably doesn’t hurt to remember that teams have managed to survive the imminent departure of a talismanic talent and actually send him off with a World Series title.
Every Blue Jays fan with a brain has known for three years that a day like Monday was going to come around at some point. Absent a contract extension signed last season or the season before, at some point in the first week of spring training in 2016, Bautista was going to address his contractual status the way only he could do it: measured, pointed — and in a way that would make everybody else, particularly ownership, seem the villain.
Grab and squeeze. Then squeeze again, knowing the public would be squarely in his corner.
There are vast differences between the Pujols/Cardinals situation and the Bautista/Blue Jays situation. To begin with, the Pujols/Cardinals divorce happened after the sides had won a World Series and by that point the organization was already known for shrewd self-evaluation.
Plus, the Cardinals were a part of the fabric of their city in a manner well beyond any other major league team. Cardinals Nation was in place well before Pujols came along. It was all about the uniform, Stan Musial, Bob Gibson and Jack Buck. And as splendid as Bautista has been, he hasn’t been called the best hitter of his generation the way Pujols was feted in the years leading up to his free agency.
It’s true that you can find teams and free agents that have caved in during walk years for key players. But I don’t see that happening with this Blue Jays team. It’s an older, experienced group of players that has been through about all you can go through in the majors. And most of them are getting theirs, being paid at a market rate. Josh Donaldson might wonder about life after Jose and Edwin Encarnacion — the latter of whom is also a free agent — but he’s probably smart enough to realize deep down that the money that would go to those two could end up in his own pocket.
If I were Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins, my inclination would be to ride this out with Bautista. Keep him on the contract, suss things out at the trade deadline, offer him compensation then take the draft pick and move on. If Bautista wants $25-$30 million five years down the road, he’d better earn his $16 million this season. And if he does … chances are the Blue Jays have had a good year.
But there is one similarity between Bautista’s free agency and that of Pujols: just as the Major League Baseball Players Association continually reminded Pujols’ agent Dan Lozano that his client was setting the market for every other player in the game — a rising tide lifts all boats — so, too, will Bautista’s agent Jay Alou be reminded that his client is the top free agent in what is a thin market this winter.
It will likely be the first off-season market of a new collective bargaining agreement, and who knows what wrinkles may result, so there will be pressure to extract every cent out of ownership, and Bautista is a good players association foot soldier, in addition to a guy who looks upon his own body, as Shapiro says, "as if it’s a Fortune 500 company."
Look, this is what comes with success. Ask the Cardinals, the Boston Red Sox, the Kansas City Royals — whomever. It’s going to be a politically sensitive time. Feelings could very well be hurt; fans could very well be angered. But this shouldn’t be an impediment to a successful season. If it is, chances are this team wasn’t as close to winning as we all thought.