Bautista’s return to Blue Jays not your typical homecoming

Shi Davidi and Ben Nicholson-Smith join Faizal Khamisa to break down the news that Jose Bautista has reportedly re-signed with the Blue Jays.

TORONTO – One of the more intriguing questions about Jose Bautista’s return to the Toronto Blue Jays is how the two sides are going to package this.

Clearly there’s a feel-good narrative to be spun here – iconic slugger and the club he’s starred for reuniting – that to some degree is valid, and will surely be how things are dressed up.

But if we’re being real, and let’s, this is a mid-January leverage play between a team that sifted through a host of preferred options before circling back to Bautista, and a 36-year-old right-fielder who wanted to stay put all along and didn’t find a more appealing alternative while the Blue Jays played the field.

Context matters and the agreement reached by the sides Tuesday afternoon – a one-year deal that guarantees about $18 million, an industry source told Sportsnet, with mutual options that could push the total up to $60 million over three years according to Jon Heyman of Fan Rag – isn’t anything close to what either had in mind.

Remember that the Blue Jays made near immediate runs at bringing back Edwin Encarnacion and Brett Cecil, were aggressive in locking down Kendrys Morales and Steve Pearce, seriously pursued Dexter Fowler and discussed trades for the likes of Andrew McCutchen, Charlie Blackmon, Adam Eaton, Jay Bruce and Curtis Granderson.

All were prioritized by the Blue Jays ahead of Bautista, who was determined to re-sign in Toronto but whose free agency was limited by the compensatory draft pick the qualifying offer pinned on him. As he lingered in a saturated outfield market, general manager Ross Atkins waited, noting last month "because Morales is here, we feel like we’re in a position to be more opportunistic later in the off-season."

Not exactly an open-arm embrace for a dearly missed loved one.

Bautista, meanwhile, returns after grandstanding last spring when he and the Blue Jays held fruitless extension talks and he told reporters, "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."

Well, up until last week it was what it was, and then it wasn’t, the Blue Jays changing course so abruptly that even some in the organization were flabbergasted by the sudden engagement with Bautista.

Organic? Well, sure, but only in the sense that the sides followed a jagged path before finding themselves in a place at the end where a reunion was really the best outcome.

So now they have another year together, which may very well work out brilliantly, and for Blue Jays fans who love Bautista and haven’t liked what they’ve seen so far this off-season, some order to their world is restored.

And with some clarity on the outfield and the impact on payroll – the Blue Jays are at roughly $155 million with Bautista and an estimated $5 million for 0-3 service time players – they can now lock in on finding a left-handed reliever and a backup catcher.

Add, say, Jerry Blevins (at the higher end) or Travis Wood (on the value play end) for the bullpen and maybe Kurt Suzuki, Brayan Pena or Dioner Navarro behind the plate and the Blue Jays should comfortably be in the mix for a wild card with their core.

Still, they went into the off-season seeking to get younger, more balanced and more athletic and they aren’t all that much different than they were a year ago.

On the younger front they get a pass as the only way for a team to accomplish that outside of developing its own players is through trade, and as the deals for Eaton, Chris Sale and Tyler Thornburg demonstrated, they are prohibitively expensive in terms of prospect capital. Really, that likely won’t happen until the likes of Dalton Pompey and prospects such as Rowdy Tellez, Richard Urena, Anthony Alford and Vladimir Guerrero Jr., are ready to turn over the core.

Morales, a switch-hitter, will help balance the middle of the lineup but as things stand, switch-hitter Justin Smoak is the only other left-handed bat projected to get regular playing time next season. Ezequiel Carrera is the only pure left-handed bat sure to be on the roster, so the Blue Jays remain a predominantly right-handed hitting team.

None of Morales, Pearce and Bautista help the team become more athletic and you can make the case they’re less athletic now with Morales and Pearce instead of Encarnacion and Michael Saunders. Fowler would have provided a dose of speed and balance but that didn’t work out so they still lack a natural leadoff hitter – Bautista again? – and unless Pompey unexpectedly makes the squad, they don’t have much speed beyond Carrera and Melvin Upton Jr.

Bottom line – how often the Blue Jays score will again be dependent on how much they slug.

Bautista helps on that front, especially if his injury-marred 2016 is an outlier and he performs more like the Joey Bats fans know and love. One rival evaluator said he expects Bautista to hit but added his defence has only one place to go, and it’s not up.

Even with the caveat, the Blue Jays weren’t going to do better than Bautista at this point, their match made not in heaven, but in the harsh realities of market leverage and cold business considerations.