DUNEDIN, Fla. – There’s a cautionary tale in the gong-show feel to the opening of spring training for the Toronto Blue Jays, a start that’s highlighted the external pitfalls the American League East champions must protect against in 2016.
Really, between the pending free agencies of franchise cornerstones Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, eight other players in their walk years, the meld of old and new in the club’s front office and coaching staff, plus now two failed attempts at landing Jay Bruce, this is already a team with a lot of baggage.
A lot of this stuff isn’t easily resolved, and sure to resurface regularly, too, the way it did Tuesday when a report said Bautista told the Blue Jays he wanted $150 million over five years to re-sign.
“False,” was his one word reply to Sportsnet when asked about it.
That issues would bubble up at the beginning of camp makes sense, but keeping everything contained during the regular season, and more pivotally once the 162-game grind’s adversity inevitably hits, is going to be a real challenge. Adherence to the commonality of team goals can quickly ebb when there’s potential reason for interests up and down the organization to diverge.
“Not only is he a very talented guy, he’s always been able to focus, that’s one of his strengths. He’ll continue to do that,” manager John Gibbons said Tuesday in relation to Bautista, who triggered a firestorm Monday by saying he won’t negotiate off the undisclosed number he’s given the Blue Jays.
“I expect him to have a monster year. The stakes are so high for us as a team, and with what’s at stake for him as a free agent, this may be his best year ever.”
If that’s the case, the Blue Jays will certainly have much less to worry about on the distraction front, but will Encarnacion and the rest of the potential free agents, Saunders among them, be able to perform under the circumstances? And what happens if things collectively go sideways?
Saunders surely reported for camp Tuesday wondering about where he really stands, after a three-team deal that would have sent the Victoria native to the Los Angeles Angels while landing Bruce from the Cincinnati Reds fell apart, reportedly due to medical concerns over a Blue Jays prospect in the trade.
It’s the second time in two weeks the Blue Jays nearly acquired Bruce – who enjoyed his best seasons when Brook Jacoby was Cincinnati’s hitting coach – and is a clear indication of how badly GM Ross Atkins wants him.
With the Reds in dump mode, this isn’t over.
“It’s obvious what’s going on,” Bruce told media at Reds camp in Gilbert, Ariz. “They’re obviously making an effort to get something done, I think. We just have to wait and see. Like I said from the beginning, until I’m not a Red, I’m a Red.”
Saunders, meanwhile, handled matters with his typical grace, saying, “I can look at this in one of two ways: Pay heed to it, not come into work today and kind of mope and worry, but I’m trying to be professional and like I said, I’m a Blue Jay, I’m here to work, to help bring a championship to Toronto and that’s where I want to be.”
For the left-fielder, there’s no other approach to take, but good luck to the Blue Jays in convincing him that they really want him, and believe in him.
“Mike’s a pro, these guys have all been in the game, they understand the business side of it,” said Gibbons. “Even if the rumour was true, it was a pretty good team that wanted him, one of the perennial better teams in baseball, so that’s kind of a compliment in itself right there. But nothing’s happened, we’ll move on, we’re glad we have him.”
Amid the fuss, Atkins spent 10 minutes with the media no commenting on the raging issues, trying to deliver a carry-on, nothing-to-see-here message.
In regards to the potential trade, he said: “There are a lot of trade rumours, there are a lot of trade discussions, we have them constantly, and there’s really nothing I can comment on about them.”
Meanwhile, in regards to Bautista’s number, which is without doubt in excess of $100 million, Atkins would only say, “all of my interactions with Jose have been incredible, I love being around the guy, I love talking baseball with him, I love to hear him talking about his career, it gets me fired up. But in relation to the negotiation, out of respect for him, out of respect for the Blue Jays organization, we just can’t get into the specifics of it.”
Atkins also took umbrage with the notion that the Bautista situation had cast a cloud over the team.
“To me it’s not a cloud, to me really it’s clear we’ve had really clear, effective communication and there is no ambiguity,” said Atkins. “We can focus on playing baseball, Jose feels good about doing that. Relative to a negotiation, to me it doesn’t need to be public, and it won’t be from our end.”
Perhaps, but whether the Blue Jays want it to or not, it’s already playing out publicly, with the differing narratives spinning all around. If they can’t find a way to settle all the differing issues, they must ensure the clubhouse is sufficiently insulated from the background noise, lest it seep through and sabotage a campaign of promise.