Despite down season, Bautista intends to play somewhere in 2018

NEW YORK – The end of the Jose Bautista era with the Toronto Blue Jays was set in motion a couple of weeks ago, when the franchise icon was informed the team won’t exercise its end of a $17-million option for the 2018 season.

"No comment," was all Bautista would say when asked Sunday if he’d already been told, but there’s no way the Blue Jays would have celebrated him the way they did during the final homestand leading up to last Sunday’s emotional farewell without giving him advanced notice.

The decision on the option – which isn’t surprising given that the right-fielder batted .203/.308/.366 with 23 homers, 65 RBIs, 84 walks and a club-record 170 strikeouts – will send Bautista into the open market. At this point, it’s unclear how he might fit a roster that needs more youth and athleticism, although he remains hopeful of a return to the franchise he led out of the darkness and back to the post-season in 2015 and ’16.

"I won’t really look at the numbers too much, they are what they are. I can’t change them," Bautista told reporters after collecting a single and a sacrifice fly in the season-ending 2-1 win over the New York Yankees. "All I can do is get ready for next season and be ready to contribute to the team that I’m with at that time. Right now I’m a Toronto Blue Jay, and that hasn’t changed. I’ve said it all along, this is where I want to be and finish my career. We’ll see what happens in the future. It’s out of my control now."

There was understandably little pageantry for Bautista on Sunday in New York – two plate appearances as the DH before quietly coming out of the game – after last weekend’s emotional celebration.

Last Sunday in the home finale, Marcus Stroman warmed up in the bullpen wearing one of Bautista’s old black Blue Jays jerseys pulled from a showcase. His Blue Jays teammates stayed back in the dugout and let him take the field by himself as the game began. Manager John Gibbons pulled him from the field in the ninth inning, with centre-fielder Kevin Pillar running over to start a series of hugs on his way off the field.

Fans stood and applauded the whole time, one of many standing ovations he received, and he obliged them with a rare curtain call.

That was the goodbye. Sunday at Yankee Stadium, on the other hand, was more a dropping him off at the curb.

Emotional?

"Not today," said Bautista. "On the road it’s much different. It’s easier to handle today."

Why just the two plate appearances?

"I talked to him," said Gibbons. "He got a couple of at-bats, a knock and just missed a home run but got an RBI (on the sacrifice fly), and I figured that was good."

What’s next for Bautista is the subject of much conjecture. He turns 37 on Oct. 19 and after a down year heads into a market that increasingly penalizes age and devalues experience.

Still, despite his age, his durability shouldn’t be a concern as he played in 157 games this season, second on the Blue Jays only to Justin Smoak’s 158, and was third in defensive innings at 1,281.2, including 38 at third base and one at first. Though his range isn’t what it was, his arm was again a weapon, his 10th assist of the season coming Saturday on a laser from the wall in right to second to catch Greg Bird stretching.

The main concern will be about his offence, and the steep spike in his strikeouts. This season his chase rate was up to 25.3 per cent from 20.2 per cent last year, and his swings and misses on pitches out of the strike zone rose three per cent.

Jose Bautista’s swings and misses on pitches outside of the strike zone in 2016 and ’17, courtesy of Baseball Savant.

Bautista evaluated his season this way: "As a player you always try to get better and stay close to being the player you feel you can be. I’ll work on whatever I need to work on in the off-season. I haven’t really reflected on that yet and thought about that. For me, it’s going into spring training, ready to contribute. I don’t necessarily feel like I need to revamp my game in its entirety. I just have to work hard, stay in shape and be ready to go."

Back in August, when Bautista joined Carlos Delgado as the only Blue Jays with eight consecutive seasons of at least 20 home runs, he offered a more specific window into his performance.

"Sometimes your swing and how you feel allow you to pull the trigger how you want and make contact more often on the pull side, but sometimes you just don’t. Sometimes your pitch recognition is there, sometimes it’s not," Bautista told me Aug. 11. "My consistency has fluctuated this year more than ever in how I feel at the plate rhythm-wise, how I can manipulate the bat. That’s part of the game, I guess, it’s just hard sometimes to make the adjustments quick enough, sometimes you make too many adjustments, too quick.

"It’s funny, I feel there have been swings in how pitchers are attacking me, drastic ones, from the first month to the second month to the third month," he added. "It’s a matter of adjusting quick and when they make another change just do it. I just haven’t been as good at it this year as I have in the past."

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Publicly available WAR ratings aren’t kind to him, either, with Fangraphs pegging him at minus-0.6 after a 1.4 last year, while Baseball Reference’s calculation had Bautista at minus-1.8 after a 1.0 in 2016.

But Bautista is fully intent on playing, somewhere, in 2018, and rather than thinking strictly statistically, he’s focused on all he can bring to a ball club.

"Contributing to daily wins is what it’s about for me," he said. "I tried to focus that on this year. I did an OK job, not as good as I’m used to, not as good as everybody’s used to seeing me, and that’s OK. There are good and bad years and for the most part my work tool, which is my body, is great, and all I’ve got to do is stay ready to go."

For whom is now the question.