Bautista talks busy Blue Jays off-season

Toronto Blue Jays outfielder Jose Bautista (Kathy Kmonicek/AP)

Such is the frenzied atmosphere around the Toronto Blue Jays these days that an innocent Twitter post by Jose Bautista featuring an eager young fan’s recruitment letter was seen by some as a subtle request for a trade.

Certainly the buzz around the two-time home run champion has veered way beyond silly over the past few days, triggered by a nonsensical and fabricated trade rumour out of Philadelphia and heightened by the ensuing (and at times venomous) debate over whether it’s time to deal the four-time all-star.

Bautista insists he’s paying it all no mind, and understandably, isn’t interested in discussing the speculation floating around about him. As for the fan’s letter, which suggested that he may be able to stay healthy in another city and offered $80 million over four years for him to join the Texas Rangers as David Murphy’s replacement, Bautista thought it was cute, nothing more. Though no explanation should be needed, conspiracy theorists take note: “There was nothing meant by it,” he says.

That things have reached this point, particularly in the sillier corners of social media, speaks to the angst within the Blue Jays fan-base after the 74-88 disappointment of 2013. As one of the key faces of the franchise, Bautista in some ways has turned into a scapegoat thanks to his failings last season, which he finished on the disabled list with a hip injury.

With the Blue Jays needing to patch significant holes, some see a Bautista trade as the magic bullet to resolve multiple roster problems in one fell swoop. That’s why other teams are inquiring about his availability, and his name is sure to pop up in more trade rumours before the 2014 roster is set. Sure a deal is possible, but it’s unlikely the Blue Jays can get enough present-day value to justify dealing an elite right-fielder signed to a good contract. The return in any such trade would start at an elite pitcher and progress from there. Either way, Bautista isn’t interested in entering the fray, busy enough with his family, friends and training during the off-season. He was cleared for lower-body exercises earlier this month after the bone bruise on the neck of his left femur cleared, and his focus is there now.

“I’m very excited,” he says during an interview. “I’m getting back on the field earlier than normal, I’m just really looking forward to getting back to full strength and being healthy again. I’ve already started working out, I feel great, everything is progressing nicely, and I expect to be 110 per cent by the time spring training rolls around.”

At the same time Bautista is also eagerly awaiting the moves GM Alex Anthopoulos has up his sleeve to turn things around for the Blue Jays. Like so many others, Bautista believed the 2013 club had all the pieces in place for a legitimate run – “I just don’t see where it can go bad for us,” he said back in February – but the additions of R.A. Dickey, Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, Josh Johnson and Melky Cabrera, among others, failed to pay dividends.

“Alex took his first run at really going after it when it comes to putting a team together that has a legit chance at being world champions, and it’s hard to get it right on your first time,” says Bautista. “Hopefully the second time we’re going to play better and support all the moves he makes, and make them look good, him and (manager John Gibbons). …

“All those losses (from 2013) are totally on the players. All that heat that’s on Alex and Gibby – they don’t deserve it. We should be getting a lot more heat as players, and that’s why the focus should be on each individual showing up ready to go and playing better than they did last year.”

The message of individual responsibility is an important one for a Blue Jays team that in some corners was described as lacking in leadership, something that will only be affected negatively by the retirements of Mark DeRosa and Darren Oliver. Given his stature on the team, more players will likely look to Bautista to help fill the void, and while he’s relishes the responsibility, he also feels it can’t be him alone.

“What I think is that at times everybody – not only on our team and in our city – tries to look for the one person to carry the team and be the leader and be the one appointed person that’s responsible for everything. When you’re talking about a team sport, that’s pretty unfair assessment to make,” Bautista says. “I embrace the role of being a leader, I embrace the fact that people look up at me to that way, that I could be that person for the team, but at the same time it’s within each individual player to do whatever it takes and what’s best for themselves as individuals to be the best players they can be, which in turn will make a better team as a whole. Those are just my thoughts.”

Another area of change already in place for the Blue Jays is at hitting coach, where Kevin Seitzer replaces Chad Mottola and assistant Dwayne Murphy, who worked closely with Bautista. Seitzer preaches an up-the-middle hitting philosophy, leading to questions of how he’ll mesh with dead-pull Blue Jays like Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion and Colby Rasmus. Thus far Bautista and Seitzer have spoken once, a mostly introductory chat.

“He did say he enjoyed what I’ve done in the past and watching it from afar and that he’s going to enjoy it a lot more now that we’re in the same dugout, and that was pretty much it,” Bautista says. “Hitting philosophies are different for different players, different places.

“I don’t think everyone should have the same philosophy and I don’t think he thinks that way.”

Still, Bautista sounds more open to tweaking his approach than ever before. When asked if going the opposite field on occasion, particularly with two strikes as Seitzer urges, was something he might consider, he replied: “I’m willing to make any adjustments that make me a better hitter.”

That’s good news for the Blue Jays, a scary thought for opposing pitchers, and something to think about for those who wish him gone.

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