TORONTO — Only one thing matters now that Jose Bautista is back with the Toronto Blue Jays. Only one thing said in his Saturday media availability is of significance: that he seems open to playing different positions if it will help the team.
That’s all I needed to hear. The rest is as irrelevant as that social media obsession about whether Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez are still bromantics, which … geezus, don’t get me started! The same cold, honest business acumen that Bautista brings on and off the field means the Blue Jays slugger is smart enough to handle what transpired during this winter’s still-born foray into free agency.
"You get what you can get," was the statement that seemed to sum up his understanding of a market flush with, and depressed by, so many similarly aging sluggers. Bautista is so, so, right …
That Bautista would be measured and qualified in his tone is no surprise. Last spring’s floated five-year, $150-million wish list — never categorically denied — was almost as much a mistake as the decision by Paul Kinzer and Edwin Encarnacion to cut off negotiations with the Blue Jays once the regular season started. Pro tip: never give the other side an excuse to not negotiate.
The way forward for Bautista, now, is the one shown by Carlos Beltran, who has signed $92 million worth of contracts since the age of 35. Be shrewd; be a good teammate; do whatever the team wants.
Bautista must surely realize now that the brass ring has gone forever. That’s not a comeuppance; it’s reality. Allowing for the likelihood that Andrew McCutchen’s $14.5-million club option for 2018 is exercised either by the Pittsburgh Pirates or whichever team might acquire him in a trade, here is a list of potential free agent hitters next winter: Eric Hosmer, J.D. Martinez, Carlos Santana, Alcides Escobar, Lorenzo Cain, Todd Frazier, Mike Moustakas, Jay Bruce, Matt Holliday, Jonathan Lucroy, Curtis Granderson and Jayson Werth.
Of that group, just three — Granderson, Werth and Holliday — will be older than Bautista. Martinez, who will be 31 on Opening Day 2018, and Hosmer and Moustakas (who will be 29 years old on Opening Day 2018), could receive the lion’s share of interest. Among pitchers, Jake Arrieta and, if healthy, Yu Darvish could be primary market movers.
That class clearly isn’t as sexy as the next off-season’s, which is expected to be headlined by then-26-year-old Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, and includes Josh Donaldson, Clayton Kershaw and whatever is left of the arms of Andrew Miller and Dellin Betances.
As Philadelphia Phillies senior advisor Pat Gillick said two years ago: "I don’t know if teams are looking ahead to that class when they plan their off-seasons leading up to it. But they should be."
How that plays out for somebody like Bautista remains to be seen, by my guess is it ain’t good. This contract with the Blue Jays still feels like a shotgun marriage, but that doesn’t worry me in the slightest. I’m confident that Bautista will slip into his dotage productively, and in the meantime his presence shouldn’t hamstring the organization.
THE NBA GETS IT
How good is it to be the NBA these days? A smart commissioner who has his fingers on the political pulse of his players; players with a brain who aren’t afraid to think about issues outside their own narrow, athletic mandates, with superstars who are without question the easiest to deal with in North American professional sports — hell, it’s even figured out a common-sense approach to selecting all-stars …
And the Greek Freak. And “The Process.”
I thought about this even before reading Jay Caspian Kang’s terrific piece in the New York Times last week: "Hunting for Unicorns," about how stereotype-challenging players such as Milwaukee Bucks’ seven-foot point guard Giannis Antetokounmpo are showing it’s possible to be a transcendent player outside of the usual media hubs.
I don’t know when this happened, exactly. The San Antonio Spurs, after all, were a great team in a small market but they never became a part of pop culture and that’s notable to someone who remembers that one of the reasons the NBA was able to establish a foothold in the North American market wasn’t just because it had players to push sneakers, but because it had the Showtime Los Angeles Lakers and Magic and Bird and Dr. J. and Michael Jordan playing in Chicago with the Bulls.
I mean, it’s still the league of “same old, same old” when it comes to who can realistically be champion, and it’s still the league of Steph and LeBron, but it seems as if something’s happening in just about every city — even Philadelphia, where the 76ers attendance is up over 2,000 fans per game and Joel Embiid looks set to become the next big thing.
Which brings us to the all-star selection process and the "weighted" vote that marries fan balloting (weighted 50 per cent) with that of media and player balloting (25 per cent, each). It’s not perfect, but it’s the best out there, reinforces the NBA’s All-Star Game as the best there is, and ought to be copied by every other league and is widely instructive. For example, the price Russell Westbrook paid for being an ass was exacted not by the media (who picked him first among Western Conference guards), but by fans (who picked him third). There’s a message there, if he wants to think about it.
QUIBBLES AND BITS
• Speaking of the NBA, let’s make a deal: you take Stephen Curry, you take LeBron James and I’ll take Kawhi Leonard to start my team, OK? Leonard and the Spurs come into town on Tuesday and here’s something to keep in mind: then-Toronto Raptors general manager Bryan Colangelo has acknowledged he thought about taking Leonard with the fifth choice in the 2011 draft that was spent instead on Jonas Valanciunas (Leonard went 15th to Indiana before being traded to San Antonio). Leonard’s six consecutive games of 30-plus points going into Monday night’s game at the Barclays Center is the longest streak since Mike Mitchell’s five consecutive games in 1986. Leonard is also the fourth Spurs player to average 24-plus points and the first since Tim Duncan in 2001-02. George Gervin and David Robinson are the only other Spurs players to hit that mark.
• Still think all this talk about the importance of bullpens is a passing fancy? Don’t look now, but the Miami Marlins are mulling over the idea of a four-man bench and an eight-man bullpen, according to MLB.com’s Joe Frisaro.
I get that part of the reason is the Marlins view themselves as having an unusually versatile ground of bench players, but this is still remarkable stuff considering the Marlins are a National League team where the pitchers spot in the order is often a determining factor in a manager’s in-game strategy. But, by all means, please continue to think of the bullpen as being of secondary importance, as being something you address through failed starters and career minor leaguers.
• Living in Calgary from 1987-89 was like being in exile, but there were a few of the saving graces, chief among them the view of the mountains from the Calgary Herald office and getting to hang out with Fred Biletnikoff when he was a Calgary Stampeders assistant coach. So I cracked a smile Sunday night when I found out that the stick-um laden Oakland Raiders Hall of Fame wide receiver was one of only three players with at least 180 yards receiving in multiple post-season games, joining Jerry Rice and, as of Sunday, the Atlanta Falcons’ Julio Jones. And that, my friends, is one helluva eclectic list.
Roger Goodell is not only the worst commissioner in sports, he is a coward — choosing to go to the NFC title game instead of the AFC championship to avoid Tom Brady, continuing his absence from Gillette Stadium since Deflate-Gate became a thing. He can’t run and hide during the Super Bowl, however, and while I’ll once again find myself not giving a damn about who wins the most overblown example of everything bad about the U.S. … yeah, I’d love to see Goodell look Brady in the eye and give him the Vince Lombardi Trophy. Oh, and god bless Gregg Popovich …