Blue Jays must face possibility that Bautista era will end

Jeff Blair and Stephen Brunt try to make sense of the rumoured 3-way trade that would see the Blue Jays land Jay Bruce, and then speculate on how it all fell apart… for now.

If ever there was a team that needed spring training to be over like, yesterday, it’s the Toronto Blue Jays.

The six weeks between now and opening day?

There’s no upside to continuing with the charade. Give the pitchers a throwing program and tell everyone to reconvene for a couple of exhibition games in Montreal in early April and be done with it.

Outside of figuring out left field, some bullpen roles and a plan for Aaron Sanchez, all that can happen is weirdness, injuries and distractions.

Such as a scuttled trade involving presumed left fielder Michael Saunders.

Or Jose Bautista, the franchise player and the leading voice on a roster with 10 members of the projected 25-man roster entering walk years, announcing about as loudly as it can ever be announced that yes, his contract situation will be a front-burner issue until it gets dealt with.

And that was just Day 1.

And now a new question: will Bautista’s opening contract salvo set the tone for the rest of the spring and perhaps be looked back on as an early disruptor in a season that, on paper, should unfold like a storybook?

We’ll see. Credit where credit is due: In making the opening chapters of the build-up to one of the most anticipated seasons in Blue Jays memory all about him getting paid, Bautista didn’t waste any time being subtle.

He didn’t quite tell team president Mark Shapiro, “Pay me or trade me,” but he very publicly challenged him to meet his demands for what he believes is fair value, a deal most of those in the know would pencil in around four years and $100 million, which is good value (in the parallel universe inhabited by baseball players) for his recent production, but a risky signing for an outfielder who would be 40 by the end of the contract.

I don’t think it serves anyone to be so naïve to think that a group of grown men would somehow modify their behaviour one way or the other based on Bautista’s approach.

But by putting his non-negotiation negotiation — I think it’s called ‘trying to leverage public opinion’ — out in the public on the first day of spring training, he created an environment where at the very least it would be hard to fault anyone else for doing otherwise.

It’s hard to imagine, for example, Edwin Encarnacion, doing something similar — it would require him holding court in front of a bank of microphones and cameras, which would be a surprise — but as an equally productive hitter on an even more team-friendly contract, he’d have even more reason to put the Blue Jays on notice than Bautista. In his own way, he’s already had his people tell management that he won’t discuss an extension once the season starts.

Bautista hasn’t given a deadline; just an ultimatum.

With so many players in the last years of their contracts, Bautista’s comments make clear that, in the Blue Jays clubhouse, putting your individual interests front and centre is an acceptable approach.

What impact that approach will have is unknowable, but it will be a talking point if things start slowly in April — Bautista hit .164 coming out of spring training a year ago.

And there’s a real chance it will have no impact on player performance at all. With the chance to play for one more big-time MLB payday, Bautista will have one more in a long line of outstanding seasons, the rest of the club will follow his lead and 2016 will be 1992 all over again.

A rising tide will lift the Blue Jays ship.

That’s one scenario. The comforting one.

The other scenario is Bautista’s shot over the bow of ownership and management is just the start of a long year of rancour and acrimony as the needs of the team in the present get stretched thin by the individual’s needs for long-term security. Anything other than a strong start, middle and finish to the season and the tension will only mount.

No one is begrudging Bautista’s right to get paid. All he deserves is respect for how he rose from journeyman status to perennial all star, while emerging as one of the most intelligent and outspoken players in the game and keeping his Dominican roots front and centre. He’s on a very short list as one of the best Blue Jay players of all time and as a bonus, in the first pennant race and post-season baseball of his career, came up bat-flippin’ huge.

But we can quibble with a few details of his “hometown discounts don’t exist in my world” opening statement delivered as if scripted on Monday.

Did he outperform the five-year, $65-million contract he signed after his breakout 2010 season, when he set a club record with 54 home runs?

Unequivocally. But it wasn’t because he gave the Blue Jays a hometown discount. Paying him $78 million over six years — the first five years and $65 million guaranteed, this year a club option — was a huge risk on the basis of one potentially anomalous season.

You could almost hear then-general manager Alex Anthopoulos’ voice crack when he announced the deal, which had it gone south likely would have taken his career down with him.

“We wholeheartedly believe in Jose Bautista as a person, more than anything else,” Anthopoulos said at the time. “If we can’t bet on (Bautista), we can’t bet on anybody. And that’s what it really came down to.”

The bet paid off.

But signing Bautista to a market-driven, long-term extension that would kick in during his age-36 season would be an even bigger gamble because the franchise would be betting against the unforgiving advance of time.

Much more likely is that this is the last year for Bautista as a Blue Jay and that he’ll venture into free agency to get the last big payday he wants, deserves and yet likely won’t get from a franchise that’s justifiably hesitant to pay him for past performance.

The first day of spring training brings talk about renewal and rebirth. It’s the story baseball keeps telling itself.

Bautista used it to bring into focus that the end for this era of Blue Jays baseball is likely nearer than anyone wants to think.

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