Bautista talks add intriguing twist to Blue Jays’ winter plans

Shi Davidi breaks down how Jose Bautista’s camp meeting with the Blue Jays benefits both the team and the player while they try to round out their situations heading into the spring.

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. – Just as the Toronto Blue Jays seemed to entrench themselves in a stare-down with their primary off-season targets, an intriguing crack may have unexpectedly reopened with Jose Bautista.

Hours after the Boston Red Sox electrified the winter meetings Tuesday by landing Chris Sale, Tyler Thornburg and Mitch Moreland, a late afternoon meeting between the slugger’s reps and GM Ross Atkins added some muddle to an emerging picture of two parallel tracks the club is operating on.

Free-agent outfielder Dexter Fowler – a speedy, switch-hitting, on-base proficient leadoff man who fills all kinds of needs – is believed to be the linchpin to the Blue Jays’ planning, with multiple industry sources believing Toronto and St. Louis are his primary suitors.

At the same time, the Blue Jays are honing a flexible secondary plan to divert the money it would take to sign Fowler – something between $15-18 million annually for four years – and spread it across a number of smaller acquisitions. In that sense, the approach would be similar to how Kendrys Morales and Steve Pearce were signed after Edwin Encarnacion didn’t accept an $80-million, four-year offer.

On that track, the Blue Jays could pursue free agents like Michael Saunders and Brandon Moss for some power in the outfield, or Ben Revere for a dose of speed. Or they could prioritize relief help. The decision at that point would be which combination of players would make the most sense.

Now, enter Bautista, driving the current push because of his desire to remain with the Blue Jays, according to an industry source. As the market for him outside of Toronto starts to pick up, Bautista is believed to be willing to help make things work around the club’s needs.

The meeting is said to be the first formal, face-to-face discussion between the Blue Jays and Bautista’s camp since extension talks went nowhere prior to spring training in February. There had been very little contact between the sides since Bautista rejected a $17.2-million qualifying offer Nov. 14, which looked to have marked the final split between the sides.

It probably still does, but the door isn’t entirely shut with Atkins sounding like someone waiting for the market (Fowler, looking in your direction) to come to him.

“There are a lot of different moves that we could speed up by offering more money or offering more player in return,” Atkins replied when asked if the Blue Jays were close to making a move.

What’s keeping them from doing that?

“It’s more about balancing all the opportunities and there are times when you feel that you need to move and there are times when you feel that you don’t,” said Atkins. “We’re not in a position where we feel we need to move right now. The more the off-season goes, the more your understanding is of different price points, whether that be trade or free agency. When you know positions, sure, we have the resources to move, but there is still a lot of time left.”

Not only is there lots of time left, but more importantly plenty of alternatives remain, too, and one player agent felt a few trades need to take place to help free up the backlog. Until more roster spots are filled up and more money is spent, there isn’t much incentive for either side to budge at the moment.

“In any negotiation, in any deal, there’s always the opportunity to lunge,” said Atkins, hammering the point home. “We could do what we view now as more to potentially make another acquisition, and right now we’re not going to do that.”

Fair enough, but the challenge during this time of the year is in separating the bluster and bluff from the substance.

Are the Blue Jays simply waiting for Fowler, or someone else to blink? Are they using Bautista to try and pressure Fowler into making a decision, the way some in the industry believe their interest in Moreland was floated Sunday night to push Pearce into a decision?

For that matter, is Bautista’s camp trying to move some other teams into action? His representatives have been on the hustle with various clubs and there’s no shortage of speculation on their alternatives.

Or perhaps this is a genuine opportunity for a Blue Jays team experiencing fan backlash for parting ways with Encarnacion, and a franchise icon who wants to stay to chart a course forward together.

Probably not, but the winter meetings is made for surprises, and a detour to Bautista through the divergent lanes the Blue Jays are working would sure be a big one.

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