Jose Bautista opens up regarding free agency, Blue Jays return

Irfaan Gaffar reports from the official opening day of Blue Jays Spring Training, where anything less than a World Series berth this season would be disappointing.

DUNEDIN, Fla. – The path back to the Toronto Blue Jays from last spring to this one for Jose Bautista remains a subject filled with intrigue.

It was last Feb. 22, almost exactly a year ago, when the franchise icon revealed that, at the club’s request, he’d delivered terms for a contract extension and stated that he wouldn’t negotiate off those numbers. He believed in his worth, his impact to the bottom line of team owner Rogers Communications Inc., and made clear there’d be no hometown discount.

The scene made for spectacular theatre, and stands in stark contrast to Bautista’s meetings with media since his Jan. 18 signing of an $18-million, one-year deal with two options that could keep him with the Blue Jays through the 2019 season. His comments have been far more reserved and measured, with none of the bluster. The outsiders-who-fancy-themselves-experts set have glommed onto lazy narratives suggesting the way his free agency played out left a proud superstar humbled. Low-hanging fruit, that.

For those who want to peel the onion a little bit, the reality is Bautista now better understands the Blue Jays’ new front office, the relationship has changed, and so too will his approach to his next potential free agency in the fall. In a 20-minute interview with three reporters, he opened up about his return.

“I think in retrospect – I believe I can speak for myself and not for them – but I feel like I definitely could have handled things differently and maybe things would have played out different,” Bautista said Sunday. “What’s happened has happened. There’s no way to change that now. But ultimately I’m still here. This is where I want to be. I’m hoping to contend for another playoff spot this year, which is with the group of guys that I want to be playing with right now.”

Given the gift of hindsight, how would he have handled things differently?

“Not necessarily changing the things that I said, maybe voicing them in a different setting and in a different way that might not get misconstrued and misunderstood the way that they did,” Bautista replied, referring to both his public comments to media and private comments to the Blue Jays.

“It’s part of not necessarily being acquainted with a new group that you’re trying to get to know and negotiate and all at the same time, that kind of thing happens. They didn’t know me. I didn’t know them. Getting to know each other, that needed to happen. That was the moment that we were in and nothing was going to change that. … That’s just the transition and the moment. Not just me, but a bunch of other guys were in that walk year.”

Reports last spring suggested Bautista had sought in excess of $30 million over five years, although that was never confirmed. Coming off a strong season highlighted by his Game 5 homer in the American League Division Series, the Blue Jays asked him to give them a number, and he supplied one at a meeting in Toronto during the NBA all-star weekend. Nothing came of it, and things played out from there.

Then 2016 did not go to plan. The holier-than-thou Texas Rangers, still stinging from his series-clinching homer, hit him with a pitch during a May series in Arlington, leading to Rougned Odor’s infamous punch. In June, Bautista suffered a turf toe injury on his left foot. After his late July return, his cleat got stuck in the turf and he suffered a left knee sprain. Despite all that, and lingering shoulder issues, too, he still managed to post an .817 OPS in 116 games after selflessly moving into the leadoff spot.

“It was a tough year because a lot of stuff happened, from the Texas thing, from me getting injured twice and having to come down here and rehabbing, and not feeling great because I was recovering and not being able to work out as much,” he said. “Your body doesn’t feel great, battling a couple things. My arm was still bothering me from the year before. It was a tough year to grind through. It wasn’t the most enjoyable year because of those reasons, but now it’s totally different.

“I feel great and excited and happy to be back. Again, we’ve got a team with a chance to win. That was one of my main criteria on where I wanted to be at. And knowing that I’ve got a chance to go back to the playoffs here, how can I not want to come back?”

For much of the off-season, the more pertinent question was how could the Blue Jays not want him back? Also, why weren’t other teams snapping him up?

Industry speculation pointed to the combination of his age – he’ll play this year at 36 – the fact he’s coming off a season with two disabled list stints, and the draft-pick compensation tied to him because of a qualifying offer for his slow market. Orioles GM Dan Duquette provided a kicker when he flat out said the team’s fans wouldn’t tolerate his addition.

Game-wide trends may have played a role, too, as sluggers coming off big years like Edwin Encarnacion and Mark Trumbo also ran into surprising bear markets. “It was different than the years before,” said Bautista. “That’s pretty obvious and that’s something that I can definitely say.”

The Blue Jays seemed lukewarm for much of the winter, too, taking runs at Encarnacion and Dexter Fowler, signing Morales and Pearce, and waiting out the trade market before signing Bautista, who said the sides maintained contact throughout the off-season. Things only picked up in the New Year.

“I was trying not to pay attention as much as I could,” he said. “Sometimes it’s inevitable. Your friends and family care for you. They pay attention, they call you, they try to talk. That stuff happens. But for the most part I wasn’t really dwelling on it. I was just hoping that phone would ring and it would be a bunch of people trying to show their love. A few did. Not as many as I was expecting but ultimately I had my choice between five or six places and I always wanted to come back so I chose to come back.”

Bautista declined to elaborate on his other options. His contract with the Blue Jays includes a mutual option for $17 million in 2018 with Bautista getting the first call, but both sides have an escape hatch from the deal. If that option is exercised, there’s a vesting option based on cumulative games played worth $20 million for 2019.

“It’s a potential three-year deal,” said Bautista. “Don’t get me wrong, every player wants to have a long-term commitment. (But) that definitely shows that I want to end my career here, so we’ll see what happens. It just shows that both sides are willing to be committed in the long run as long as certain scenarios play out and those are defined in the contract.”

Bautista is confident that barring the kind of freak injuries that sidelined him in 2016, he’ll be able to meet the games played requirement for the options to vest. But he can’t be similarly confident he’ll remain in Toronto for the next three years.

“That’s what I want,” said Bautista. “What else can I say? It’s out of my control. I want to be here and by signing a creative three-year deal, even though the last two years aren’t guaranteed, it shows that I want to be here.”

Bautista’s place in franchise history is significant. While he doesn’t yet have a World Series championship, he’s delivered what is arguably the franchise’s most electric moment with his ALDS Game 5 bat flip homer, and it’s either him or Carlos Delgado for the top offensive player in team history.

In Baseball Reference’s WAR, Bautista leads 37.7 to 36.7 despite 1,400 fewer plate appearances. But Delgado owns the advantage in homers (336-265), RBIs (1,058-701), bases on balls (827-719), on-base percentage (.392-.382) and slugging (.556-.528). Debate who’s better all you like, but Bautista is a Level of Excellence calibre Blue Jays player.

“I’m happy I’ve gotten the opportunities I’ve had and I’ve been contributing but I’m definitely not playing for any of those goals,” said Bautista. “I just want to continue doing what I’ve been doing, which is showing up and playing hard, helping my team win. I’ll think about those things when I’m retired. That’s the proper time to look at those things.”

He’s far from ready to retire, and as things stand now, he plans to play beyond the age of 39, which is how old he’d be at the end of his current contract with the Blue Jays should each option get exercised.

Then again, he could quite possibly be gone once this season is up as this reunion may very well be fleeting. Or, maybe Bautista and the Blue Jays are now in it together for the long haul.

“If you ask any player, would you have liked to get more money and more years, who’s going to say no?” said Bautista. “As a player, you’re always hoping to get that great, satisfactory contract where you feel like you’re obviously getting compensated greatly, and you’ve got the long commitment.

“I’m playing baseball. I’m making a lot of money. I’m not going to be complaining.”

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.