By: Bob Elliott
Canadian Baseball Network
DUNEDIN, Fla. _ Some years it has been called "Swing Away Sundays".
Or "Mad Mondays".
Whatever the fallout -- if any -- the 26th annual state of the union took place on the weekend inside the Florida Auto Exchange Stadium.
Adam Lind, Casey Janssen, Jason Frasor, Vernon Wells, Carlos Delgado, Roy Halladay and others have taken turns at examining the team prepared to leave camp and looking at the upcoming season.
The honor always goes to the longest, serving member in uniform and for the second straight spring Jose Bautista sat at his locker and addressed last season, this season and whatever else.
General manager J.P. Ricciardi sent catcher Robinzon Diaz to the Pittsburgh Pirates for Bautista Aug. 21, 2008. For seven seasons and 38 days Bautista has been with the Jays. His eighth season begins next Sunday afternoon against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg.
Bautista is the first Jay to handle state of the union duties as a defending American League East champion since catcher Pat Borders in 1994.
The man who hosted a onesie pajamas Super Bowl party and was secure enough to post the picture on Instagram was not apologizing for anything that happened in 2015 -- flipped or not flipped.
And there is “nothing to report on the contract front,” he says as he enters his free agent year.
So we turn the floor over to the senior member of the Jays from Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, via Chipola College, the Pittsburgh Pirates, Baltimore Orioles, Kansas City Royals and Tampa Bay Devil Rays.
Always trying to improve himself Bautista took classes in the off seasons, graduating from the University of South Florida with a BA in general studies, business administration and a minor in entrepreneurship 2 1/2 years ago. He needs four classes for a financial degree as well.
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A year ago at Olympic Stadium we asked Bautista how the Blue Jays could go into the season trying to win with six rookies? The Jays arrived at Yankee Stadium opening night with a balanced attack: two rookies in the everyday lineup (second baseman Devon Travis and centre fielder Dalton Pompey), two in the rotation (Aaron Sanchez and Daniel Norris) and two in the bullpen (Roberto Osuna and Miguel Castro).
Bautista claimed then that age didn’t matter as long as “players executed.”
“Travis did well before he was injured, Pompey didn’t get much of a chance,” said Bautista. “Osuna was our closer, Castro did OK for a while. Sanchez did well for us in the bullpen. Norris only had a few starts before being sent to Buffalo. ”
Last year he wondered how many times the Pitcher’s Fielding Practice -- which is how Marcus Stroman tore his ACL -- drill was done, at what intensity and whether it was worth the risk?
Now, Stroman, who made an amazing recovery returning Sept. 12 at Yankee Stadium, starts opening day.
“Marcus showed he has a great ability to heal,” Bautista said. “His heart is bigger than his body. I don’t know how his fits his heart into his body.”
Does Bautista wish he had done anything different last season?
Like maybe not flip the bat? What if he had tossed the bat away like his any of his other 286 homers.
He shook his head, no.
But then he was told he would not be taking criticism from Hall of Famers like Goose Gossage, Mike Schmidt and any ex-player over the age of 40?
“Do you think I care? Really?” said Bautista. “I care about winning. I care about my team.”
How many players did he invite to his Super Bowl party?
“Only about eight or so, not everyone was in Florida yet.” said Bautista.
When was it?
“You don’t know when the Super Bowl was?”
Ah good point, not really, but I can look it up.
Pillar, Goins, Sanchez, Stroman, Colabello, Travis, Bautista and a couple of others we really can’t I.D. from the joeybats19 Instragram account picture were at Bautista’s Tampa home on Feb. 7.
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Who has been the most impressive player Bautista has seen in camp this spring?
With the usual “I don’t see every game, so I haven’t seen every inning,” disclaimer others give each spring he named outfielder Darrell Ceciliani.
“The kid can hit, he will contribute,” says the former two-time major-league home run champ, “I’m not sure what is going to happen but he fits nicely onto our roster with his lefty bat. We don’t have a lot of left-handed hitters. We do have Michael Saunders who hits left in left.”
And what of the returning players?
“Ryan Goins’ swing look improved and he looks to be running better than a year ago,” said Bautista. “But really, how much better do you expect Josh Donaldson, Troy Tulowitzki, Edwin Encarnacion, Chris Colabello and Kevin Pillar to be?”
A lot was made of changing the clubhouse culture last spring (Colby Rasmus, Adam Lind, Brett Lawrie, Anthony Gose out; Donaldson and Martin in) and the Jays did win, but it took a second influx of talent (six players) at the deadline for the Jays to go from a .500 team to a winner.
“We had a turnover and I’m not criticizing the game of the guys who left, but certain personalties might not have jelled here,” Bautista said. “It was refreshing to see Donaldson come in. He hates to lose. Before we had guys who like to win, but didn’t hate to lose. It was a different style. Now we have guys who love to win and hate to lose.
“It all changes when you are winning.”
The newcomers came over the wall before and after the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline: LaTroy Hawkins, Troy Tulowitzki, David Price, Ben Revere, Mark Lowe and Chad Pennington, as Alex Anthopoulos went on a trading spree.
“All were fierce competitors, established guys,” Bautista said. “In Price we had an ace. Every team has a guy who starts opening day, but David Price could handle big situations. R.A. Dickey won a Cy Young award and has outstanding numbers but from an ace you expect a different repertoire than a knuckleball.
“I do know our bullpen is happy when R.A. starts. He gives most of them the day off.”
Bautista pointed to the number of innings Dickey has logged. His lowest total was last season when he led the team with 214. He has logged 654 2/3 in his first three seasons making 101 starts with the Jays averaging 218 innings a season.
What concerns does Bautista have heading into the season.
“It’s spring training, sometimes it is difficult to judge,” Bautista said. “Sanchez is a decision still to be made. I’m sure we’ll make the best decision.”
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What team do the Jays have to worry about most in their division?
“The Blue Jays,” said Bautista. “Every team is good. The New York Yankees always seem to be getting older, but they he a lot of depth.
“Boston is a very talented group, but they haven’t accomplished a lot the last two years. Tampa Bay has youth, the defence and the pitching. Baltimore looks like it will really hit.”
Donaldson patterned his swing off Bautista studying video in the minors. Has Bautista learned from Donaldson?
Bautista said he is always trying to learn something from his teammates ... “constantly.”
How many homers does Bautista think he’ll hit? He hit 40 last season at age 34.
“Who cares? If we don’t win again, does it matter?” says Bautista.
How many wins with the Jays have this year?
“One more than the second-place team,” said Bautista, which was his answer last year. He was told he was wrong -- the Jays had six more wins than the Yankees.
“But we only needed one more,” Bautista said.
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So, next spring, Bautista is asked ... does he want to do this interview in Montreal, where he did last year’s inaugural or in Dunedin?
“That’s up to Mr. Shapiro,” he says.
Sound bites from our favorite state of the unions ...
_ Kelly Gruber, 1992, at Baseball City: “If all of our pitchers are back from the disabled list from their minor injuries by May 1, we’ll be in great shape. September will be unlike any other. The atmosphere will be like Florida-- relaxed. We’ll be 10 games up by Sept. 1 and resting guys the final month.”
Toronto clinched on Oct. 3 ... Game 162 on their way to winning the World Series.
_ Vernon Wells, 2010 at Bradenton, asked who was the most impressive player in camp: “Jose Bautista, it’s nice to see someone finally getting a chance to be an everyday player and seizing the moment. Every game he plays, he either has two hits or one knock with a line drive at someone.”
Bautista hit 54 homers to lead the majors.
_ Carlos Delgado, 2003, at Dunedin: “We’re a better team, much better. We’ll surprise some people. We may win. Maybe we’ll surprise the GM, too,”
The Jays won 86, eight more than the year before to finish nine games back of the wild-card spot.
_ Roy Halladay, 2009, at Dunedin, as the Jays were coming off an 86-win season: “This year will be a challenge. We have more talent than last year -- but other teams have gotten much stronger.”
The Jays won 75 times.
_ Jason Frasor 2012, at Dunedin: “I really liked what I saw from Drew Hutchison. He reminds me of a young Shaun Marcum. We’re a 90-win team.”
The Jays won 73 games.
_ Halladay in 2004, Dunedin when his locker mate was Pat Hentgen, back with Toronto after four years with the St. Louis and Baltimore: “Pat was the first to come and say hello in 1996 my first camp. He was wearing the same old shirt then as he is today.”