By Andrew Hendriks
Canadian Baseball Network
TORONTO – If you happened to take a stroll past Rogers Centre recently, you may have noticed a familiar face missing from the dome’s exterior graphics and the general promotional materials scattered around the site.
For the past six years, Jose Bautista has been one of the most recognizable faces on the Toronto sports scene. Usually with a bat in hand; his image has been prominently displayed on the walls outside of One Blue Jays Way, the billboards down at Yonge and Dundas and streetcar advertisements on the TTC.
After he turned down a $17.2 Million qualifying offer in order to elect free agency last fall, the Blue Jays entered the offseason unsure of their future with regards to the 36-year-old slugger.
Having knocked a total of 265 homers while emerging as pivotal member of this team’s offensive attack since coming over in a deal with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2008, they knew unquestionably that one day his name would be added the Level of Excellence.
What they didn’t know is that he would, in fact, be coming back in 2017.
With Bautista officially signing a one-year $18 Million deal with Toronto on Wednesday, it looks as if those signs are due for an update.
It wasn’t the easiest route to a reunion. After aggressively trying to peruse other options on both the free agent market and via trade, Toronto circled back and made Bautista their top priority late last week.
“You go into an offseason with a plan to make your team better. Your strategy is one thing and how agents and players react is another,” said Jays GM Ross Atkins told reporters on Thursday.
“Jose was a clear target for us, and that is a two-way street. Understanding the positions in the market of alternatives and understanding the position of Jose is something that doesn’t happen overnight.”
Bautista wanted to return and was continually outspoken about his desire to remain with the Blue Jays past the 2016 season. After all, it was in Toronto where he first established himself as a legitimate power-hitting threat while simultaneously cementing an everyday role the first time in his career.
“He has said that and he has meant that,” explained Atkins. “I don’t know exactly what deals he turned down or exactly how much money he walked away from but I would guess that he did and that’s the most abundant fact that you could look to in order to see how much he wanted to be here.”
Naturally, after signing a below market value contract extension of $64 million with the Blue Jays in 2011, Bautista also wanted to see how his services were viewed in free agency.
Despite a both great deal of research and years of precedent, this off-season’s market was something that both the Blue Jays and Bautista couldn’t have expected. As of Thursday, Mark Trumbo (the AL leader in home runs, with 47 in 2016) remains unsigned, so too does Chris Carter, the NL leader who blasted 41 as a member of the Milwaukee Brewers last season but was non-tendered by the team in October.
Simply put, teams aren’t spending on power the way they once did.
“Every agent, every team and every executive has an opinion on how things are going to go,” said Atkins. “A lot of it is very public, there’s a lot of research, a lot of analysis of it and then the offseason happens and you have to stay flexible”.
There’s no doubt that Toronto is a better offensive ball club with Bautista back in the fold. There is, however, some doubt surrounding his ability to contribute defensively in right field following an injury-plagued 2016 campaign.
All told, the Blue Jays appear to be unfazed.
“We’re excited about Jose as a right fielder. We’re also excited about the teammate that he is, the person that he is and his willingness to play multiple positions as he did last year,” explained Atkins. “He played a little bit of first base (in 2016) and he’s extremely open-minded about that. Most likely we’ll see him in right field for the bulk of our games. He’s a great athlete and I expect him to be a defender that we can rely on”.
As for the financial ramifications of the deal, Atkins acknowledged Edward Rogers involvement in making it happen but did little to further explain his role in the process.
“I think just over time and as we’ve established a relationship he’s become more and more involved,” revealed Atkins after having been queried about the team’s ownership and its part in the deal. “(Edward’s) leadership and desire to help was abundantly clear.”
MAKE IT RAINES
The National Baseball Hall of Fame revealed its list of inductees for 2017 on Thursday and, after 10 years on the ballot, former Expos great Tim Raines finally received his call to join the games pantheons.
Debuting with Nos Amours in 1979, Raines enjoyed a lengthy 23-year career that saw the 5’8” native of Sanford, Fla. earned seven all-star nods, led the senior circuit in stolen bases on four separate occasions and become one of the most diverse lead-off hitters in baseball history.
“On behalf of the entire Toronto Blue Jays organization, it gives me great pleasure to congratulate Tim Raines on his election today into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. “ wrote Blue Jays President and CEO, Mark Shapiro in a team release after the announcement.
After helping guide the Chicago White Sox to a World Series title as the team’s first base coach in 2005, Raines, 57, joined the Blue Jays organization as a roving base running and outfield instructor in 2013, a position he’s held ever since.
“This is a justly deserved recognition for an outstanding career” added Shapiro. “As one of the greatest leadoff hitters to ever play the game we are proud to have Tim teaching our young Blue Jays the finer points of our great game. Within our organization, he is widely recognized for his passion and love of the game and his dedication to developing our players.”
Inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in 2013, Raines hit .294 with 980 RBI and 1,571 runs scored over the course of 2,502 games in the majors. Having successfully swiped 808 bags in 980 attempts, the former fifth round draft pick (1977) ranks fifth in all-time stolen bases behind Rickey Henderson (1,406), Lou Brock (983), Billy Hamilton (912) and Ty Cobb (892), respectively.
Named on 86% of votes cast in this year’s process, Raines will be inducted into the Hall of Fame along with Ivan Rodriguez and Jeff Bagwell as part of a ceremony held in Cooperstown, NY on July 31st.
Toronto’s leg of the Blue Jays annual Winter Tour is set to kick off with a Boys and Girls Club event at Rogers Centre on Friday. Hosted by the Jays Care Foundation, those in attendance will have a unique opportunity to take the field alongside an impressive group of current and former Blue Jays greats as they participate in various baseball-related drills and skill competitions.
The list of players scheduled to be on hand for this weekend’s festivities includes Marcus Stroman, J.A. Happ, Joe Biagini, Melvin Upton Jr., Ezequiel Carrera, Ryan Goins and Steve Pearce in addition to a trio of prominent Blue Jays alumni in Devon White, Lloyd Moesby and Scott Downs.
Highlighted by a set of ticketed autograph sessions at the Dome on Saturday, 2017’s run represents the events seventh consecutive year since debuting in 2011. Loosely modeled off the team’s memorable winter caravans of the mid 80’s, this version of the Blue Jays promotional tour has now made an appearance in over 20 Canadian cities spanning coast-to-coast from Vancouver, BC to Fredericton, NB.
- Follow Andrew Hendriks on Twitter (@77hendriks)
By Andrew Hendriks