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Toronto Blue Jays player Jose Bautista smiles during a news conference to announce a five-year contract with the team at their MLB American League spring training facility in Dunedin, Florida, February 17, 2011. (MIKE CASSESE)
Toronto Blue Jays player Jose Bautista smiles during a news conference to announce a five-year contract with the team at their MLB American League spring training facility in Dunedin, Florida, February 17, 2011. (MIKE CASSESE)

STEPHEN BRUNT

Jays swing for fences in Bautista deal Add to ...

Sixty-five million dollars is a heck of a lot of dough, even in a realm in which the numbers long ago ceased to jibe with real life.

And five years for a 30-year-old player - plus a sixth-year option - represents an awfully long time by the baseball calendar.

So make no mistake. The Toronto Blue Jays' deal with Jose Bautista is a roll of the dice.

It's not your money, happily, not even indirectly. Basic sports economics teaches us that ticket prices increase when demand increases, which in the case of the Blue Jays will happen only when they start winning. This one is on the Rogers tab.

And even in a worst-cast scenario, no contract should be a franchise-killer in an uncapped sport.

But still, when Alex Anthopoulos and Paul Beeston were inspired to make a significant, long-term outlay to retain a player whom they had locked up for this coming season under any circumstances, and who in his seven-year, major-league career with five franchises, has had just a single crazy-good season, they must have swallowed hard.

Were his major-league-leading 54 home runs last year a fluke or the beginning of a trend? Was it a one-off, or the first evidence of the real Jose Bautista, having found a home and playing for an organization that gave him a chance to fully exploit his gifts? Is he now one of the game's elite offensive players?

There's the gamble in a nutshell.

Even taking into account that, given his age, at some point during the contract Bautista will be a diminishing asset, the Jays may have just locked up a superstar for less than superstar money.

Or they may have just way overpaid for a journeyman.

It's not as if they didn't have options.

Bautista would have earned $10.5-million (all currency U.S.) for this coming season if he had won in arbitration, or $7.6-million if he had lost. He said he wouldn't talk contract during the season, but the Jays still could have pursued him as a free agent, or claimed draft picks when someone else signed him, or traded him at the deadline for prospects in a season in which they aren't expected to contend.

When the Blue Jays have laid out big money for long-term deals in the past - at least the past going back as far as the World Series years, when they had the highest attendance and the highest payroll in baseball - it was in part for pure baseball reasons, but mostly a show of faith. Had they failed to lock up Carlos Delgado or Alex Rios or Vernon Wells, the fans' faltering belief in the organization and its ownership would only have been confirmed.

But they don't really need to do that now. Anthopoulos is enjoying a protracted honeymoon, for good reason. His deals, including the Roy Halladay and Wells trades, have shown a creative, inventive streak. He seems of the moment, quick on his feet, a guy who can move backward or sideways like a chess master before going for the win. Even though it has been a long time since the Jays played meaningful games in autumn - let alone qualified for the postseason - the base is relatively content and patient. There was no demand for a grand gesture.

The Jays are deep in good young pitching (and no, not all of it will pan out). They have some intriguing young position players who should be just approaching their potential when the moment comes to try to push past the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays. And perhaps most importantly, there have never been more indications that Major League Baseball is prepared to expand its playoffs, perhaps as early as the 2012 season.

Put all of that together and a fan would conclude that these guys have a shot, with or without Bautista.

With him is better, just so long as the owners understand the risk, understand the gamble, understand that if they lose on this one, Bautista's contract shouldn't hamstring the future.

That's not how the Jays' overlords have done business in modern times. They haven't been so cavalier about potentially throwing good money after bad.

Maybe now it's different.

Or maybe, if Bautista is indeed the new sultan of swing, the Jays tear it up, the stadium fills up, the television ratings soar and a World Series beckons, they won't have to sweat the bottom line.

 

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