A year ago, it was a different Jose Bautista who met the media at spring training.
The right fielder was still flush from his heroic efforts of the 2015 season, when he stroked 40 home runs and helped the Toronto Blue Jays return to the national spotlight with their first playoff appearance since 1993.
And who will ever forget the haughty bat flip that defined the Blue Jays postseason, after Bautista delivered the winning blow, a three-run home run before a delirious sold-out crowd at Rogers Centre that disposed of the Texas Rangers in the first round.
Bautista was riding high heading into spring training four months later and he took the opportunity to issue a take-it-or-leave-it edict to Blue Jays management in relation to a new contract.
No negotiations were necessary, asserted Bautista. He had a figure in mind and the Blue Jays were more than familiar with his body of work. It was reported that the then 35-year-old was seeking a five-year, $150-million pact, a figure that Bautista has always disputed.
No new contract was worked out and Bautista, heading into free agency, suffered through an injury-plagued 2016 season that did nothing to enhance his value entering the open market.
Unable to land the long-term gig he coveted, Bautista circled back to the Blue Jays, who were only too happy to welcome him back – for a deal that guarantees him $18-million for 2017.
The contract also includes a mutual option for 2018 and a vesting option for 2019.
So it was sort of a humbled Bautista who joined the team in Florida this week. The first official full-team workout is Saturday.
And the man who has hit more home runs (249) than any other player in the major leagues over the past seven seasons is still trying to figure out why the off-season market for free agent sluggers turned so decidedly cold.
“I don’t know,” he said on Friday morning in his first interview of spring training.
“I wish I had the answer. Maybe I would have been able to predict everything a little bit better.”
Bautista said regardless of what transpired, he is happy to be rejoining a mostly veteran team that is poised to make a third successive run for the postseason.
He said he has nothing to prove coming off a subpar season, where a couple of stints on the disabled list limited his participation to 116 games. And he bristled at a suggestion that some have come to view him as injury prone.
“I didn’t know that was the perception,” Bautista said, rather icily. “Again, I’m here to play, I’m here to have a healthy season and have fun, enjoy it, enjoy my teammates and try to win games. Whatever happens, happens.”
Bautista always keeps himself in impeccable shape, but he said there was little he could have done to prevent injuries this past season.
“I mean I was trying to make baseball plays both times,” he said. “One I ran into the wall, the other one my cleat got caught in the turf. I can’t explain it. Any other day in July I could have been just running down to first and tripped over myself and maybe hurt myself worse.
“Those kinds of things are bound to happen to anybody on the field. It’s just unfortunate that it happened to me. I don’t think I could have done anything different.”
Toronto manager John Gibbons said on Thursday that he believes Bautista’s travails will get the right fielder’s competitive juices flowing. “He’s motivated to have a big, big year,” Gibbons said.
Bautista insisted his mindset will remain the same.
“I think I come out here every single year with the same mentality and with the same desire to help my team win games and be the best player I can be,” he said. “I have my things that motivate me. I can’t say that proving people wrong is one of those in one way or another.”
Bautista, one of the most popular players in Jays history, has 265 home runs over nine seasons in Toronto, second behind franchise leader Carlos Delgado, who had 336.
He will play next month for defending champion Dominican Republic in the World Baseball Classic, an opportunity he hopes will help kick-start his major-league season.
“Just get into that competitive mode of the type of games … that you know that you can’t afford to lose early on,” Bautista said. “I think it will put me in a different mindset than just playing regular spring training games up until the season starts.”
What often gets overlooked with Bautista is his unselfish nature when it comes to doing what is best for the team.
When the Blue Jays were going through a prolonged hitting slump in May, Bautista volunteered to bat leadoff, a spot that does not usually lend itself to driving in runs. As a result, he was unable to pad his numbers heading into free agency.
Bautista batted leadoff for 40 games – something that Gibbons said is not likely to happen this year – and helped spark the Toronto offence.
“If being a trooper and taking the hit for the other guys is something that I need to do from time to time. I don’t mind doing it,” he said.Report Typo/Error
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