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Baseball Kelly: With market dwindling, Jose Bautista is the best the Blue Jays could do

It's odd to characterize accepting an eight-figure windfall as "crawling back home," but that's what Jose Bautista has just done. On Tuesday, he re-signed in Toronto for one year at a fraction of what he thought he was worth.

A year ago, Bautista believed that was $150-million (U.S.) or more. He believed it so deeply that he decided to skip the negotiation phase and go straight to public ultimatums.

He continued to believe something like it when he refused the Toronto Blue Jays' $17.2-million qualifying offer in November. It must have been a bit of a letdown when no one in baseball was willing to part with a late first-round draft pick in order to sign him.

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Think of it from Bautista's point of view. He continues to see himself as one of the best hitters in the game. He will tell you that no one is in better shape and that his age (36) and history of injury don't matter. It isn't a sales pitch – few players have ever possessed a more defiant self-confidence.

Then Bautista got put on the block beside a conceptual high-school shortstop or a theoretical college pitcher who might make the major leagues in five years. And just about everyone preferred the sound of the speculative draft pick.

Bautista's three-month journey of capitalistic self-exploration got worse as it went on. He was trashed in the press by opposing executives. At times he came close to becoming a figure of fun. For the man who'd said he wouldn't negotiate, one wonders how it felt to discover that few others would either.

Lacking substantially better options, Bautista came back on Tuesday. It's a one-year deal believed to be a smidge higher than the $17-million he'd turned down. The contract is done pending the formality of a physical, according to a club official.

The contract could be extended via mutual options, meaning it could look as if it's worth a lot. But that money is guaranteed, so it isn't. Either party can opt out after this year.

In the end, Bautista took about an eighth of what he thought he deserved. And he can be in no doubt that the club is accepting him with a feeling of resignation born of panic rather than any sort of excitement. As the free-agent market dwindled into nothingness and with many of their pressing needs unmet, this is the best the Jays could do.

Edwin Encarnacion? He wanted to return to Toronto. He made no ultimatums and imposed no arbitrary deadlines. All he asked was a little time to look around. For no sensible reason, the Jays refused it. Only days into the off-season, they rushed out to sign his mediocre replacement. That choice was so underwhelming, they then signed an even less impressive replacement to bolster the first replacement.

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When Encarnacion opted for an affordable deal in Cleveland, we were all left in glorious wonder at this miracle of managerial incompetence. In biblical terms, it was like walking into a winery, waving your hands around and turning all the liquid on the premises into water.

That series of easily avoided errors leads directly to today. Bautista remains a Blue Jay not on his own merits but because the club was humiliated by the manner of Encarnacion's parting. They wanted one guy but were forced to take the other as a consolation prize. It's quite a trick – collecting a dozen good baseball minds, putting them in a room and over the course of weeks watching them repeatedly put one over on themselves.

So while Tuesday is a homecoming for Bautista, it is also a profound humbling – both for the player and the club. Rarely in the history of sports negotiations have two sides bungled an off-season so badly. The result is this dreary reunion.

The first question that will be raised is "Which Bautista has Toronto just rehired?"

The going line in these situations is that teams want a player who's just been told he's not good enough – "chip on his shoulder," "something to prove." It's become an article of faith that unsettled athletes are the best sort.

The counterargument would be that one assumes, in the season before he hoped to sign a nine-figure contract, Bautista had rather more to prove and far more incentive to do so. Instead, he had his worst full year as a Blue Jay.

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Returning so meekly and for so little after the haughty way he dealt with the Jays can't be seen as anything but a surrender.

So the better question is "What does Bautista want now?"

When he last had a chance to gamble on himself in 2011, he flinched. He had one great year and could have ridden that streak to a massive free-agent deal. Instead, he settled for the safe money, which was far less. He insisted the decision didn't bother him, but you never bought it.

Just months into that five-year deal, he suggested Toronto would extend him for remuneration more suited to his now-entrenched superstardom.

"Two or three years down the road, if I keep this production up, I'm guaranteeing you that that would get addressed at some point," Bautista said.

He kept the production up, but the issue was not addressed. Now it never will be. Don't think that didn't drive him crazy. Hence, the outsized reaction when his take-it-or-leave-it spring training fiat was rebuffed, and all the weird talk about the rising price of Rogers shares.

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Bautista is still a very good player. He is the most important Toronto athlete of the past two decades. But his modus operandi has never primarily been personal achievement, wins or representing the city. Rather, it's an angry quest for respect. He's not just trying to get back at the people who doubted him. He wants them to acknowledge they did. He needs to hear them say it.

It wasn't enough that the admission come in the form of blandishments or praise or All-Star votes, which are free and easily given. It had to be a huge pile of money, which is expensive and hard.

It wasn't money for money's sake – Bautista's got plenty of that. But money that proved he'd risen to the very highest echelon of the sport – Alex Rodriguez or Albert Pujols money. Hall of Fame-type money. That's gone now.

A few months ago, he could claim to be one of the most desired players in the game. Today, he's a well-compensated journeyman who chose a retreat into the familiar. The money is his proof.

What the Jays have to hope is that Bautista adapts to his new reality. If he can't have the tangible evidence of prestige he'd hoped for, is playing well for its own sake enough to drive him back to the top? Entering his last act, can he find a new source of motivation in proving everyone else wrong, now that he will never have the satisfaction of seeing himself proved right?

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