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STINSON

Blue Jays GM happy Jose Bautista returning despite 'unusual' offseason

By Scott Stinson, Postmedia Network

The curious offseason of the Toronto Blue Jays, the one in which they watched one franchise hero sign with a rival for a smaller contract than they had offered him, and then snapped up the second Jays legend for the relative pittance of a one-year guarantee, is perhaps best summed up by one statement offered by Ross Atkins on Thursday morning.

“You can’t predict,” the Toronto general manager said at a Rogers Centre press conference, “what agents think the market for their players is going to be.”

Fair enough. But isn’t that also, kind of, a general manager’s job?

Whatever transpired between representatives of the Jays and those for Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista in the weeks since Toronto extended each of the free-agent bombers one-year qualifying offers of US$17.2 million, the end result is that Encarnacion is now in Cleveland and Bautista is back in Toronto. Encarnacion took his parrot down the I-95 when the market for him collapsed, a cratering that the Blue Jays clearly did not anticipate since they signed a lesser player in Kendrys Morales to replace him long before it happened.

But when Bautista similarly discovered a soft market, thanks in large part to his off-form 2016, the Jays hadn’t yet signed themselves out of his market, and so both sides were able to work out a deal that pays the likely everyday right-fielder, at 36, $18.5 million in 2017, plus some tough-to-reach attendance-based incentives. There is also a rare mutual option for 2018, and a vesting option for 2019.

The bright-eyed optimist’s view of all this is that the Blue Jays have managed to bring back one of the greatest players in their 40-year history, at a reasonable price, which was always the likely best-case scenario entering an offseason when both Bautista and Encarnacion were no longer tethered to them.

As it happens, that is pretty much Atkins’ view. He said Thursday was a great day for the Toronto Blue Jays, he said he believed the roster, right now, was good enough to compete for a playoff spot in the American League even though there is work yet to be done this offseason and, most notably to certain skeptics (points to self), he said team ownership’s financial commitment to winning means he doesn’t see a point when management will have to retrench from a competitive mode into one that is building for the future.

“We don’t have to think about that,” Atkins said. “We don’t have to plan for a rebuild.” He did say that management still values flexibility, which explains why none of the moves this group has made since its arrival in late 2015 have committed the Jays to major spending beyond 2018.

So, for now, yes, a good day for the Blue Jays indeed. Perhaps best not to think about what got them to this point. Atkins said he was very appreciative to Rogers Communications, and specifically Edward Rogers, the team chairman, for their contributions in getting the Bautista deal done.

Did that mean he was personally involved? Did he unlock extra money that allowed the team to sign him while retaining payroll to fill other needs?

“I’d rather not get into the specifics,” Atkins said.

How about the fact that the GM said Bautista, entering the offseason, was a key target of the Blue Jays? Did they make him an offer when they had an exclusive window to do so? (It has been reported that they did not.)

“I don’t want to get into the subtleties and the nuances of the negotiation,” Atkins said. He described the process that got the Jays and Bautista to this point as “collaborative” and said he believed he turned down bigger money elsewhere to come back to the place at which he turned from journeyman to all-star.

Jays fans can absolutely be forgiven for not caring a whit about the last few weeks any longer and taking pleasure in the fact that Bautista is back, full stop. The Blue Jays are not younger and faster than last season, but Atkins said Thursday that those kinds of changes are the hardest to do in the offseason. In other words, that’s what prospects are for.

This is still a team with holes, but a week ago it had all those same holes, and no Bautista. So that’s something.

The end result is that Atkins has reason to smile. Even if both options are triggered, the Blue Jays would end up paying the greatest hitter in their history something like $128 million over the last 10 years of his career. In 2006, the team gave $126 million over seven years to Vernon Wells.

It has all the potential to be quite a steal. Atkins and his bosses no doubt hope it will be, that the version of Bautista who sagged through injuries last year will revert to the patient masher of the previous five years, age be damned.

The GM didn’t want to make any predictions, but said he thought it “more likely he has the 2015 season than the 2016 season.”

That would be 40 home runs and 114 RBI, versus 22 and 69.

And if that happens, then Bautista would turn down his part of the mutual option, and the team would be back to the same stare down with him next year.

But that’s a problem for 12 months from now. Who knows what the market looks like then?

“This offseason was unusual,” Atkins said Thursday.

Can’t argue with that.

sstinson@postmedia.com