The baseball world turned its back on Jose Bautista. And now, it appears, he'll go back to the only place that really, honestly, seriously made sense for him all along.
Bautista, who was reportedly nearing an agreement with the Blue Jays as of Monday morning,* is one of just two remaining free agents tied to a Draft pick, joining Mark Trumbo. His late-developing market, therefore, was clouded by compensation, but it was also clouded by the complaining, combativeness and general combustibility that makes him the game's greatest villain.
*MLB.com's Jesse Sanchez first reported that the two sides were nearing an agreement, and Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports and MLB Network has since reported that they are discussing a two-year deal in the $35-40 million range.
Those same features become a bug when your stats go south. For Bautista, that's precisely what happened in his age-35 season. He missed time with turf toe and knee injuries, and his newfound troubles with the fastball (his isolated power on four-seamers dropped from .314 to .244) led to his lowest slugging percentage (.405) since his nondescript days with the Pirates.
Bautista's Pirates tenure was part of a six-year odyssey in which the slugger bounced around from team to team and position to position. He was Rule 5, waiver wire and trade fodder for the Buccos, Orioles, Rays and Royals, and, though the Pirates did give him a regular opportunity between 2006 and 2008 in his second stint with the club, Bautista would later, in the midst of his unbelievable ascent with the Blue Jays, chalk them up as just one of the many teams that didn't know how to or simply didn't care to tap into his potential.
Evidently, this was the way it had to be for Bautista to become the generational player he became in Toronto, where, from 2010-15, he averaged 38 homers, 97 RBIs and a .945 OPS and created Canada's most iconic sports image -- that beautiful and controversial bat flip in an epic Division Series clincher against the Rangers -- since Joe Carter's World Series-capping home run.
This was/is a man with a chip on his shoulder, probably all the more now that he found the open-market waters to be so choppy. It's easy for those of us outside this man's head to suggest or insist that he tone his act, stop arguing with umps or agitating opposing fans, stop getting snippy with the media on those days he's actually willing to talk and just put his head down and play. Had that been Bautista's modus operandi all along, there is reason to suspect he would have found a free-agent fit weeks ago. It's not often you see a baseball executive come right out and say what Orioles general manager Dan Duquette said of Bautista: "We told his agent we're not interested because our fans don't like him."
But for all we know, Bautista's antics and statistics ran hand-in-hand. Maybe it took a festering frustration with the game and with all those jerks who overlooked him to uncork that 54-homer season and all that followed.
(Or maybe it was a changed leg kick. Whatever.)
Anyway, if 30 teams had 25 innocent altar boys, what fun would that be? Bautista came to represent the best and the worst of the Blue Jays, and the fans -- generally speaking, anyway -- came to love that about him. Edwin Encarnacion became his sidekick and then, in 2015, then-GM Alex Anthopoulos brought in the comparatively chippy Josh Donaldson and, eventually, the supremely self-confident Troy Tulowitzki. Perfect. The Blue Jays lineup was big on personality and production, and it had two American League Championship Series appearances to show for it.
But in the wake of consecutive ALCS losses, with Bautista and Encarnacion eligible for free agency and with a new-look front office just beginning to make its mark on the organization's short- and long-term outlook, it has been fascinating to watch the Jays offseason evolve. They are getting roundly criticized for their handling of Encarnacion, but now, with Bautista purportedly back aboard, their approach seems to have much merit to it.
That Toronto prioritized Encarnacion over Bautista cannot be disputed. They put a four-year, $80 million deal on the table for Double-E, and, had he accepted, it's quite likely they would have pivoted to more cost-effective options in the corner outfield rather than re-engaging with a 36-year-old with a high price tag and declining defensive metrics.
Encarnacion, however, opted to look around elsewhere, costing himself millions in the process. The Blue Jays quickly signed Kendrys Morales to a three-year, $33 million deal, and Encarnacion ended up in Cleveland for three years and $60 million. Morales is a good hitter, but he's a station-to-station baserunner with little to no defensive value who will be in his aged 34-36 seasons over the life of this deal. You'd certainly rather have the Encarnacion deal than the Morales deal, even though it's the significantly more expensive of the two, but the Blue Jays signed Morales before the completion of the collective bargaining agreement, which created the luxury tax stipulations that hindered Encarnacion's market and helped his price tag drop. Hindsight's 20/20 and all that.
What the Encarnacion debacle did do for the Blue Jays is create some financial wiggle room. And where they were surprisingly proactive on the DH front, they were rightly patient in a crowded and complicated corner outfield scene. In the long run, we might look back and say a short-term reunion with Bautista was more beneficial than a long-term entanglement with Encarnacion.
As bad as Bautista's 2016 was by his standards, he still contributed a weighted runs created plus of 122. Compare that with some of the free-agent or trade options in the marketplace.
Jay Bruce: 111
Curtis Granderson: 114
Carlos Gonzalez: 108
Brandon Moss: 105
Colby Rasmus: 75
Another option was bringing back Michael Saunders (117), who was nearing a one-year deal with the Phillies on Monday, but Saunders' general unreliability due to injury is pretty well-established at this point.
Maybe Bautista's 2016 was the beginning of a painful, age-influenced decline, but David Ortiz taught us an important lesson about the danger in burying supremely intelligent hitters before their time. For what it's worth, Steamer projects a 128 wRC+ for Bautista in 2017. It's possible that whatever offense the Blue Jays sacrificed in replacing Encarnacion (projected 123 wRC+ for '17) with Morales (112) is offset by the production Bautista provides in right field relative to what the club would have gotten from his replacement.
Furthermore, a two-year deal with Bautista comes with the financial and evaluative flexibility that simply wouldn't have been possible had Encarnacion taken that initial four-year offer. And though the Jays pay an opportunity cost in re-signing Bautista and not recouping a pick should he sign elsewhere, they did gain a pick (No. 28 overall) for Encarnacion's jump to the Tribe.
As long and convoluted the path might have been, maybe this was the destination that made the most sense all along. Bautista's down year, polarizing personality and Draft pick attachment made him toxic in many markets. Once again, baseball turned its back on him, and once again the Blue Jays are the team giving him an opportunity to prove everybody wrong.
Anthony Castrovince is a Sports on Earth contributor, MLB.com columnist and MLB Network contributor. Follow him on Twitter @Castrovince.