MLB.com Columnist

Anthony Castrovince

Bautista fits in with Blue Jays' culture

Toronto's team full of players with underdog backgrounds

Bautista fits in with Blue Jays' culture

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- For Jose Bautista, the offseason was long, strange and ultimately unrewarding. Or at least, relative to that $150 million figure that was floated around exactly one year ago.

But it brought Joey Bats back to the place where he most belongs.

The offseason confirmed what we already knew about Bautista -- that his attitude isn't for everybody. He plays the game with an undeniable edge, one that can rub opponents -- and certainly, as Orioles executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette so famously vocalized, opposing fan bases -- the wrong way.

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Maybe the O's had an obvious fit for Bautista's services, but would they bring in a guy so long-reviled? Maybe the Rangers were a match, purely from a baseball perspective, but would they really reel in the guy who got in that famous fracas with Rougned Odor? Maybe the Indians made some sense, but would their fans embrace the guy whose "circumstances" comment in the American League Championship Series inspired so much animosity?

Of course, when players perform, they win people over, and that would have been true of Bautista wherever he landed this offseason.

"Yes, I play with a little bit of passion," Bautista said Friday, having freshly reported back to the Blue Jays' Spring Training camp. "But I think that plays with any team, as long as you're helping them win."

• Bautista arrives at camp with same approach

But Toronto was the only place where Bautista's reputation did not precede him, because he's already meant so much to the franchise.

Even though the Blue Jays' first priority obviously wasn't to re-sign Bautista (more on that in a second), this franchise is still a place where his personality fits in very well.

That personality was honed by the years of real or perceived neglect, the once-flagging career of a late bloomer who was passed around from organization to organization via the Rule 5 Draft and three trades. Along the way Bautista grew, and so did the chip on his shoulder. So when he broke out in a big way earlier this decade and became one of the game's superstars, that chip on his shoulder was a key piece of his aura and his ambition.

In this particular clubhouse, such chips are in ample supply.

Atkins on re-signing Bautista

"If you look around the diamond at our stories," said Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins, "there's not a lot of pedigree. Bautista was not a high-round Draft pick and was on waivers at one point. Josh Donaldson was a catcher [punted by the Cubs] before he was on an MVP trajectory. Russell Martin was from Canada and a shortstop [drafted in the 17th round] before he became one of the best catchers in the game." 

It goes on. Second baseman Devon Travis was a 13th-rounder, and an unheralded trade acquisition. Justin Smoak was labeled a bust after he didn't live up to his billing in Seattle, where he landed as part of the trade that sent Cliff Lee to the Rangers. Kendrys Morales' career looked to be on life support just a few years ago, when he had to wait until midseason to sign with the Twins because of the qualifying offer attached to his free agency, and he subsequently turned in a brutal half-season in Minnesota and Seattle. Aaron Sanchez is now Toronto's ace, but only after he had to fight to prove his worth in the rotation in spring camp last year. Marcus Stroman was a first-round pick but Mr. "Height Doesn't Measure Heart" has had to work his whole life to overcome the assumptions that accompany his small size.

Bautista on adding Morales

"These guys have been handed nothing," Atkins said. "No red carpet to the big leagues."

Troy Tulowitzki is the only prominent member of the Blue Jays who has backed up the pedigree that's always attached to a top-10 Draft pick, though he has had to endure injuries and a midseason trade that rubbed him the wrong way.

So yeah, the Blue Jays, as a unit, are a chippy bunch, and, in Bautista, they've retained the guy most readily associated with their culture of competitiveness.

As you know, it nearly didn't work out this way. Toronto put together Plans A and B and will insist the club valued them equally. But even if that's true, "A" naturally comes before "B", and Plan A was to bring back Edwin Encarnacion.

The Blue Jays knew it would take an aggressive offer to land him early, and so that's the route they explored, as they offered the slugger a four-year, $80 million deal. When that contract went unclaimed, they quickly pivoted to Plan B, which was to sign Morales and take a patient approach to the outfield. Luckily for them, Bautista was still looking for work after the calendar flipped to 2017.

Bautista discusses motivation

Now that he's back in Toronto on a humble one-year, $18.5 million deal, Bautista, whether he publicly admits it or not, has ample incentive to counter the industry assumptions about his age, his recent injuries, his statistical regression and his basic value at the latter stage of his career. 

Bautista can even demonstrate to his own team that he maybe should have been Plan A all along.

"I have my things that motivate me," Bautista said. "But I can't say that proving people wrong is one of those."

He won't say it, but he plays it. Bautista's edge is always apparent, and it fits perfectly in these parts.

Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2004. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.