Jays believe Jose Bautista 'more likely' to produce 40-homer season

An “extremely” encouraging visit to a Jose Bautista off-season workout has Toronto Blue Jays management believing the right-fielder is “more likely” to produce a 40-home run season like he did in 2015.

That comfort level might have accelerated contract talks between the free agent’s representatives and the team that second-year general manager Ross Atkins said began “around the winter meetings” in early December.

On Wednesday, Toronto confirmed the 36-year-old Bautista’s re-signing for the 2017 season, a guaranteed $ 18 million US with a $ 17 million mutual option for 2018.

The contact also includes a $ 500,000 buyout — payable if either side declines — and a $ 20 million vesting option for 2019 that becomes guaranteed if Bautista has 300 games played during the next two seasons and doesn’t have a physical impairment that would prevent him from playing in 2019.

The veteran major leaguer also could earn $ 1.5 million annually in bonuses based on home attendance: $ 150,000 each for 3.5 million and 3.6 million, $ 250,000 apiece for 3.7 million and 3.8 million, and $ 350,000 each for 3.9 million and 4 million. Toronto drew 3.39 million to Rogers Centre in 2016.

Bautista was said to have demanded a contract extension for more than $ 150 million for at least five years last spring training. The Blue Jays would have gained a compensatory draft pick had he signed elsewhere.

‘We’re excited about Jose as a right-fielder. We’re also excited about his willingness to play multiple positions.’ — Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins on newly re-signed outfielder Jose Bautista

Atkins is confident Bautista would play the bulk of games in right field during the upcoming season. In 2016, the former third baseman played 91 games in right, 26 as a designated hitter and one at first base.

“We’re excited about Jose as a right-fielder,” Atkins said. “We’re also excited about his willingness to play multiple positions. He’s extremely open-minded about that.”

Atkins believes left knee and toe injuries along with missing four games with a tight quadriceps muscle played a large part in Bautista’s disappointing 2016 season in which he posted a .234 batting average in 116 games, 22 home runs and 69 runs batted in over 423 at-bats. The 22 homers were his fewest since he hit 13 in 2009.

The veteran major leaguer hit .250 in 2015 with 40 homers, 114 RBIs and a .536 slugging percentage in 153 contests.

“I’m optimistic we’re going to be able to rely on him,” Atkins said of Bautista, a six-time American League all-star, in a Thursday interview with Sportsnet. “He’s a very driven player.”

Bautista is also known for his intense dedication to fitness that can only help a player who has battled injuries the past two seasons.

Dwindling defensive play?

In April 2015, the strength in his right arm was largely sapped following a wild attempt to throw out a runner at first base during a heated game against the rival Baltimore Orioles that Bautista admitted was ill advised.

While he wasn’t placed on the disabled list, Bautista didn’t play the outfield for nearly six weeks, serving strictly as DH.

He recorded four assists from right field in 2015 and five last season after throwing out 56 base runners — more than any outfielder, save for Kansas City’s Alex Gordon — between 2010 and 2014.

At the plate, Bautista has hit more home runs than any player in Major League Baseball since 2010 with 249. With 265 overall as a Blue Jay, he ranks second behind Carlos Delgado (336) on Toronto’s all-time list.

Also Thursday, the Jays announced some minor league appointments for 2017:

  • Eric Wedge: Field co-ordinator
  • ​Mike Mordecai: Assistant field co-ordinator
  • Jeff Ware: Pitching co-ordinator
  • Devon White: Hitting coach with triple-A Buffalo
  • Ken Huckaby: Catching co-ordinator with advanced-A Dunedin
  • Danny Solano: Infield co-ordinator in Dunedin
  • ​Michel Abreu: Position coach
  • Jeremy Trach: Head of minor league strength and conditioning operations
  • Ben Freakley: Mental performance coach
  • Pat Chasse: Rehab co-ordinator
  • ​Luis Hurtado: Manager, Gulf Coast League Blue Jays (rookie league)
  • Andy Fermin: Position coach, double-A New Hampshire
  • Ronnie Ortegon: Hitting coach, New Hampshire
  • Chris Schaeffer: Position coach, single-A Lansing
  • John Tamargo Jr.: Manager, Dominican Summer Blue Jays (foreign rookie ball)

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