...it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.
Ever since Troy Tulowitzki hit a foul pop fly to Carlos Santana, ending both Game Five of the ALCS and the 2016 season for the Toronto Blue Jays, the emotions of fans who follow the team have gone through some heavy turbulence. A major question that hung over (or hungover?) that same 2016 squad was the free agent status of many of their key players and whether or not the team would bring some of them back, or even if they could afford to. Of course Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion were the two biggest names most fans and bloggers talked about, but the contributions and potential future absences of Michael Saunders (awful second half not withstanding), Brett Cecil (awful first half not-withstanding) and R.A. Dickey also threatened to leave the 2017 squad riddled with even more bullet holes.
Many were happy to see Dickey take his circus pitch for a go in the cushier National League East, and likewise with the departure of Cecil. Brett's April (0-5, 5.79) went about as badly as a month can go for someone expected to be a key late game reliever, yet a lot of that early badness clouded our perception of the good things an effective Cecil can bring to a ballclub, good things the Cardinals believe in enough to give him a four year/30.5 million dollar deal. In Dickey and Cecil, you have two players that many casual fans may be happy to see gone, but what they provide respectfully to a club (adequately eaten innings, left-handed relief) aren't as easy to replace as pushing a button on a trade machine.
But we all knew the big two names would dominate the Blue Jays offseason, and the success of said offseason (and the spirits of the entire fanbase) depended on how things went down on that front. Coming into this it always seemed like Encarnacion was the more likely to return of the two. Whether this is based on his seemingly more carefree personality in comparison to Bautista, the rumours of Bautista's "contract demands" in spring training (which seems like a completely absurd story in hindsight), or the unfathomable dislike some Toronto fans have of their long time star outfielder's "attitude", it really felt like Edwin was the one coming back.
Then we had the contractual song and dance: the four year/80 million deal that Encarnacion's agent supposedly turned down. Granted, this was early in free agency and was likely the opening offer of the process. From an agent's perspective at that moment in time, it made sense to explore a bit and drive up the bidding for your star slugger, at least in a vacuum it was a smart move was to be expected. What was not expected was how quickly the Toronto front office shifted into Plan B, signing switch hitting DH Kendrys Morales to a three year deal and effectively blocking an Encarnacion return. Sure, it would have been silly thinking if the Blue Jays front office honestly thought: 'We've love to have both Edwin and Morales, if only world-beater Justin Smoak weren't penciled in at first base! Oh well Ooops!!' Yet sadly, the Morales signing was as much about a signal as it was a baseball move, the signal that the team was prepared to move on from Encarnacion and now almost certainly had. It was a strange move particularly in how quickly it happened, considering Morales is the inferior player (though good in his own right) and how beloved Edwin was (and honestly should still be damnit. Cheer the man when he comes back). When they signed Steve Pearce three weeks later, another player best utilized at Edwin's old position, it felt like the final nail was hammered into our hearts.
Except it turned out there was a whole other entire box of nails nobody had even imagined. The free agent market for Encarnacion was not developing as his optimistic agent had hoped: the Red Sox and Yankees seemed more content with cheaper slugging options to stay under the luxury tax threshold, National League teams were perhaps wary of Edwin's ability to hold up at first base for an entire season (never mind three or four) and there just weren't that many contending teams out there with that specific hole to fill. Remember how for a couple days it looked like Encarnacion might wind up in Oakland? Fortunately for Edwin (because who'd wanna call that gawd awful park home for 81 games a year), an unexpected team emerged and snatched him up quickly. Blame it on a simple twist of fate, but just like that, Encarnacion joined the very same team that had knocked out the Blue Jays in the ALCS: the Clevelands. To dump even more unrefined sodium into the open wound, they got him for less guaranteed money than the Blue Jays had supposedly offered months earlier.
Even the most patient fans at this point were concerned with the way this was heading. Once it was official and Edwin put on his new Cleveland jersey (I can't even think about those pictures), the move that now made the most sense was to circle back and dance with the one who seemed absolutely certain out the door: Jose Bautista. Like Encarnacion, Bautista's market had developed slowly, in large part because of the draft pick compensation attached to his name. There was talk of the Phillies making a play for him, or the Rays, mostly a bunch of teams almost certain to not contend in 2017. Surely not a preferred destination for a 36 year old slugger hungry for a taste of the World Series. Combine that with the reality of the Blue Jays still having a large hole in right-field and in the middle of their lineup, a reunion suddenly made an abundance of sense for both sides. In fact it made so much sense that many of us (or at least myself) became increasingly restless with the team every single day it didn't seem like it was going to happen.
Yet thankfully it did eventually, a one year deal with multiple unlikely* options. The biggest 2016 offseason fear for all of us was being unable to bring back either Jose or Edwin, the biggest dream was somehow bringing back both (which considering how the market played out, may have been more possible than anybody had thought). As much as hoping for a healthy Bautista is a worthwhile gamble for a fringe contending team, for the organization this move was as much about optics as it was about improving the team. Or at the very least, it was as important in that regard. Sure, Jose could be injured/terrible in 2017, either by way of those lingering toe/shoulder injuries or by simple loss of bat speed, but at the very least Blue Jay fans will discover this reality firsthand, with Joey Bats in the uniform he belongs in. Personally, I think the odds of an ACME related plunge down the cliff for Bautista is not nearly as likely as a thunderous hurricane-return-to-form for our favourite bat flipping slugger. It's a difficult gamble to bet on a player at this particular age, since much of baseball history teaches us how many great players can simply lose "it" at any time, and the odds of that happening increase with age. But the Blue Jays and their fans believe (they have to at this moment) that Bautista is an exception to any kind of aging rule, that his best skills (plate discipline, power) are ones that age with hopeful grace. If so, 2017 will be a fun summer down by Blue Jays Way.
Once the Bautista re-signing was official, the extreme tension of the Toronto baseball fanbase eased up considerably. The strong sense of panic or desperation across internet forums or just basic casual conversation among friends was lightened. Not to say that the team still didn't have holes, such as the bullpen or the left-field situation. In the ensuing weeks beyond bringing Bautista back into the fold, the organization's patience in waiting out the free agent bullpen market worked out rather nicely, as they were able to secure a pair of steady veterans in J.P. Howell and Joe Smith to extremely reasonable one year agreements. Both Howell and Smith have their warts, sure, but a one year commitment for any reliever who has enjoyed somewhat of a level of sustained success in the recent past is a hard deal to argue against. Either one of them could be the next Jason Grilli or another Kerry Ligtenberg, but at a one year deal the results cannot be quite so disastrous. (Unless of course one of them is actually as bad as Ligtenberg was... shudder).
And so here we are. Spring Training is thankfully at our doorstop and soon we can all stop prognosticating about the 2017 team and finally just watch them in action, just enjoy their unforgettable moments while yelling at our screens/radios during those infuriating ones. It's been a hell of an offseason for this team, an emotional roller coaster for its fans (to use a lame but accurate cliche) and it is about damn time to see how much of the spaghetti actually sticks to the wall with these guys. We lost one franchise icon, yet we get to enjoy one more tour around the league of another. Lets breathe in the Dunedin air one day at a time, enjoy the great intelligent at-bats of Mr. Bautista, and remember there'll be plenty of opportunity to complain and lament in no time. It is a long season.