Jose Bautista has been unwanted before.
When he was a rookie in 2004, the Baltimore Orioles selected Bautista from the Pittsburgh Pirates in the Rule 5 draft, meaning he had to remain on the 25-man roster all season. He lasted until June, when he was placed on waivers. The Tampa Bay Devil Rays claimed him. Later that month, the Kansas City Royals purchased Bautista from Tampa Bay. A month after that, Bautista was traded twice in the same day, from the Royals to the New York Mets and then from the Mets back to the Pirates.
He ended up getting 96 plate appearances all season. While Bautista later became a regular with the Pirates, they eventually decided they didn't want him either, and in August 2008 he was sent to the minors and then traded to the Toronto Blue Jays for a catcher named Robinzon Diaz. You know the rest of the story; Bautista transformed himself into one of the game's elite sluggers.
Now we're here. Bautista is a free agent, and he's still unsigned. Reports out of Toronto say the Blue Jays haven't made an offer since giving Bautista the $17.2 million qualifying offer that he rejected. Ken Rosenthal reported that the Philadelphia Phillies could have interest, but even then, he described that as a "less likely option" than acquiring some other hitter, with sources telling him the Phillies are reluctant to lose a draft pick. (As a bottom-10 team, the Phillies would lose their second-round pick; any other team signing Bautista except the Blue Jays would lose a first-round pick.)
Let's draw a parallel here; maybe it's a stretch, but I think there are similarities. Barry Bonds became a free agent after the 2007 season. He had broken Hank Aaron's all-time home run record and was coming off a .276/.480/.565 batting line. He drew 132 walks and struck out just 54 times. Even if he couldn't play left field at that point, surely some American League team could have used a DH with a .480 on-base percentage.
"I'm expecting widespread interest from every major league team," Jeff Borris, Bonds' agent, said at the outset of free agency. There were no offers. After sitting out all of 2008, Bonds was still looking for a job. Borris reportedly contacted all 30 teams, with Bonds willing to play for the minimum $400,000 salary. Nobody wanted him. His career was over. Bonds never officially retired from the game.
There were cries of conspiracy. Bonds was indicted in November 2007 on felony charges for perjury and obstruction of justice related to the BALCO case. Years later, Bonds filed a collusion suit against MLB, but arbitrator Fredric Horowitz ruled against him in 2015, with no smoking gun other than Bonds' great numbers. That doesn't mean something didn't go on, but one conclusion from Bonds' exit from the game is teams simply didn't want to deal with his personality.
Unlike Bonds, there is no PED cloud surrounding Bautista. Like Bonds, Bautista is a difficult personality. It's not an exaggeration to say he's possibly the most hated player in baseball. Like Bonds, he plays with a chip on his shoulder. Bonds seemed to create enemies, real or imagined, to give him that extra edge -- the media, the home run chase between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, Jeff Kent -- while Bautista, the man who changed organizations five times in one season, used those slights to help get him to greatness.
"I can't necessarily say he's a well-liked guy around the league," Blue Jays manager John Gibbons told ESPN.com's Elizabeth Merrill during the 2016 season. "Now, when he's a teammate, you feel totally different."
Of course, Bautista was still a member of the Blue Jays when Gibbons said that; he's going to defend his player. It's also possible Bautista's intensity wears out teammates and the Jays would prefer to move on, no matter Bautista's potential production at the plate.
"Toronto wants to change their clubhouse," former Mets general manager Steve Phillips said on MLB Network Radio in late December. "For Bautista, he's a very proud guy, but the thing that motivates him is the chip on his shoulder, that there needs to be a villain out there and some anger involved. When that happens, and he's angry, the rest of the clubhouse walks around on eggshells. ... The way to change the energy in the clubhouse is to not have Jose Bautista on the team."
I don't know if Phillips is hearing that directly from the Blue Jays, but it's at least a point worth considering. Front offices don't look only at numbers and spreadsheets. Like with Bonds, perhaps teams around baseball consider Bautista just too much of a pain to sign, especially when you also have to give up a first-round pick. There are also baseball reasons: His production fell off in 2016, he's 36, and he may be regarded as an American League-only player who needs to DH rather than play right field. On the other hand, he's just one season removed from hitting 40 home runs with a .250/.377/.536 line. If he can come close to that, a one-year deal could be a bargain.
So what happens? Going back to the Blue Jays still seems like the most logical conclusion. Given the state of their outfield corners and lineup, they need him, and Bautista apparently needs the Jays. He also could wait until after the draft -- like Kendrys Morales did a few years ago -- when the loss of a draft pick no longer applies and there may be more interest in finding a new home. Maybe the Phillies do sign him with the idea of trading him during the season. But if nobody wants him now, will anybody want him in July? Maybe a team with nothing to lose, like the Tampa Bay Rays, steps in and gets him for $10 million or so.
Last February, there were reports that Bautista asked the Blue Jays for a five-year, $150 million contract to avoid heading to free agency. Bautista denied that figure, but we certainly know that he bet on himself to put up big numbers again and receive that monster contract.
He bet wrong.