The easy thing, Toronto Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos said over and over, would have been to do nothing.
Going to arbitration with Jose Bautista and waiting until next fall to try and lock up the 2010 home run champion was the safe play. After all, what kind of proper read can you really get on a player based on one spectacular season unlike any other in a meandering career?
But Anthopoulos doesn't operate that way. He believes to succeed in the American League East, the Blue Jays are going to have to take some educated risks. And his comfort level with Bautista has only grown in leaps and bounds since he urged former GM J.P. Ricciardi to place a waiver claim for the player from the Pittsburgh Pirates in August 2008, and later worked out a deal to send over Robinzon Diaz in order to get him.
So sure, the $64-million US, five-year extension the Blue Jays gave the third baseman/right-fielder Thursday to avoid arbitration and keep him from free agency in the fall is in many ways a gamble. Yet it's one Anthopoulos feels he has enough inside knowledge of to make sensibly.
"We wholeheartedly believe in Jose Bautista as a person, more than anything else," Anthopoulos said. "The ability speaks for itself, we've analyzed it up and down and the longer I've been in the game, you're betting on people more and more. ...
"I've seen where [long-term] deals have gone awry, maybe because the bet on the person wasn't what was expected. If we can't bet on [Bautista], we can't bet on anybody. And that's what it really came down to."
It is a most significant roll of the dice, the most risky of Anthopoulos's 17-month tenure.
The Bautista contract is believed to be the fourth-largest in total compensation ever handed out by the franchise, trailing only those given to Vernon Wells ($126 million, seven years), Alex Rios ($69.8 million) and Carlos Delgado ($68 million, four years).
It also dwarfs the two big commitments made by Anthopoulos last season, when he signed ace lefty Ricky Romero to a $30.1 million, five-year deal and first baseman Adam Lind to an $18-million, four-year deal that could be worth up $38.5 million through club options.
Bautista, 30, gets $8 million in 2011, and $14 million in each of 2012-15. The club holds also an option of $14 million for the 2016 season with a $1-million buyout.
All that after Bautista hit a club record 54 home runs last season, more than tripling his previous career high of 16 set in 2006. The .260 batting average, .378 on-base percentage, 124 runs batted in, 109 runs and 100 walks also stand far beyond his past levels of production.
But the Blue Jays firmly feel he's a different player now, and Bautista does, too.
"I know exactly what I need to do now to be ready for each game, for each individual pitcher," he said. "I know what to look for, what to worry about what to not worry about.
"Before, I put too much stuff in my head, too much weight on my shoulders trying to hit the fastball, the slider, the curveball and the changeup every single pitch of every at-bat every day. I know I can't do that now.
"I single things out, I go by probabilities, I watch video, I try to come up with a way that they will attack me so I'm prepared. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't but when you combine all those things, you're lining yourself up for success instead of failure. I think I lined myself up for failure earlier in my career."
He believes he's more mature now, too, and escaping a toxic situation in Pittsburgh by asking for the Pirates to place him on waivers helped expedite his growth.
In Toronto, he found a welcoming environment and people who believed in him. Hitting coach Dwayne Murphy and former manager Cito Gaston helped Bautista adjust his timing at the plate by planting his front foot earlier, while other useful pieces of advice came from Wells, Scott Rolen, Kevin Millar and Rios.
The changes stuck. And a player who once bounced between five organizations in the span of two months in 2004 turned into a star.
"Jose knew what he was doing wrong, I talked to him about it, he just couldn't get it fixed," said Anthopoulos. "It was a timing thing. You knew that when he did time it you saw the tremendous power.
"He made fundamental mechanical swing changes and that combined with an outstanding eye at the plate and a pretty good contact rate for a power bat and then the work ethic, the determination, the character, the pride, the leadership, you factor all of those things in, this is a special player in a lot of ways."
Great clubhouse guy
Anthopoulos was often effusive in his praise for Bautista on Thursday and it's an admiration shared by the players. Second baseman Aaron Hill returned to Florida Auto Exchange Stadium long after everyone else had left to take in Bautista's news conference, and echoed the sentiments of his teammates by saying, "he's just a great clubhouse guy."
"Last year was a historic season and the way the fans reacted to him was amazing," continued Hill. "It's really neat for us to see something get done. Ownership sees what they have in the player and what he is to us and to the city of Toronto."
Getting it done wasn't easy.
Bautista, Blue Jays assistant GM Jay Sartori, and their support groups were in an arbitration hearing room Monday in Arizona on the verge of arguing their cases when they requested a time out because they were making progress on a deal.
Using the $62-million, five-year deal the Atlanta Braves gave second baseman Dan Uggla during the off-season as a comparable, they got close but they needed more time to hammer out an agreement so a postponement was granted. Both sides were in the $60-million range but they needed to get through the details.
"Deals get done because of deadlines and momentum, and we had both," said Anthopoulos. "Ultimately it was a question of how far above Dan Uggla should he be?"
Eventually they found enough common ground to put in place another franchise cornerstone, with the added bonus of keeping questions about Bautista's future from hanging over the franchise all year.
"The fact that there's no distractions for Jose going forward, any kind of continuity or stability you can create for the player, they're going to be more comfortable and likely to be as productive as their talents allow them to be," said manager John Farrell.
"That seems to be the case in this situation."
That should only help in his growth into a team leader, someone whose impact extends well beyond the stats on the field, according to ace lefty Ricky Romero.
"You see what he did last year and he's going to be good for the young kids, you see his work ethic, the way he goes about his business," said Romero. "He's a winner."
All of which is why Anthopoulos likes his chances of winning this daring bet.
"He just has everything you look for," he said. "There's a lot of players out there that break our hearts and that have all the ability in the world and we all sit there and say, 'Why isn't he better?'
"Normally it's what's between the ears. You like to convince yourself it isn't that but it really is. If things don't work out for him I know it won't be because of the way he goes about it. …
"I'll bet on a guy like this all day."