The Blue Jays won't be picking up the mutual option on Jose Bautista's contract for 2018, but GM Ross Atkins wouldn't rule out the possibility of the all-star slugger returning to Toronto in the future.
Atkins said Tuesday that he recently sat down with Bautista to tell him the option on the contract he signed before the 2017 season would not be picked up.
But while the team won't be bringing back the 36-year-old right-fielder right now, Atkins said he was moved by the outpouring of fan support on Bautista's final home game of the season and that moment will not be the last time Bautista is celebrated in Toronto.
"Jose's career, it's remarkable, and the last home game of the season speaks to what he's meant to this city and this organization," Atkins said.
"We wanted to make sure that when he comes back here he's going to be celebrated in a very strong way. That could be in the form of wearing a Toronto Blue Jays uniform again, it could be that he's traded for or signed in the future at some point, but there will be a day that we make sure we celebrate him in a significant way, knowing that he's going to be celebrated for years by the fans for his accomplishments."
Bautista, a six-time all-star and three-time silver slugger who spent 10 years with the Blue Jays, struggled offensively this season, finishing the year with a .203 batting average, 23 homers, 65 RBIs and a franchise-record 170 strikeouts.
With an aging roster — the Blue Jays had the American League's oldest starting lineup last season — Atkins said the plan now is to trend younger. Keeping Bautista would contradict that.
"We're not getting any younger if we add him to our fold and guarantee him our right-field spot," Atkins said.
Atkins, in a season-ending media availability at Rogers Centre, said the team as a whole failed to meet expectations offensively and defensively.
"We're asking those questions — where can we improve, how can we get better," Atkins said. "I say first thing is we'll be better if we have Troy Tulowitzki and a healthy Devon Travis on the field and all of Josh Donaldson, and Russell Martin not missing a month of the season. If we are healthy that will be one thing that helps that area.
"We were not able to sustain the injuries this year. Our players that had to step in were not enough. We have to put ourselves in a better situation to sustain injuries because we will have them."
The Blue Jays, who reached the ALCS in back-to-back years in 2015 and 2016, ended 2017 in fourth place in the American League East, 17 games back of first-place Boston.
While injuries had a lot to do with Toronto's struggles, Atkins said the team needs to be better at preparing for that in the future and will look to acquire more depth in the off-season to help combat that.