TORONTO — 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, in a season-ending media availability at Rogers Centre on Tuesday, said he sat down with Bautista a couple of weeks ago 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 — a move long expected after Bautista struggled through 2017 — Atkins said he was moved by the outpouring of fan support showered on Bautista during his final home game, and that moment will not be the last time he's 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, finished 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.
Bautista was far from the only Toronto player that failed to meet expectations this season.
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), leading Atkins to characterize the season as a "massive disappointment."
Part of Toronto's struggles had to do with injuries that plagued its position players and rotation from the very start of the season.
Aaron Sanchez pitched just 36 innings over eight starts because of blister and fingernail issues, J.A. Happ missed time with inflammation in his throwing elbow, Troy Tulowitzki, Devon Travis, Josh Donaldson and Russell Martin all sat out significant stretches of the season, and the team scuffled offensively and defensively with replacement players inserted into everyday roles.
"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."
Atkins praised Toronto's rotation for staying consistent through the season, but the Blue Jays were still forced to use 14 starters to get through 2017, up from seven in 2016.
Joe Biagini, who was plucked from the bullpen for 18 starts, said that had a big impact on the team's performance.
"Sometimes when teams get injured it kind of throws off the rhythm of everything," Biagini said in a recent interview. "That's why it's hard for a team to make the playoffs every single year in a row for a long time even despite how good of a team it is — look at all the good players we have.
"I think it's hard when a team goes to the playoffs two years in a row, injuries pile up and guys have lots of expectations. The team goes through some changes and I think sometimes with new players it's hard to figure out what (the team) is going to be and how it's going to play and it takes more than one season to do that."
Biagini's versatility gives the Blue Jays options both in the rotation and bullpen for 2018, but Atkins would prefer to acquire at least one more "impact arm pitcher, and one impact position player" this off-season.
"For sure, we have to do that," Atkins said. "We'll be open to trades, we'll be open to any possible way we can make our team better."
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version had Bautista at three all-star appearances and two silver slugger awards.