Even on a one-year contract, the Toronto Blue Jays and Jose Bautista are struggling to find common ground on a fair market value for baseball's home run king.
The two sides are nearly US$3 million apart after exchanging salary arbitration figures Tuesday afternoon, and the width of that gap doesn't bode well for their hopes of reaching a long-term deal this off-season.
Bautista is seeking $10.5 million while the Blue Jays are offering $7.6 million, and general manager Alex Anthopoulos's policy is to go to a hearing once the numbers are exchanged, although he will still discuss multi-year contracts with players who file. The Blue Jays avoided arbitration by reaching agreement with outfielder Rajai Davis ($5.25 million, two years with a 2013 club option for $3 million), shortstop Yunel Escobar ($2.9 million, one year) and right-hander Brandon Morrow ($2.3 million, one year) earlier in the day, but couldn't get either Bautista or reliever Jason Frasor done.
Frasor is seeking $3.725 million while the club is offering $3.25 million, and an arbitrator must choose either one number or the other.
While Anthopoulos maintained his policy of refusing to discuss ongoing negotiations, the Blue Jays are believed to be seeking a long-term arrangement with Bautista, who made $2.4 million last year and will be eligible for free agency after the 2011 season. He has said he'd like to stay in Toronto.
But their widely divergent interpretations of Bautista's worth for just one season may very well complicate what was already going to be a very difficult negotiation.
"Our dialogue with their camp has been outstanding, his representation is outstanding, they're first class, (agent) Bean Stringfellow is a total pro and I even told him today, it was probably one of the cleanest, most professional exchanges I've had and it's very respectful across the board," Anthopoulos told a conference call. "Philosophically, we don't see eye-to-eye right now and that's OK, that's why we have the process in place.
"We both realize there's no one who's right or wrong, both sides make a compelling case and it's very fair, and that's why we need a third party to make a determination of what the right value for the player is."
Among the issues clouding the matter is that there are few carbon-copy comparables for Bautista, who spent the first six years of his career as a middling utilityman before surging to 54 home runs in 2010.
That he performed the way he did just a year from free agency leaves the Blue Jays with a difficult gamble to make: they can either believe his big year was no fluke and lock him up, or wait and see if he can repeat and then outbid others for his service.
There are serious risks either way -- and a restive fan base will be watching closely -- which is why the decision looms a pivotal one for Anthopoulos.
The Blue Jays haven't been to an arbitration hearing since going with reliever Bill Risley in 1997, and the process can sometimes leave players sore at their employers. Anthopoulos isn't concerned about that.
"I think good will is created in the way the organization conducts itself top to bottom, the way we treat the players, the way we travel, the way we have the clubhouse, the way we negotiate with them," he said.
"We don't play hardball with anybody at all. We're very clear with the agents and players, we have open lines of communication and dialogue and our No. 1 goal in all negotiations is to get a deal done at all times."
Anthopoulos did manage to reach a long-term deal with Davis, who was acquired in a trade with Oakland earlier this winter. The speedy outfielder hit .284 with five home runs, 52 RBIs and 50 stolen bases in 2010 for the Athletics and in 476 career games, he has an average of .281 with 143 stolen bases.
How he fits into the puzzle remains to be determined, and Anthopoulos said the Blue Jays haven't committed to him as a starter just yet.
"We're getting close to spring training but we still continue to have dialogue with free agents and trades and so on, so the roster still might change," said Anthopoulos. "Certainly when we acquired Rajai, we do feel there's starter upside to him and we do think he can find one other gear and continue to improve."
The key domino with Davis is whether or not the Blue Jays can find someone to play third base, allowing Bautista to remain in right field instead of shifting to the hot corner.
Escobar, 28, appeared in 60 games for Toronto after being acquired from the Atlanta Braves on July 13, 2010. He hit .275 with four home runs and 16 RBIs as a Blue Jay last season.
Morrow, 26, had a 10-7 record last season with a 4.49 earned-run average in his first season as a Blue Jay and a full-time starter.
He came within one out of a no-hitter in a victory over Tampa Bay on Aug. 8. The right-hander became just the fourth pitcher since 1954 to record 17 strikeouts when tossing a complete-game one-hitter.
Morrow is a combined 18-19 with 16 saves and a 4.19 ERA in 157 career games, including 41 starts.
On Monday, pitchers Shawn Camp ($2.25 million), Casey Janssen ($1,095,000) and Jesse Litsch ($830,000) signed one-year deals to avoid arbitration.