Jose Bautista may have entered the free-agent waters thinking they would take him to a better, richer harbor. Instead, they’ve pushed him right back from where he came.
And that’s not so bad.
A move that has seemed inevitable finally came to fruition Tuesday, when Bautista re-signed with the Toronto Blue Jays on a deal that, as reported by TSN’s Steve Phillips (via MLB Network Radio), will pay him at least $18 million and perhaps as much as $60 million:
Steve Phillips reports Bautista’s deal is a 1 year 18 million with mutual options with incentives maxing out at 3 year 60 million #BlueJays
— MLB Network Radio (@MLBNetworkRadio) January 17, 2017
Since mutual options are rarely exercised, however, it’s likely this pact will end up costing the Blue Jays just the $18 million.
That’s only slightly more than the $17.2 million they would have paid Bautista in 2017 if he’d accepted the club’s qualifying offer in November. And to hear Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports tell it, Toronto also got Bautista back for less than what was available elsewhere.
For Bautista, who’s hit an MLB-high 249 home runs since 2010, $18 million is a nice raise over the $14 million he earned each year from 2012 to 2016. So, at least there’s that.
And thanks to the new collective bargaining agreement, the Blue Jays won’t get to make him another qualifying offer if he chooses to test the open market again after 2017. And since Bautista won’t be tied to draft-pick compensation, the big payday that eluded him this winter could come next winter.
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Of course, draft-pick compensation was just one thing that limited Bautista’s marketability this winter.
Another was certainly the specter of decline hanging over Bautista’s head. He’s 36 years old and coming off a season in which he managed just an .817 OPS and 22 home runs—his worst marks since the days before his big breakout in 2010. He also rated well below average on defense in right field.
There may be no fixing his defense. Even when Bautista was an asset in right field, it had as much to do with his arm as anything else. He acknowledged early in 2016 that said arm was still compromised from a shoulder injury that cropped up at the end of 2015.
“It’s using it when you need to, having the history of the injury last year, on an unnecessary throw, there’s more of a conscious effort on my end to just make the necessary throw,” he told Shi Davidi of Sportsnet.ca.
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Kendrys Morales notched a .795 OPS and 30 home runs last season.
In an alternate universe, the Blue Jays could ignore this question mark by hiding Bautista at designated hitter. But with newcomer Kendrys Morales locked into that position, that’s not going to happen.
The bright side for Toronto is that it could afford to take a defensive hit this winter. Per Baseball Prospectus, it had the American League’s most efficient defense in 2016. Even if the Blue Jays do take a few steps back in 2017, they could still be very good at turning batted balls into outs.
Of course, worse defense might require them to take a step forward (or at least avoid a step backward) on offense.
For that, Bautista and Morales will have to make up for what Toronto lost with the departure of Edwin Encarnacion and Michael Saunders. Encarnacion left a hole the size of an .886 OPS and 42 home runs. Saunders left a hole the size of an .815 OPS and 24 home runs.
Morales should replace Saunders’ production, so the pressure will be on Bautista to put 2016 behind him and be more like the guy who averaged a .945 OPS and 38 homers per year from 2010 to 2015.
Guaranteed? Not quite.
As ESPN.com’s Keith Law expressed in his free-agent rankings, the real concern is that Bautista’s 2016 drop-off was a case of his age seeping into his bat and slowing it down. Per Baseball Savant, Bautista’s modest (for him, anyway) .463 slugging percentage against fastballs lends some truth to that.
But as far as offseason gambles go, there have been far dumber bets placed than this one.
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Jose Bautista’s core skills remain intact.
While there’s no ignoring the various concerns that popped up during Bautista’s 2016 season, his core skills remained very much intact. He continued to show a fantastic eye, keeping his walk rate right where it needed to be. He also continued hitting the snot out of the ball, finishing with a career-high 41 hard-hit percentage.
Which brings us to the ZiPS projections. According to FanGraphs, Bautista will post an .868 OPS and hit 27 home runs in 2017. Not bad. And possibly conservative, to boot.
All of the above shows the Blue Jays are a better team with Bautista than they are without him. Not drastically better, but better.
If nothing else, they’re better enough to make an AL East race that didn’t look all that interesting before Tuesday look more interesting. The Boston Red Sox should still be counted among the league’s (surprisingly large) collection of clear division favorites, but now the Blue Jays have enough weapons to give them a run for their money.
Bautista and Morales alongside Josh Donaldson, Troy Tulowitzki, Russell Martin and Devon Travis is a good lineup. A starting rotation headed by Aaron Sanchez, Marcus Stroman, J.A. Happ and Marco Estrada must be viewed as one of the league’s best. In the bullpen, Toronto still has the criminally underrated Roberto Osuna.
Bautista could well be playing in his third postseason with the Blue Jays come October. Once there, he’s shown he knows what to do.
Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs.