Sign Jose Bautista already, Blue Jays
The roof at Rogers Centre was, quite understandably, closed on April 9 as the Blue Jays hosted the Red Sox in their second home game of the 2016 campaign, and a discomfiting tension sat there among the 47,138 sweaty bodies.
“People are nervous,” my dad said from his usual seat, the one directly to my left in section 124.
He wasn’t wrong.
The season wasn’t yet a week old, but the Blue Jays — essentially the same team, minus David Price, that gave all of Canada a raging baseball boner a few months earlier — had a losing record, and, not surprisingly, fans of this demonstrably great team were already fretting over small-sample flatulence. They had dropped three straight, after all, heading into their Saturday matinee against eventual (and inexplicable) Cy Young winner Rick Porcello.
But following a clean first inning from R.A. Dickey, after then-leadoff hitter Kevin Pillar went down swinging and reigning MVP Josh Donaldson ripped a single to right, Jose Bautista stepped into the box. Porcello, the sinewy right-hander, heaved a drooping, 1–0 curveball that broke right into the middle of the plate, thigh-high. Bautista murdered it. 2–0, Toronto.
See ya, tension.
Two innings later, Bautista took Porcello deep again, depositing another regrettable curve into left-center, this time in a 2–0 count.
The Blue Jays lost that day, falling 8–4 due largely to a poor Dickey outing, but no reasonable person would’ve tried to eke predictive value out of their 2–4 record. They were going to be fine. Better, even.
They were going to be good, obviously, because of Donaldson and Edwin Encarnacion and Troy Tulowitzki, but they were going to be special because Jose Bautista, the patriarch of this hastily assembled juggernaut, was still there, doing his thing. Joey Bats, man. The icon to be named later. You remember. 54 homers in 2010. Six straight All-Star nods. The dude who gave every Toronto millennial a baseball moment to tell their grandkids about 148 times over.
Now, about eight months after that afternoon he straight-up posterized the 2016 AL Cy Young winner, Bautista — a free agent for the first time in his meandering career —is struggling to find a contract offer that aligns with his self-valuation. Bautista, who turned 36 in October, was never going to get the five-year, $150-million deal he was reportedly seeking last spring, but following an injury-riddled campaign in which he put up his worst offensive numbers since 2009 and discredited himself as an outfielder, only one team, really, has been even tenuously linked to him this offseason, and it very much seems as though clubs don’t want to forfeit their top unprotected pick to sign him.
That’s a defensible position for all those teams, to be sure, but here’s the thing: the Blue Jays don’t have to give up their top 2017 draft pick to sign him, and, well, they should totally do that.
If the swiftness with which Ross Atkins slid into Kendrys Morales’ DMs after being rebuffed by Encarnacion is any indication, this new front office won’t be swayed by insidious sentimentality. But, for goodness sake, we’re still trying to do something here, and even the curiously sizeable contingent of Blue Jays fans that finds Bautista irksome should be able to recognize there’s an opportunity for a really shrewd baseball move to be made. (And if you find yourself approaching a Bautista signing with the same attitude as Dan Duquette, well, drink paint).
Yes, there’s risk, but there’s always risk when a teams signs a player that isn’t some zero-upside jabroni. Under the newly ratified CBA, Bautista can hit the market again next winter unencumbered by draft-pick compensation. (Whether he should have taken the qualifying offer, improved his value, and re-entered the market with a stronger foot forward and without a draft pick attached to his name in the first place, is a topic for another conversation.) Given the change to the market for high-end free agents expected next winter, there’s a non-zero chance he’d be open to a one-year deal, and there ain’t no bad one-year deals, especially for superstar players one year removed from superstar-level production.
Regression isn’t linear, after all, and it’s not like Bautista was bad-bad in 2016. He wasn’t a star, but even with all the injuries, his plate discipline (16.8 BB%) and power (.217 ISO) remained in tact, and his 122 wRC+ was still better than that of Bryce Harper, Giancarlo Stanton, and Jose Abreu. His swing metrics and batted-ball stats weren’t discouraging, either, and were actually pretty promising depending on where you look.
Sure, someone like Brandon Moss could approximate the value Bautista might provide in 2017 for a fraction of the cost, but there’s also little chance of surplus value, and with the considerable improvements made already this winter by the Red Sox, the Blue Jays — especially with Encarnacion most assuredly pulling on a different uniform next year — have more than a few marginal wins to recoup. While doing that in the aggregate can work — “no bad players” is a prudent approach, given you don’t employ Justin Smoak — there’s an opportunity cost there that further limits the potential for surplus value. Like, yeah, you can pay Steve Pearce to play first base and Moss to play right with predictably modest returns, or you can have Bautista play right and give Rowdy Tellez, the 21-year-old who managed a .917 OPS at Double-A New Hampshire in 2016, a chance at first. The different, financially, is negligible, but the latter scenario allows for a sweet, delicious surplus that just isn’t there with moves that long only for an improved floor.
Look, it’s probable this new front office was, indeed, installed to implement a more staid financial approach to roster construction, but if, following a season of bonkers attendance and television ratings, Rogers isn’t willing to give Atkins and Mark Shapiro the resources to re-sign Bautista while also adding a competent reliever, or whatever, why even bother signing Morales (and Pearce)? To claim plausible deniability when the club is playing .490 ball at the trade deadline? Fuck that. If you’re not going for it, in earnest, blow it up. At least that’s a full measure. There’s too much competitive incentive to be bad, and none to be mediocre, so you might as well trade Donaldson right now for a heap of prospects, and eat some money on Tulowitzki’s contract, and Russell Martin’s deal, to turn them into prospect capital, too. Look at the Cubs and the Astros. The model works, and Shapiro has had success rebuilding a system in the past.
Clearly, though, there’s at least a pretense of being competitive in 2017, and with a largely intractable talent infrastructure in place, as well as the guarantee of draft-pick compensation for Encarnacion, the Blue Jays have a lot to gain by re-signing Bautista — a franchise legend who could help them stay really, really good and generate the kind of revenues Toronto enjoyed the last two autumns. Maybe they’ll be good using an alternative, more conservative approach to fill the remaining holes in their outfield (and lineup), but what if they’re not? In that case, they wasted a winter spending money instead of starting a rebuild that, in any event, is likely not too far away, and they missed an opportunity to bring back one of the franchise’s greatest stars in a potential win-win short-term scenario.
It’s possible, of course, that Bautista —a purveyor of walks and homers whose best defensive position is probably DH these days — will continue trending downwards. Supposing he isn’t finished, though, he could be a real steal in 2017, and if there are more bats to be flipped, so to speak, no team is more apt to take advantage of that than the Blue Jays.