Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Bautista Primed for Disappointment

Bautista is looking for a nine-figure contract extension from Toronto (Twin Cities)
Jose Bautista is one of the Toronto Blue Jays' best players, as well as one of the best players in baseball. He's also going to be a free agent next year, so obviously Toronto would like to keep him. But at what cost?

Apparently, that cost is going to be at least $150 million over five years, which is a lot of money. Only two position players--Jason Heyward and Chris Davis--signed for that much last offseason, and both of them were at least half a decade younger than Bautista. But as tempting as it might be for the Jays to let him walk and save themselves a bundle of money, they're built to win now. After snapping the longest postseason drought in American professional sports last year, they're looking to go on a different kind of run, or at least stay competitive in what is always a tough division. Losing Bautista would make that considerably harder.

So over the next several months, the Blue Jays have to ask themselves: is he worth it?

By the numbers, absolutely. Nobody's homered more often over the past six years than Joey Bats, who's averaged 38 long ones and 97 RBI per season. With a .390 OBP during that time, the six-time All-Star is also among the best in the sport at getting on base, which is why only three players--Mike Trout, Miguel Cabrera, and Joey Votto--have eclipsed his wRC+, wOBA, and total offensive value over the past half-dozen seasons.

Bautista's bat has made him one of the most valuable players in the game, despite minimal contributions on the basepaths and middling defense. FanGraphs estimates he's been the sixth-best position player this decade, dead-even with Robinson Cano and just a win behind Votto. Considering Bautista's been worth roughly 5.5 wins a season over the last six and that wins are running teams around $8 million these days, $30 million a year is more than fair. In fact, it's downright charitable. Based on the cost of wins, he's been worth more than that in five of the last six years, when his average salary was only $11 million per season. Bautista should be earning three times that.

So why won't he? Age. Bautista turned 35 in October, and there's no precedent for a player that old signing a contract that big. Teams simply don't give guys in their mid-30s nine-figure contracts, mainly because players are too far removed from their primes by then (in the last 40 years, only two players have averaged four wins per season from ages 36-40, the years Bautista's contract would be covering. One of them was Barry Bonds. The other was Edgar Martinez).
The game is only getting younger as aging curves have shifted. With speed and defense becoming more emphasized in these pitching-rich times, teams are placing more value on players in their 20s. They want guys who can run and field, so they'd rather invest in younger, less talented players than older players who could fall off a cliff at a moment's notice, no matter how good they've been in the past.

Bautista's the perfect example why. He's been injured recently and is a bat-only player at this stage in his career, so if he suddenly stops hitting he'll have no way to contribute. Any team that signs him is banking on him to hold up into his late-30s, which is usually a terrible bet.

In Bautista's case, however, it might not be. Like Raul Ibanez, David Ortiz, and Edgar Martinez, he was a late bloomer who's been much better in his 30s than he ever was in his 20s. He's shown no signs of slowing down, as he just whacked 40 homers and led the league in walks last year. That might be because he didn't become a full-time player until his late-20s, and thus has a lot less mileage than most players his age.
It also helps that he's begun DH'ing more frequently in recent years, and would likely do so full-time if Edwin Encarnacion weren't such a butcher in the field. Seeing more time at DH would help prolong his career, but the Blue Jays are in a tricky situation where they have two excellent hitters who really shouldn't be playing the field. If they decide to keep Bautista and let Encarnacion (also a free agent next winter) leave, they could slot the former in as their everyday DH and hope he continues to rake until his 40th birthday, a la Ortiz and Martinez.

This is a big year for Bautista. If he has another monster campaign (which the projections say he will) and Toronto doesn't extend him, he'll be the best player in next winter's free agent class. That alone could drive up his asking price, especially if a bidding war ensues over his services.

Still, it's hard to see Bautista breaking the bank, no matter how good he is this year. Look no further than last year when Victor Martinez, coming off a dominant season at the same age, got only four years and $68 million on the open market (which already looks like a huge mistake). Bautista could probably fetch $20 million a year, but $30 million appears out of the question. Which is too bad for him, because he's been worth that much before and might still be in the future, but at this point he's just too old to trust.

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