Blue Jays Are Paying Jose Bautista for the Potential Upside
In the end, a reunion just made too much sense.
The Toronto Blue Jays have signed free agent outfielder Jose Bautista to a one-year guaranteed deal worth $18 million (just $800,000 more than the qualifying offer he rejected), with two mutual options for 2018 and 2019 that could end up being worth $60 million. Bautista never got the multi-year offers he was hoping for in the open market after a down season in which he hit .234/.366/.452 with 22 home runs, 69 RBI, a wRC+ of 122 and an fWAR of 1.4 in 116 games (517 plate appearances).
As I mentioned last month, Bautista's fWAR was his lowest since 2008, his wRC+ hadn't been that low since 2009, and his batting average was the lowest it had been since becoming a regular player. His strikeout rate of 19.9% was up 4% from 2015 and was his highest since it was 21% in '09. And, he's entering his age-36 season.
But of course, Bautista is a legacy in Toronto.
He wanted to come back. They wanted him back. But was it the right move? Here are the other comparable outfielders that have been on the market over the last few weeks (the Philadelphia Phillies snatched up Michael Saunders on Monday).
The Jays could have signed Saunders, a left-handed slugger who is seven years younger, had a better batting average and slugging percentage and two more home runs (24) than Bautista. Neither plays very good defense, and Saunders inked a contract with the Phils that was $9 million cheaper.
They could have signed Brandon Moss, a player three years younger with a better slugging percentage and 28 homers last year compared to Bautista's 22. Moss can also play first base.
Of course, neither has the upside of Bautista, who launched 40 bombs just two seasons ago and, before last year, hadn't had a wRC+ below 135 since 2009. If last season was just a one-year dip, Bautista could again hit 35-40 home runs with a batting average and on-base percentage better than either Saunders or Moss. And there are reasons to be optimistic.
While his strikeout rate went up and his batting average went down, he continued to get on base at a good clip. His .366 on-base percentage wasn't far off from the .377 he put up the year before thanks to a walk rate of 16.8%, the highest of his career. And as for the injuries last year, Bautista missed 30 games in June due to turf toe, then hurt his knee in August and was placed on the 15-day DL.
The outfielder considered both those "fluke" injuries, not indicative of his body breaking down.
The Jays are paying extra for that potential upside, but one thing they don't have to pay is a precious first-round pick in the 2017 MLB Draft. Since they re-signed their own player, they get to keep it, a luxury no other team would have been afforded.
It's safe to say Toronto is happy they didn't acquiesce to any long-term demands Bautista may have made during spring training, but they also misplayed the market a bit when they jumped and signed Kendrys Morales early and then inked Steve Pearce early in December, icing themselves out of the Edwin Encarnacion market. Encarnacion later signed a very friendly three-year, $60 million deal with the Cleveland Indians.
Look, there's no such thing as a bad one-year contract, unless it's to sign Delmon Young. Steamer isn't seeing the big bounce-back next year, but when do projections ever project something like that? They see him with a .251/.371/.476 line and 26 homers, 74 RBI, a wRC+ of 128 and an fWAR of 2.3. It's very possible to see a return to the 30-homer club, along with a much improved on-base percentage and wRC+.
Bautista may not be the player he once was, and perhaps guys like Saunders or Moss will outperform him this year, but it's doubtful. And on a one-year deal, it's a move the Jays had to make.