The news of Jose Bautista re-upping with the Toronto Blue Jays was understandably a relief for many in Blue Jays nation. After all, it wouldn’t have been easy to cope with losing both of the Jays long-time faces of the franchise in one offseason. But while Edwin Encarnacion moved on to the Cleveland Indians, Bautista elected to stay put, agreeing to a one-year, $18 million deal with mutual options and performance incentives that could potentially turn it into three years and $60 million.
Jose Bautista Deal a Head-Scratcher for Blue Jays
Humble Beginnings led to Superstardom
Bautista arrived in Toronto as a fringe waiver wire pick-up in 2008, and all he has done since then is become one of the best hitters ever to put on a Blue Jays uniform. Not only has he solidified his place in the Jays all-time ranks – second in home runs, third in slugging percentage, and fifth in RBI – he has also been a pillar of stability for a franchise that has undergone multiple roster overhauls during the course of his tenure in Toronto.
The Blue Jays have had a number of superstars come through their organization over the past nine years, including Roy Halladay, Vernon Wells, Encarnacion, Jose Reyes, and more recently, Josh Donaldson and Troy Tulowitzki. But the one constant throughout has been Bautista’s presence in right field. He has been a leader in the clubhouse, a proud ambassador of both the city of Toronto and his home country of the Dominican Republic, and, whether you liked it or not, he was always going to voice his opinion. Bautista has gained millions of fans over the years – to go along with an equally high number of people who despise him across the American League – but no one can deny the immeasurable impact he has had on the Blue Jays franchise.
From a marketing perspective, the Bautista deal absolutely made sense for the Blue Jays, especially coming on the heels of Encarnacion’s departure. From a baseball operations standpoint, however, it wasn’t the right decision.
When Bautista’s audacious contract demands became public last spring, one of the key reasons he gave as justification was that his age shouldn’t be as much of a factor in negotiating a long-term contract because of how well he takes care of himself. Essentially, Bautista felt that his body would hold up for longer than is normally the case thanks to the significant work he puts into ensuring he stays in peak form. Unfortunately, the numbers tell a different story.
Bautista hit .234 in 2016 – the lowest batting average he’s posted over a full season as a Blue Jay – although that isn’t overly problematic since he has never been someone who hits for average. What’s more concerning is that he wasn’t able to compensate for the average with the same level of power as in years past. Bautista’s .217 Isolated Power mark last season was 22 points worse than his next lowest figure since 2009, while his 19.9% K-rate was his highest since that same year.
On the plus side, his walk rate remained sky high at 16.8%, good for third best in all of baseball after Bryce Harper and Mike Trout, so he is clearly still reading the zone well and staying disciplined in his plate approach. But his bat doesn’t appear to have the same pop as it used to; for a slugger like Bautista, a reduction in power combined with an uptick in strikeouts is a pretty glaring warning sign of age regression.
His power stroke isn’t the only thing that has begun to deteriorate with age. Bautista’s fielding metrics are also down across the board over the past two seasons, highlighted by an ugly -15.5 Ultimate Zone Rating. For those unfamiliar with UZR, essentially a positive rating means a player is above average in the field, while a negative rating suggests the player is a liability. But, really, all one needs to know is that Bautista’s -15.5 UZR over the past two seasons was worse than any other statistically qualified American League outfielder. In contrast, Kevin Pillar’s UZR was +36.6 over that time span.
Bautista has never been considered an elite defender, but he was at least competent in right field in seasons past. He actually recorded positive UZRs from 2012 to 2014, and in 2010 and 2011 he blasted 97 total home runs so no one batted an eye about his defense, for obvious reasons. Meanwhile, his arm was at one time considered a strength, but that appears to no longer be the case, as his -0.8 Outfield Arm rating from last season suggests it is now slightly below average, too.
Money Better Used Elsewhere
Add it all together, and it becomes quite clear that Bautista’s best days are well behind him. At this point it’s just a matter of how quickly he regresses, which is anyone’s guess. But either way, even on a one-year deal, he wasn’t worth more than the $17.2 million qualifying offer he turned down last November; at least, not when you take into account the current state of the Jays bullpen, in addition to the much cheaper outfield alternatives that were available.
The Blue Jays likely could have re-signed Michael Saunders for considerably less money, as the Victoria, BC product was openly hoping for a return to Toronto before settling for a one-year, $9 million deal with the Philadelphia Phillies. Melvin Upton Jr. will be back, as will Ezequiel Carrera, and super-utility man Steve Pearce has also been added to the fold. Plus, the Jays also have a handful of near MLB-ready outfield prospects worthy of a look in Spring Training, including the likes of Dalton Pompey, Anthony Alford, Lourdes Gourriel, and Harold Ramirez.
A Poor Fit for the New Jays
Sure, Bautista does have box office appeal, and that must be tempting for Shapiro and company with the loss of Encarnacion. But the Blue Jays also need to ask themselves how much Bautista can really contribute to winning ballgames at this stage of his career.
The identity of the team has changed, in that the Blue Jays aren’t going to have the ability to out-slug teams anymore. In order to remain competitive, they are going to have to find new and creative ways to put runs on the board, and that involves a renewed focus on the little things, like speed, depth, and versatility. Bautista doesn’t fit that bill.