There’s an old saying: good things come to those who wait. When it comes to contracts in baseball that’s sometimes true; players who can afford to wait on their talent get paid. But, it is certainly not always true. We saw that this year with Jose Bautista.
From October of last year to March of this year, Jose Bautista was Toronto’s golden boy, and justifiably so. It doesn’t get much more momentous in sports than the bat flip heard round the world. As such, when extension time came knocking, Jose Bautista was already at the door. In February, Bautista was reportedly looking for more than five years and $150 million for his services. If I was to guess, I don’t think that Bautista ever thought he was going to get quite that much money, but he had the public’s trust and enthusiasm. When he threw out his contract demands there was a large subset of people yelling, “pay that man.” So, he could aim high and see where things would go.
Unfortunately for Jose, he was dealing with a front office that had no prior ties to him and were probably less inclined to go out and make a big deal just months after taking over the club. As such, the most concrete ‘offer’ that we ever heard from the Blue Jays came at the bottom of a Ken Rosenthal column, where he noted that Toronto “might be amenable to a Yoenis Cespedes type deal.” For those who don’t recall, Cespedes had signed a three year, $75 million deal with the New York Mets earlier that offseason.
Talks never seemed to progress much further than that. After all, Bautista thought he’d have suitors lining up to sign the player who’d hit the most home runs in baseball over the past five years. As we now know, that hasn’t been the case.
That begs the question: how would things have played out if the Blue Jays jumped the gun on a Bautista extension? What if they hadn’t waited, and instead signed Jose to the Cespedes style contract that they had supposedly discussed? $25 million is no small pill to swallow. In fact I’d argue that based on the budgets we’ve heard, it may have come close to ruining the 2017 season.
Jose Bautista is not the player he once was. At this point his defensive demise has been well documented; he has gone from a suitable outfielder with a cannon for an arm to a statue who’s hose is looking like it has been tied in knots.
What has been less discussed is Jose’s hitting. While still a good hitter relative to the league in 2016, Bautista was a shell of his former self. He was still walking, and not striking out too much, but the power was sapped just enough to make a meaningful difference.
I present you with two items:
1. Per Statcast, between 2015 and 2016 Jose Bautista hit balls weaker, with less distance, with less height, and at a lower launch angle. In other words, he was less positioned to hit home runs. At the root of this is the fact that Bautista simply wasn’t hitting the ball as hard; he lost 1 MPH on his average exit velocity, which was one of the larger drops in MLB.
2. Per the ESPN Home Run Tracker, the average true distance of Jose Bautista’s home runs in 2016 was 384.3 feet. His previous low in any full season as a Blue Jay was 400.3 feet, which is over 15 feet further. In other words, Bautista was no longer crushing home runs; that’s a problem.
The result of all this was an OPS of .817, which is closer to Bautista’s OPS in 400 games as a Pirate than it is to the production that he put up in 962 as a Jay before 2016. Bautista will provide offensive might to whatever lineup he joins, but a 1B/DH who isn’t topping the average or home run charts is not worth $25 million dollars a year.
Prior to this offseason, the Blue Jays had committed approximately $110 million to 9 players. If you add in projected arbitration salaries for Stroman, Barney, Loup, and Carrera, you get to $117 million for 13 players. Had the Jays signed Bautista for $25 million, they’d be at $142 million for 14 players. Filling the rest of the roster spots with league minimum salary players would have put them at $148 million for 25 players. If the $160 to $165 million figure for the 2017 payroll is to be believed, that means the Jays would’ve had roughly $12 to $17 million to get a real first baseman, one outfielder, a few relievers, and bench pieces.
Under those constraints the Blue Jays would have a filled out the roster, but that would be a team with quite a few holes, not one intending to at least attempt to compete for the AL East title once again.
Perhaps this gives us a look at why Ross Atkins and Mark Shapiro have strayed from large, long-term contracts so adamantly this offseason (particularly with a certain slugging Dominican first baseman). Whether we like it or not, the Blue Jays seem to have some constraints, and they’ve already committed A LOT of dollars to select set of aging players. They don’t have many bad contracts, but there are a lot of contracts where the Jays are just barely getting value.
Had the Blue Jays invested in Jose Bautista prior to 2016, they would have been as strapped as can be. In other words, the team as its currently constructed (with the ownership that it has) can’t afford to take too many big money risks. Is it right? Perhaps not, but it’s the new Blue Jay way.
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