We’ve been hearing the whispers, and now it’s official: Jose Bautista is remaining with the Toronto Blue Jays for at least another year. Toronto inked their slugger to a somewhat complicated deal and the details are still coming out, so we’ll have to work with what we’ve got so far. What we know is that Bautista will take the field for the Jays in 2017 with $18 million guaranteed and then there are two options, a mutual option for 2018 with a buyout somewhere in the $500k to $1 million range, and then there’s a vesting option for 2019, with the total max value set at $60 million over the next three years. This is not quite the contract you would expect for a hitter who is only a year removed from six straight All Star appearances who received MVP votes in four of those seasons, but of course, Bautista doesn’t fit the mold of many other players around today.
As you probably already know, from 2010 to 2015, Bautista wasn’t just a great player, but unquestionably one of the best in baseball. Among his many accolades: 1st in home runs (227), 2nd in BB% (17.5), 1st in ISO (.297), 4th in wRC+ (156) and 6th in fWAR (32.5). Of course, all of that came with some defensive liability, but that’s the kind of thing you suffer through to get a bat like that in your lineup, no questions asked.
During the offseason last year, it was reported that Bautista was looking for something in the vicinity of five-year deal, $150 million deal to stay in Toronto. That was obviously a tough pill for any team to swallow for a player who had just turned 35 during the prior postseason. Negotiations stalled and Bautista’s 2016 certainly didn’t live up to the standards he’d set for himself, as he was only worth 1.4 fWAR/1.0 bWAR. The culprits were the twin pitfalls of an increased propensity for striking out and a concerning drop in power. In 2016, his K% was 19.9, the highest since before he broke out in 2009, compared to an average of 16.0% over the prior six years. His .217 ISO was also his lowest since 2009, compared to an average of .287 from 2010 to 2016.
Both of those trends are concerning for a player in his age 35 season, but especially the power. To be fair to Bautista, he suffered from injuries and hit the DL twice, once for a toe injury and once for a knee injury. As others have pointed out, it was the at-bats between those two DL trips that really sunk Bautista’s numbers and his numbers before and after those trips were between very good and great, highlighted by his bookending the year with a 147 wRC+ in March/April and a 134 wRC+ in September/October. Now that we were fair, we need to mention that, while possible, it’s unlikely that those DL trips are going to be the last we see from him.
Bautista apparently turned down more money elsewhere to return to Toronto. That being said, the qualifying offer clearly hurt his value, as the draft pick his new team would give up, combined with his advancing age put him in a place that most teams were not willing to go. Assuming that Bautista’s option isn’t picked up next year (as mutual options rarely are), he at least won’t have to deal with another qualifying offer thanks to the new CBA. But, again, he’ll be 37 at that point, so we’ll just have to wait and see how his 2017 shakes out (and whether there are any more surprises in the contract) before we can guess what will happen.
It’s worth mentioning that, as alluded to earlier, Bautista didn’t break out until 2010, when he was already 29, so it’s not as if he’s been following a traditional player career arc to this point. The patience that he demonstrated at the plate certainly suggests that Bautista might age well, but his ability to be an exceptional hitter from this point forward hinges on whether or not the strikeouts rising and power dropping were mostly caused by the injuries he suffered and, if so, whether or not he can avoid more of them in the future.
Grade for Bautista: C-
It’s hard to be too, too tough on Bautista for coming back to play for a franchise that he’s the face of, even if it’s on a deal that barely beats the qualifying offer. Bautista was surely underpaid during his previous time in Toronto (even if it will never not seem strange to say that someone who has already made over $85 million is “underpaid”), but there’s no denying the fact that age is more than just a number when it comes to contracts. He probably should have put some more wiggle room in his price last offseason, but at this point, he’ll have to settle for attempting to show that last season was a fluke and that he still has enough left in the tank to keep playing after he hits 40, as he has said he will.
Grade for Blue Jays: A-
Ultimately, Toronto getting Bautista back on a deal like this is probably the best kind of thing that could have happened to them. With Edwin Encarnacion leaving for Cleveland, depriving them of a big bat and Michael Saunders leaving for Philadelphia, creating a need in the outfield, re-signing Bautista on what likely amounts to a one-year deal amounts to a lifeline for their offense. Sure, the defense probably isn’t getting any better and there were some concerning signs last year, but if they were going to re-sign Bautista, at least they kept the contract short. Here’s to hoping that he stays healthy and keeps on flipping bats.