The Blue Jays sure took their time re-signing Jose Bautista.
Editor’s note: This piece has been updated since its original time of publication to reflect the latest available details of Jose Bautista’s contract as well as his 2016 average batted ball exit velocity.
Until very recently, it had been speculated that the Jays were not even interested in re-signing Bautista: some had said that he’s outspoken, he’s coming off a terrible 2016 campaign, he’s only getting older and he’ll get even worse as he ages, his defense is abominable, he’ll cost too much and available payroll is better spent elsewhere.
It’s been noted by multiple baseball writers that signing Jose Bautista seemed to be the only way to save the Jays’ offseason (Fangraphs; Vice Sports; Blue Jay Hunter; Call to the Pen). I don’t believe that the success or failure Jays’ offseason depends upon a single player, but I do believe that Bautista was the best free agent outfielder available and that signing him made sense.
Best of the Rest… And Then Some
Looking at the top remaining available outfielders, Bautista is far and away the best player (ranked in terms of projected WAR as per Steamer):
|Pos||Age||2017 Proj Off RAA||2017 Proj Def RAA||2017 Proj WAR||2016 WAR||2016 Team|
|Jose Bautista||RF||36||16.8||-11.9||2.3||1.4||Blue Jays|
|Austin Jackson||CF||29||-6.8||-2.5||0.7||-0.1||White Sox|
These guys are all more palatable options than the likes of Gregor Blanco, Peter Bourjos, Michael Bourn, Jeff Francoeur and Nolan Reimold, and yet none really compares to Bautista in terms of projected Offensive Runs Above Average or Wins Above Replacement. Admittedly, Bautista is the second-worst defensive option of the bunch, but he is an elite hitter who was still good in 2016, his objectively worst year since 2009; should these projections hold true, his offensive output will more than make up for his bad defense.
According to the Jon Heyman, Bautista’s deal is expected to be for one year, worth $18.5 million. If this is indeed the case, will Jose be worth his contract? With the market value of one win being in the range of approximately $8-8.5 million, according to his projections, the short answer is probably.
Based on an estimated cost of $8.5 million for a win (under the assumption that the estimated cost of $7 million in 2013 has since increased fairly linearly), if Jose produces exactly 2.3 WAR as per his projection and earns $18.5 million in 2017, the Blue Jays will more than break even, especially after accounting for the league minimum salary. Should he exceed 2.18 WAR, the Jays will receive added value. The same holds true for 2018: while his production will likely be lower than that of 2017 due to age, Jose will still only need to produce 1.99 WAR to break even on a $17 million salary if the cost of a win remained at $8.5 million (or 1.89 WAR if the cost of a win were to rise to approximately $9 million).
|Salary||League Minimum||Break-Even WAR|
After factoring in the true cost of Jose Bautista for 2017 (salary + foregone conditional draft pick roughly valued at between $5 million to $10 million today), Bautista would have to produce at most 3.53 WAR in order for the Jays to break even. However, even this higher target certainly seems attainable given he put up 4.4 WAR as recently as 2015.
Cheaper Than Prospects
In money terms, $18.5 million per year is not insignificant, especially when the team’s owner is a corporation with a fiduciary duty to bring profit to its shareholders. But in baseball terms, signing a free agent for money means that money is the only thing the team needs to give up; prospects from the farm system need not be sacrificed and the long-term success of the team need not be compromised for win-now potential.
With rumours swirling about a possible Andrew McCutchen trade, one Pirates blog reported that the Jays were in talks to acquire McCutchen and reliever Tony Watson (their closer after Melancon was sent to the Nationals) in exchange for Joe Biagini, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Sean Reid-Foley, Rowdy Tellez as well as possibly Harold Ramirez. To be truthful, this deal might have upset me more than letting Bautista walk; although I’d be excited about McCutchen and an extra bullpen piece, I’d be apprehensive about giving up not only Biagini after his breakout season, but three of Toronto’s top prospects (sorry Harold!) in order to get a player whose bounce-back may also be in question. This move would undoubtedly have impacted the Jays’ long-term success.
Why Bautista Now?
One could argue that signing Bautista now could be the result of the Jays sitting on their hands for the first bit of free agency and missing out on better outfielders. The following noteworthy free agent outfielders have already signed (with Steamer projections):
|Pos||Age||2017 Proj Off RAA||2017 Proj Def RAA||2017 Proj WAR||New Team||Years||Amount|
Along with a number of Jays fans, I was initially disappointed with the Jays not having signed Dexter Fowler, but I soon got over it. And after seeing this list, I’m not convinced that I would prefer any of these players over Bautista based on their 2017 Steamer projections (other than Cespedes, whom we all know was never coming to Toronto anyway) .
Lastly, Bautista is a serious bounce-back candidate. His average batted ball exit velocity was
consistent at 93.6mph in both 2015 and 2016 relatively consistent at 93.6mph in 2015 and 92.6mph in 2016; his walk rate of 16.8% in 2016 was higher than that of 2015 and even higher than his career average of 14.3%; and although many of his other 2016 offensive statistics were by far his worst since 2009, he was still a better-than-league-average hitter. His 2017 offensive projections look good and since he’s not far removed from 2015, he has a very real chance of exceeding them. All the Jays would need to worry about is how to mitigate his declining defense…