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Time to Pay Jose Bautista

Jose Bautista is about to get paid. He has been one of the most dominant and feared hitters in baseball over the past six seasons. He has mashed the most HR at 227, or 28 more than #2 Miguel Cabrera on the list over the past six seasons. Take a look at the top offensive categories, and he is near or at the top in almost all of them (per Fangraphs), HR (1), RBI (5), BB% (2), ISO (1), OBP (7), SLG (3), WAR (6), Off (4). With another year close to his annual averages, Bautista is set up to make a significant amount of money on Free Agency, despite his 2017 season age of 36. Baseball still pays a significant premium for power bats (see Chris Davis, or maybe that’s just the O’s), and even at an advanced age, Bautista still has top power, mixed with his high OBP and lower SO%. His age and declining defense in RF could be the difference between extra years and top dollars though he still should get paid very well. He is not your typical aging star, which makes it difficult to get an accurate read on his total value moving forward.

Jose Bautista is in the last year of his “team friendly” 5 year $65MM deal. He will earn another $14MM in 2016, bringing the total contract to 6 years and $78MM (less $1MM buyout on picked up option). In Bautista’s media comments yesterday he said, “I don’t believe in hometown discounts. I’ve given this organization a 5-year hometown discount already.” In fairness to the Blue Jays, Bautista’s deal now looks like an absolute bargain, but at the time the deal was signed, it was considered very risky. The Blue Jays committed significant money based on Bautista’s breakout season in 2010. Bautista willingly signed the deal knowing he could have waited out free agency and possibly earned more money. That’s the risk/reward factor, and in hindsight, I will say that his comments on already giving a “team friendly” deal has truth but is deeply flawed. That being said, there is no reason for Bautista to accept an under market, team friendly deal when he has every right to test free agency in a very weak market year.

Bautista started his Blue Jays career in unspectacular fashion. On August 21, 2008, he was traded to the Blue Jays for a player to be named later, which turned out to be Robinzon Diaz. At the time, this was a small move, and was even considered to be a bad deal for the Blue Jays. Fangraphs detailed the move as a “sell low move” by the Blue Jays acquiring Diaz, and a plunder by the Pirates to ship off the underachieving Bautista.

It’s easy to forget Bautista the utility bench player, who famously turned his career around when coach Dwayne Murphy re-configured his swing and added a leg kick. In 2010, Bautista became an unexpected superstar and has not looked back. He hit 54 HR, produced 6.9 WAR, and set the table for his five-year contract extension. He is the superstar no one expected, a true underdog story, and the one that got away from countless teams. The Blue Jays lucked out. They fixed the flaws that turned him from bench warmer to superstar.

They again hit gold when they bet on him continuing his new-found elite status. He has produced 26.9 WAR or 5.54 per season over the last 5 years. When considering the cost of WAR at roughly $5 million per, and I am being conservative, (upwards of 8-10 for FA) Bautista provided roughly $134MM in value for a cost-effective team, and essentially between $64MM and $70MM in surplus value. That of course does not include the value Bautista has brought the city of Toronto, the country of Canada, and the organization as a whole. It’s difficult to quantify what Bautista has meant for the Blue Jays with an exact number, but he has been the shinning light for many years, and the face of a franchise during its 20-plus year absence from the playoffs.

How do you quantify the “bat flip” that propelled the Blue Jays to the AL Division series? Can you put a price tag on one of the most historic homeruns in Blue Jays history? Bautista firmly planted himself in Blue Jays history, his homer and bat flip will be played over and over for many years to come. It was not the MVP Josh Donaldson who hit the historic HR (though he did tie the game), it was the long-time Blue Jay, Jose Bautista. Many fans would not have had that moment any other way. It was exactly how the best story-teller could have scripted that moment. Like many fans, I was sitting on the edge of my seat, fearing the Blue Jays would be sent home packing entering the bottom of the 7th down 3-2. Then as if in a dream, Martin reached on an error, as did Pillar, Goins then also reached on an error, Revere grounded out, Donaldson blooped into a force out (Revere at 2nd) – Pillar scores. Bautista comes up with two outs and opportunity to make Texas pay for its historically sloppy disaster of a 7th…. 1-1 count, Swing and a massive drive to left… Bautista watches it sail, takes a step and tosses his bat into the air with a pronounced shout in celebration…there is deep passion on his face, adrenaline, and some deep rooted confidence…maybe even arrogance. Like many fans, I completely lost it…my wife and I were screaming, and celebrating that moment we would never forget. Our almost four-year-old was looking at us so confused and yet amazed by our outburst. It was the perfect moment.

For many fans that is what Bautista means to the Blue Jays. He is part of the history. He is our guy. We have one of the games best power hitters. When the moment came and we needed the big hit, he not only delivered, but he also gave us pure passion and a memory for a lifetime. There are some fans that don’t like Bautista’s passion (I am looking at you buddy). His outbursts a few years back at umpires caused many to turn on him and want to see him traded. Bautista plays with a chip on his shoulder, and he believes he knows the strike-zone very well…even better than the umpires. In those moments of focus, you can see how a bad call angers him. A few years ago that could get him fired up enough to lay out a few too many choice words on the umpires. Warranted or not, he has learned to control his outbursts. A few bitter fans still hold this against him, but I love the fire Bautista brings. When he strikes out in a key moment, he doesn’t just walk back to the bench and move on. He gets pissed! I love seeing the fire in his eyes. You want to hit him with a pitch or brush that elbow off the plate? Do it at your own risk because when Bautista is angry, he is a homerun crushing machine. Its beautiful.

Moving on to today. The Blue Jays have a big decision to make. Do they extend Bautista for four or even five more years when he already is at an age many players are in deep decline, or do they let him walk at the season’s end, offer him a qualifying offer, and take the pick? While it’s not known what Bautista is asking for from the Blue Jays, he has indicated that he has given Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins his number. If I were Bautista, I would be asking for 5 years and $150MM (one source indicates he asked for $30MM per year). It’s very difficult to know what Bautista’s market value is. Not many players are still performing at an elite level at 34 or 35, and especially not at 38 or 39. Can they realistically commit $30MM to an aged 39-year-old Bautista? In all honestly, that probably is a very poor risk. Perhaps his number is 5 years and $125 million factoring in his age a little.

The Blue Jays in my opinion need to sign Bautista to an extension. That might mean if he needs five years you replace this year’s $14MM option with a revised amount based on the new extension that way he gets five years but more of a four-year extension. That option manages the risk a little, and maybe bridges the gap on the five years. It’s really hard to project what Bautista gets in the off-season, but since he would be the premium offensive player on the market in a poor FA class, a $125MM+ deal might not be out of the question, on a four or five-year deal plus an option.

The biggest risk as mentioned is his age in years three through five of a potential deal. However, teams have shown they are willing to have a few bad years in lieu of elite performance at the front of a deal. Over the next five years, can Bautista be worth $100-125MM? With three good years, he could approach that value, but it’s not a good bet. It’s more likely that this contract is a bit of an overpay. However, the Blue Jays need to sign him knowing they are going to pay a premium to retain their star. They could easily walk away, but I believe they need to make this deal for the fans, and not for the balance of the budget.

I would agree that in most scenarios this is not a wise financial deal. However, at times you need to forget about the money. While I criticize the O’s on the Chris Davis deal, they stepped up to keep their guy even if no one else was willing to pay him that much. To the O’s though, he was worth it. This is one case where the Blue Jays need to show the fans they value their star, that they want to pay him what he is worth, or at the very least, give a little extra for what he has done. It’s partly because of what he has given the fans, and its also that they have no real replacement for Bautista. Assuming the Blue Jays have another competitive season in 2016, they face the risk of loosing Edwin Encarnacion, Jose Bautista, R.A. Dickey, Drew Storen, Jesse Chavez, Justin Smoak, Michael Saunders, Brett Cecil and Gavin Floyd to free agency. In the cases of Bautista and Encarnacion, that’s the middle of their powerful lineup, and there are no other FA’s that can plug those holes. They could make a trade, but they traded away all of their key assets needed to make their 2015 playoff run. The Blue Jays have roughly $60MM coming off the books in the above mentioned FA’s balanced off a little by some pay increases and arbitration raises. Still, what that leaves is enough money to keep Bautista as part of the long-term plan and several holes left to fill.

In order to keep Bautista, they might have to commit 4-5 years upwards of $25MM per year, but in doing so they will save face with their fans, who are already uncomfortable with the recent front office changes. Now, you cannot always make decisions to please the fans, but Bautista is the guy they need to keep. Sure, they could sign Encarnacion, and maybe that is the more fiscally responsible option, but signing Bautista is the move that keeps fan locality alive.

Time will tell what happens between the Blue Jays and Bautista, but the Blue Jays need to consider what Bautista means to this team and the city of Toronto before they walk away from one of their franchise’s best and most historic players.