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Blue Jays: Could Saunders match Bautista’s contract years in free agency?

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Apr 29, 2016; St. Petersburg, FL, USA; Toronto Blue Jays left fielder Michael Saunders (21) celebrates with right fielder Jose Bautista (19) after hitting a home run during the eighth inning against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field. The Blue Jays won 6-1. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 29, 2016; St. Petersburg, FL, USA; Toronto Blue Jays left fielder Michael Saunders (21) celebrates with right fielder Jose Bautista (19) after hitting a home run during the eighth inning against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field. The Blue Jays won 6-1. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports /
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With Blue Jays’ left-fielder Michael Saunders enjoying a breakout season, he’s likely no longer headed towards a one or two-year deal

Jose Bautista‘s next payday, coming no later than the upcoming free agent period, should be well beyond the total that teammate Michael Saunders is able to reach. A different market altogether, really, but with the way their two seasons are going, Saunders does have an opportunity to match Bautista in terms of contract length.

Even with the well-documented injury history that will follow Saunders into free agency, his age – he’s still 29 until November 19th – and exceptional offensive turnaround this season could earn him a deal up to four years, Jonah Keri told Sportsnet yesterday.

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“…In this (upcoming free agent) market where (outfielder) Josh Reddick is probably the cream of the crop, it could be a four-year deal (for Saunders). It could be a really big contract.”

Through 65 games and 268 plate appearances entering Friday night, Saunders owned a .304 average and .967 OPS with 15 home runs and 32 RBIs. He’s also been covering the plate much better, hitting lefties, and driving the ball to the opposite field as well as anyone in baseball.

Defence has not, and likely will not, be Saunders’ strength, but this is true to an even greater extent for Bautista. Saunders’ offensive outburst is far more likely to regress than grow, but even if that OPS were to dip down around .860-870, it’s still likely that his raw counting stats in a healthy season would land Saunders in the neighbourhood of 25 home runs, a career high.

From Bautista’s side of this equation, the remainder of 2016 continues to be all about maintaining his existing value. At 36 years old and coming off the great seasons he’s had, there is no opportunity for him to bump his value any higher, but keeping it at this current height will be a challenge. This will be especially true if his turf toe injury stretches beyond the expected time frame.

“My opinion hasn’t changed that much,” Keri said of Bautista. “Even last year, he was a below-average fielder. He is a DH, so that’s No. 1. No. 2, he’s 36 so his bat speed will slow down. He’s never been a wonderful baserunner by any means. There was all this talk about a five-year contract but that was never going to happen.”

With 12 home runs and an OPS of .815 – leaving room for improvement by Bautista’s standards – it’s becoming less likely that Bautista reaches the five (or six) year deal he’s seeking. Then again, it’s debatable whether that was attainable with a strong and healthy season.

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As with any free agent, though, all it takes is one. One bullish GM with deep pockets who thinks Bautista will defy the aging curve, or one front office sold that this is truly the new Saunders, and suddenly, the other 29 opinions don’t matter.

So while Saunders still won’t challenge the dollar value, he’s come a long way since spring training and the Jay Bruce near-deal and has a surprisingly legitimate opportunity to match Bautista’s term.

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