Jose Bautista and good timing have had a hot-and-cold relationship in the 13 seasons since he made his MLB debut in 2004.
That year, Bautista played at least a dozen games for the Baltimore Orioles, Tampa Bay Devil Rays, Kansas City Royals, and Pittsburgh Pirates. He finally arrived as a star in 2010 as a 29-year-old, hitting 54 home runs and finishing fourth in American League MVP voting.
The following offseason, in February of 2011, Jose Bautista signed the contract extension that he is currently nearing the end of. Along the way he’s become the face of the Toronto Blue Jays, given fans – and the game of baseball – his famous bat flip, and now come full-circle to face free agency with his value on a decline. Bad timing.
Spring rumours made the rounds of a contract demand averaging at least $25 million per season over five or more years, and it was a situation that could have developed into an uglier standoff than it has. Bautista’s contract talks have stayed relatively quiet on the Blue Jays’ back-burner, but with a second trip to the disabled list this season and his 36th birthday just over two months away, his value is due for a complete, top-to-bottom reevaluation.
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In 80 games, Bautista has hit .222, and while his on-base tool remains very strong (58 walks compared to 63 strikeouts), his .793 OPS is his lowest as a Blue Jay. Beyond his limited base running abilities, Bautista has become a liability defensively with diminishing range and a throwing arm that no longer threatens opponents who dare to round third.
Bautista was already a difficult free agent case to find parallels for. Now? He may be the toughest value to predict in the entire 2017 free agent class.
At 36 and coming off two injuries, Bautista’s performance this season will create a shrunken market both in dollars and years. All it takes is one over-eager team, but Bautista’s bargaining power has all but evaporated. Essentially: He no longer sets the terms.
In finding a comparable player to base his value off of, former New York Yankees outfielder Carlos Beltran could offer a good baseline. While the players are not identical, and are not intended to be, they stand close enough to one another in terms of age and position to be relevant.
Over the three seasons prior to Beltran signing a 3-year, $45 million deal with New York, Beltran had a strong 2011 (4.3 WAR) between the New York Mets and San Francisco Giants before another good year in 2012 (3.3 WAR) with the St. Louis Cardinals. In his free agent year, however, his defence regressed to a point that it limited him to a 1.9 WAR despite an .830 OPS.
Carlos Beltran (2011 – 2013)
438G – 78 HR – .288 / .366 / .503 (9.5 WAR)
Jose Bautista (2014-2016)
388G – 90 HR – .258 / .382 / .512 (11.6 WAR)
Beltran did have some injury troubles in 2009 and 2010, but entered his free agency coming off three straight seasons of at least 142 games played. Depending on the front office looking at Bautista’s case, that could help to close the distance in their WAR value gap (which should still grow as Bautista plays through late August and September.
Bautista and agent Jay Alou will have their work cut out for them entering the open market. Working in their favour is Bautista’s track record before 2016 and the potential of a playoff run, where one swing of the bat can immediately help to overshadow this down season. Perhaps all he needs is one more stroke of good timing.
Working against Bautista? In year one of Beltran’s deal with the Yankees, the floor fell out of his defence entirely and he posted a -0.7 WAR, the worst season of his career.