As the winter meetings come to a close, former Blue Jays Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista are among the top free agents still looking for their next contract
Who would have thought the market would be this way? At the beginning of the off-season, there was legitimate talk of Edwin Encarnacion seeking 5 years and 125 million in free agency. Coming off a year with 42 home runs and 127 RBI, it didn’t seem completely out of line to think he might get that something close to that.
Looking back at spring training, there were reports that Jose Bautista was looking for as much as 5 years and 150 million in free agency. Unfortunately for Joey Bats, the veteran missed time with two separate injuries which greatly hurt his value before he went on the market.
Both sluggers have been hurt by the presence of other DH options on the market such as Kendrys Morales (signed with Toronto, 3 years/33 million), Carlos Beltran (signed with the Astros, 1 year/16 million), Matt Holliday (signed with the Yankees, 1 year/13 million), and more. Cheaper alternatives like Mike Napoli, Michael Saunders, Chris Carter, Adam Lind, and many more are still waiting out the market.
It should be noted that neither Encarnacion or Bautista are exclusively a DH type, but both have somewhat limited defensive abilities. Encarnacion has been a primary DH for a while now, but showed he was more than capable at first in 75 games last season. He was able to stay healthy as well, which has been a minor issue for him in recent seasons.
Bautista can still play the outfield, albeit with limited ability, and has experience at both infield corners. He has also expressed a willingness to move positions for the right deal.
Considering the duo have been among the AL’s most feared sluggers for the past half decade, why such a tepid market?
1. Evolution of WAR / Increased emphasis on bullpen value
Baseball front offices have evolved a great deal in recent seasons, and teams are operating in a much different manner. WAR has become arguably the most considered stat, and it’s not a stat that favours players who don’t contribute on defence.
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David Ortiz is a good example of how WAR doesn’t reward the DH, if you ignore his 5.1 mark in 2016. In 2015, Ortiz finished with a slash line of .273/.360/.553 with 37 home runs, 108 RBI, and 37 doubles. Those are solid numbers, no? WAR doesn’t think it’s all that great, giving it a value of 3.2 wins above replacement. Similar numbers in 2014 earned Ortiz a mark of 2.9.
Teams are also putting a greater emphasis on the bullpen than ever before. Aroldis Chapman just received a 5-year, $86 million deal a few days after Mark Melancon broke the previous mark with 4 years and $62 million. Kenley Jansen remains on the market and might even top Chapman’s deal if the cards fall the right way for him. Even Brett Cecil got 4 years and $30.5 million from the St.Louis Cardinals.
2. Speaking of David Ortiz
For everything David Ortiz did for the Boston Red Sox over the years, he was never “overpaid” for being a franchise hero. “Big Papi” never earned more than 16 million in a single season, and played on several one-year deals near the end of his career. Granted, there was a brief point where it looked like Father Time had caught up with the slugger, but he continued to produce until the end of his career.
Contract precedents are important in baseball, and there’s little doubt that GM’s used Ortiz’s contracts over the years as an argument for keeping both years and dollars down from what agents are seeking.
For as much as Encarnacion and Bautista have done for the Blue Jays franchise, would anyone argue they are more important to their team’s history than Ortiz was to the Sox?
3. Other DH types have not worked out well
For every David Ortiz who can produce into his 40’s, there are literally hundreds of players whose careers are over long before they hit 35.
Take Ryan Howard for example: the aging slugger earned $25 million in 2016, and batted .196 (granted he hit 25 home runs). His 5-year, $125 million contract extension mercifully ended at the end of the 2016, with the Phillies still owing a $10 million buyout for 2017.
Alex Rodriguez is still under contract for 2017, whether he’ll be on the field or not. We know it won’t be with the Yankees, but they’ll be paying him $21 million whether he suits up for the Marlins, or sits on the couch and gets fat. He provided a lot of value over his contract, but it’s fair to say the Yankees are happy to be rid of him.
Howard and and Rodriguez are far from the only examples too, especially if you include guys like Albert Pujols and Joe Mauer who are still playing, but are/will be vastly underperforming their contract value. Prince Fielder had his career prematurely end due to a neck injury, and the Rangers will be thankful that insurance will cover the remainder of the 4 years and $72 million owed to the injured slugger.
Add it all up, and free agency doesn’t look like it will be rewarding either Encarnacion or Bautista for the body of work over their careers.