When Jose Bautista was 23 years old, he played for the Orioles, Rays, Royals, and Pirates. I’m not sure if four teams is a record for a 23-year-old, but it has to be awfully close. This doesn’t include the couple of hours that he was on the Mets, either. If there was something for Bautista to be proud of, it’s that he wasn’t being shuttled around because so many teams didn’t want him, but rather because so many teams did want him. Just, you know, not enough to really take one extra step and keep him on a 40-man roster.
Good enough to draw interest; not good enough to stick on a 40-man. It was the story of his career until he found a home with the Pirates, who gave him his first starting job. He was almost a league-average hitter there, hitting for just enough power to show off his potential.
“One of these days,” a GM might have thought, “that guy has a chance to hit 20 homers with a solid on-base percentage.”
That hypothetical GM was right. Bautista’s 2016 production is what all those teams were hoping for when they passed him around like a digital picture frame in 2004. Not only that, but his solid .234/.366/.452 line with 22 homers and 87 walks happened to come before Bautista was a free agent for the very first time in his career. What a stroke of luck!
Yet, here we are, stuck in the middle of December, wondering if anyone really wants Bautista at all. Oh, this is a cruel twist of fate.
There are some gaps in that story that we should fill in, of course. They’ll help us realize why the market is so soft for him. Here are the problems he’s facing:
Problem No. 1
Between that flurry of unwanted transactions and finally getting to pick his own team, Bautista was a star. He hit 249 home runs after turning 29, leading the league twice, and he made six consecutive All-Star rosters. He finished in the top-five in MVP voting twice, and in the top-10 four times.
The first time a star like that gets to free agency, he thinks he should be paid like a star. It’s only natural. But that leads us to our next problem.
Problem No. 2
Bautista is already 36 years old, already a few years past the age that makes teams nervous when it comes to big contracts. If a 32-year-old is coming off his worst season in years, it would make prospective teams nervous. That fear gets exponentially higher the older the free agent gets, so an agent for a 36-year-old might as well show all of his client’s highlights in double speed over calliope music.
You don’t have to imagine what Bautista’s decline looks like. You can just extrapolate the trend he started last season.
Problem No. 3
Jose is a villain in Baltimore and I’m not going to go tell our fans that we’re courting Jose Bautista for the Orioles because they’re not going to be happy.
Seems like something the fans would forgive after the first dinger, but it’s been offered as a reason, so we have to address it.
Problem No. 4
The Blue Jays gave Bautista the qualifying offer, which means he’ll cost his new team a first-round draft pick. The new CBA is a year away from helping a player like Bautista. Of course it is.
The following teams could sign Bautista and give up just a second-rounder:
There isn’t a great fit to be found with any of those teams. There isn’t even a halfway decent fit.
Problem No. 5
Bautista fields like a DH still recovering from shoulder surgery. Which he is, at least in spirit. That doesn’t eliminate the National League teams, but it sure makes them wary about offering a contract longer than two years.
Now circle back to Problem No. 1 and remember that Bautista believes he deserves to get star money for star years. That creates quite the vicious circle.
Which team is the likeliest team to sign Bautista? Which team is the ideal fit for him?
The ideal team would be in the AL, of course. They would have a question mark in left or right field and a win-now mentality that would allow them to part with the draft pick. They would also have a little money to spend on a 36-year-old slugger, so the rebuilding small-market teams need not apply.
Here are all of the teams that come close to fitting those parameters:
- Blue Jays
I’m not counting the Orioles out because of what a GM publicly said. General managers are a slippery lot. And maybe throw the Rangers and Astros in there if you think they’re willing to push one of their current outfielders to the bench. But the market isn’t robust.
The Indians are almost the perfect fit, except they’re a few months away from finding a spot for Bradley Zimmer. Still, with two of their projected outfielders and their DH batting left-handed, and with them drafting in the low end of the first round, taking some of the sting out, they seem like the perfect mix of opportunity and immediate need. Just not on a four-year deal. Or even a three-year deal.
So it’s probably not going to happen. Right?
It’s alllll pointing to the Blue Jays. They don’t have a prospect to bury, like the Indians. They’re the only team that wouldn’t give up a draft pick. They have the need and the money. Heck, their fans even like the guy. It was unthinkable just over a month ago, but that was before Bautista looked completely unintimidating in the postseason. Turns out that might actually help the Jays! Indirectly.
I keep stopping to think about Bautista on other teams. The Astros would do well to make Norichika Aoki their fourth outfielder, but they already have their all-or-nothing right-handed masher in Evan Gattis. The Rangers make sense for the lulz, but they need to give Nomar Mazara at-bats, and there’s no sense burying Shin-Soo Choo’s contract under a bigger contract to an older player. The only National League team with an unambiguous Bautista-sized hole would be the Giants, and they’re unlikely to spend another cent after going over the salary-cap tax.
It all comes back to the Blue Jays. They just have to figure out the right price.
Blue Jays, three years, $42 million, with an opt-out after the first year. All Bautista needed was one more season at his established level, and he would have owned this offseason. As is, his timing was wretched on about five different fronts, and it’s going to cost him millions.
But he’ll get that opt out and try again if he has a big season, I’m guessing. If the age locusts bring him down even more, he’ll have the guaranteed money to make him feel a little less bitter about his first and last free-agent experience, which just didn’t go the way he planned.
(It’ll be fun to see him back on the Blue Jays, though. Other teams hate that guy, which makes it infinitely more fun for him to go back to the same ol’ team. As always, I’m more interested in the trolling.)