Recently, MLB Network Radio tweeted a picture of several free agent predictions. On the very top line sat Jose Bautista, which is not surprising.
Most of the analysts had him going to teams like New York and Boston, which is not surprising. But Jim Duquette, a former general manager with the Mets, had Bautista going to the Rays.
A sort of homecoming...
Jose Bautista wasn't always the bat-flipping, goatee wearing, jaw-smacking, home run hitting outfielder that we've come to passionately love/loath over the past decade.
He was drafted in 2000 by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 20th round of the draft. In 2003, the Orioles snagged Bautista in the Rule V draft; he made his major league debut in April 2004 and then proceeded to have short stints, starting with the Devil Rays, and then the Royals and Mets (lasted less than 24 hours) before finally going back to the Pirates, having a grand total of 96 plate appearances between the four clubs. With a 31wRC+ he was hardly turning heads in his age 23 season.
Bautista spent the next three seasons as a utility player for the Pirates, struggling to be above replacement level. He was traded to the Blue Jays in August of 2008, and by then things began to click, culminating in a 2010 season where he decimated any opposing pitcher that dared to face him.
From 2004 to 2009, Bautista had homered 59 times in 575 games. In 2010 he smacked 54 HR in just 161 games, and baseball had a new fearsome slugger.
Bautista slashed .261/.382/.528 with 265 HR over nine seasons with the Jays, accruing a total 35.3 fWAR over that time.
The Qualifying Problem
The Blue Jays gave Jose Bautista a qualifying offer, which he declined, meaning they’ll get an additional first round pick in the 2017 draft. The Rays however, would be protected from losing their pick as they finished with one of the 10 worst records in the majors last season.
Bautista may have overestimated his market when he declined the offer, which would have paid him just over $17 million for the 2017 season. Surely he’ll have a lot of suitors as he still remains a very solid power threat in the middle of a lineup, but whether he will get the multi year deal he is seeking (reportedly somewhere north of $150 million over multiple years) remains to be seen. He will be 36 years old next season and is coming off a down year; Bautista may be hard pressed to find offers to his liking and eventually may have to settle.
That, of course, is where the Rays come in. Let’s say the bottom falls out on the market, and like Ian Desmond before him, Bautista needs to take a one-year deal. If the Rays found themselves in the position to be able to sign the aging veteran to a deal somewhere around $10 million, should they go for it?
In 2016, Bautista had a relatively down year. In 116 regular season games, he slashed .234/.366/.452 with 22 HR (his least amount of HR since 2009), good for 122 wRC+ and 1.4 fWAR (lowest total since 2008). This could be a temporary blip due to injuries (he spent time on the disabled list) or could also be the sign of age-related decline.
Bautista actually increased his walk rate ever so slightly from the previous season with a mark of 16.8% (two points above his career rate), while his strikeout rate increased four points from 2015 and was up two points from his career average.
The Rays would have loved to have had the offensive output from any of their starters as Bautista’s mark of 122 wRC+ would have given him the second highest wRC+ of any player currently on the Rays roster behind only Evan Longoria (Steve Pearce had the highest, but only in 232 plate appearances).
Long gone are the days when Bautista served as the utility man for the Pirates, but it has been reported that he’s willing to play any position if it were for the greater good of the team. The Rays currently have Steven Souza and Corey Dickerson as their starting corner outfielders, but could easily form a rotation between the three depending the situation with one of them taking the DH spot.
Bautista has primarily played right field during his Blue Jays tenure. The only other position he played in 2016 was first base, where he only spent three innings.
While in the outfield, Bautista had negative 8 defensive runs saved and a negative 9.3 defensive rating overall by Fangraphs. With injuries possibly affecting his defensive output in 2016, Bautista’s age is still a factor and at this point, he’s probably best suited for either first base or a designated hitter role.
The fact that his days playing the field are likely numbered further diminishes his value and number of potential suitors.
If the Rays were to sign Jose Bautista, they’d still retain their first round pick (4th overall), but would forfeit their second round pick, which is still a hefty price to pay for the small-market Rays who have to thrive on solid draft picks to contend.
Last off-season, it was reported that Bautista was seeking a deal that would give him north of $150 million over five year, an average annual value over somewhere over $30 million. The Blue Jays and everyone else in the baseball world pretty much laughed off Bautista’s demands and thus, he has become a free agent.
Even with his down year, Bautista is still likely to seek a rather large contract but will certainly not receive what he was asking for at this time in 2015. The Steamer system has Bautista projected to accrue 2.9 fWAR in 2017, so a bounceback year is expected from him. Fangraphs currently has fWAR valued at $7.7 million per win.
If the Rays believe a 2.9 WAR projection is accurate, then Bautista would have a market rate of ~$22 million; however, the Rays would need to discount the lost value of their draft pick.
According to research by The Hardball Times, a draft pick in the expected 36-40 range can be valued at about approximately $12 million. The Rays would need Bautista’s value to be higher than this opportunity cost, which brings Bautista’s valuation to the Rays down to ~$10 million for a one year deal.
But there is no guarantee that Bautista can contribute 2.9 WAR to the 2017 Rays.
In Tampa Bay, Bautista would be unlikely to see the field. This could be seen as a positive (given his poor performance in the outfield last season) or a negative (less defensive flexibility for the roster).
Removing the defensive component, he may be worth only 2.0 WAR to the 2017 Rays. If that were the case, the Rays would be unlikely to consider Bautista for anything more than a $4 million contract, which would never happen.
The Rays should be interested in Bautista, as should every other team in the American League that is seeking a strong bat for the middle of their order. The Rays however, would limit him to just DH (which they badly need), but if the asking price is over $10 million, they should pass.
Tampa Bay’s path to signing Jose Bautista would wholly dependent on the market failing to meet the slugger’s demands. Consider it unlikely.