This was a fairly eventful week in the Jays nest, as you know. (If you didn’t know , you’re obviously not an MLB fan and hence would in all likelihood not be wasting your time here.) the Jays ponied up a minimum $65 million to keep home run champ Jose Bautista around for at least another five years. Reaction around baseball, as well as around Toronto water-coolers, has been mixed.
I say “Kudos Alex Anthopolous!” This was a deal he had to do, and it shows maybe he’s starting to grasp his job. Let me say right away, that I think it highly unlikely Bautista will match his 54 home runs of last season in ’11. That’s not why he’s being re-signed to a huge raise. He’s staying on to be a productive multi-tool player, a good mentor and role model for young Latin players in the organization as well as the new face of the franchise. He’ll succeed on all counts.
Fifty home run seasons are rare, and require abundant talent plus abundant luck. The player needs to stay healthy, stay focused, have some support in the lineup and catch a few good breezes blowing out to left field. That said, Bautista is no fluke. He’s just now approaching the 2500 at bat plateau in his career, a time when many young players really start to grow into themselves and show what they can do. Even before his mammoth ’10 campaign, he showed a great eye at the plate and in 2009 walked once for every six at bats, a rate better than such noted “smart” players as Joe Mauer and Johnny Damon. He improved on the rate again last year. As he told the Toronto Sun this week, “after the departures of Rolen and Rios…I was able to start getting at bats and seeing some results. After that I kept doing what was preached to me and I also perfected my mental approach and how I was preparing.” The result: 64 homers in the next 180 games, give or take. As Anthopolous told Ken Fidlin of the Sun, “his eye at the plate is going to allow him to age well and remain a productive player.” And, just turned 30, he’s got time to age. He’s younger than such young bucks as Albert Pujols and Ryan Howard.
I know it’s a fool’s game to venture forth numerical predictions in February, and that much of the Jays success (as well as Bautista’s) depend on Lind and Hill regaining their past forms and bouncing back from a dismal 2010 to lend some support in the starting nine. Nevertheless, I still feel confident to expect that Bautista will raise his average by at least a dozen points in ’11, hit 30+ longballs , drive in triple digits unless the aforementioned Hill and Lind sink further, and if sent back to his favoured RF corner, will win a Gold Glove. But even that is not the real reward of the signing.
The day after the contract was a done deal, the Jays were running full-page newspaper ads for tickets, featuring a larger than life (well, perhaps not, given the size of a tabloid or broadsheet) Bautista flexing his muscles, bat held overhead. As fun and promising as young players may be, they don’t sell tickets. Where would Baltimore have been without a new stadium and an old Cal ripken in the 90s? In bankruptcy court, that’s where. There’s been a disconnect between the ballclub and the fans since the Halladay trade. Somehow Vernon Wells never really connected with the fanbase. Not entirely his fault, just a lack of what we’d call “chemistry” in evaluating couples. The fans never really warmed to him, especially after some sub-par years following his mega-money seven year deal signing. The Jays were badly in need of a talented, hard-working and articulate player to hang their hopes on and to get the fans off their duffs , off the couch and into the Rogers Centre a few times more per summer. They got exactly that with Bautista. They also got insurance against the public relations tsunami that would have been spawned had Bautista actually cranked it up even more for ’11 , hit say 65 homers and driven in 140, and then walked off to the Bronx or Pennsy in a huff about being nickel-and-dimed by Toronto in arbitration this year. Unlikely- yes. Possible- consider that Jose hit more home runs after the All Star Game last year , after being adjusted to by pitchers around the league, than he did before. If he did just that, seeing him walk would be the type of publicity that would be hard for the franchise to recover from, so hot on the heels of losing the game’s best pitcher only to see him toss a perfect game and a playoff no-no wearing an alien red cap. Blue jays fans are all too aware of the trajectory their one-time Canadian counterparts up the 401 took with les expos, and are wary of seeing great talent developed only to walk away or be traded for middling prospects.
So, once again congrats to Alex and the Jays office for doing what they needed to do. Kudos too for bringing in Scott Posednik this week, a still-capable , .300 hitting, 30 base-stealing type outfielder who will not only give the jays a bit more speed on the bases but will make either Travis Snider or Juan Rivera expendable . This will be a good thing if it leads to the acquisition of another starting pitcher, or a real first baseman (so Adam Lind can work on regaining his hitting form as a DH without also trying to tackle handling errant throws from across the infield). Like Corey Patterson before him, he adds another dimension to the team’s offence at little cost.
Anthopolous has indeed done some things right , it turns out. His bringing in of Jon Rauch, octavio Dotel, Chad Cordero and Jo Jo Reyes for next to nothing, to supplement returning bullpen arms like David Purcey, jason Frasor and Sean Camp has strengthened the team, although it’s sadly ironic that such strenthening would be unnecessary if he’d kept the starting rotation he found himself with when he walked into his office back in late 2009. And his hiring of Luis Rivera as a seventh coach, something rarer than a Bill Clinton sax solo on an I-pod at a Sarah Palin rally, complements his bringing in the quiet and observant John Farrell to manage. A course reversal from that charted by the reckless JP Ricciardi who believed in computer logarhythmms much more than in human eyes evaluating talent.
I see this weekend that USA Today has some nice things to say about you and the Blue jays, Alex. They pick us to finish third, not last as many prognosticators do. I too, see some wisdom in some of your moves. Do us a favour. Make the move or two we need to show USA Today and all the others up. Show them that this team can be good enough to compete and soar above the Yankees in 2011, and play in October again. One solid starting pitcher and a .300/30/100 first baseman or DH is about all it would take to take the team over the hump.
Show us that you’re not just fairly bright, Alex. Show us you’re a baseball genius.