Ever seen one of those Hollywood romcoms where all the friends see it but the couple can’t see they were made for each other right until the very happy end? Me too, and while it makes for an enjoyable film, it’s frustrating when taking place in front of us on the diamond. That couple is the Toronto Blue jays and Jose Bautista, and yes they need each other. That’s right, need. So let’s hope the much-reported recent meetings between the two in recent days result in a quick return of Joey Bats to Toronto.
Let’s start with Bautista. Although a five-time All star and one of the few certified home run threats in the game these days, the free agent market hasn’t developed like he would have hoped. While pitchers of even less-than-ordinary stature are making out like bandits this off-season (arr-cecil-cough-cough-thirty-mil-hack hack… something stuck in my throat there!) hitters aren’t finding much demand for their services. Witness Jose’s teammate Edwin Encarnacion, personally picked by David Ortiz as the heir apparent in Boston, rumored to be starting the bidding process at 5 years and $125M. Only the Sox weren’t interested, instead opting for Mitch Moreland at one-fifth the money and one-fifth the commitment. The end story, a smaller contract with Cleveland after turning down an $80M offer from the Jays. Mike Napoli rings in the new year “this” close to having a 2016 World Series ring…and without a job to go to in spring despite having 34 homers for the AL Champions. LA’s interest in Bautista apparently fizzled and Baltimore told him to go to hell since MD fans don’t like his pouting and arguing balls and strikes. Bautista’s .234 average and 22 homers last year don’t help his cause, although it was in an injury-shortened year. then again, a 36-year old who missed nearly 2 months the past year sends up red flags with some GMs.
Baltimore fans don’t like Bautista. I can say with good first-hand experience, neither do Texas fans (with the Rangers being one of the few teams rumored to want a power hitter added to their roster this winter.) His “bat flip” got him put on the boxes of cereal boxes in Canada, and was called by one over-enthusiastic Yahoo Sports columnist the greatest single moment in Canada for the past 25 years, but didn’t win him fans in middle-America. On a more purely business sense, the new CBA in baseball makes teams reluctant to go all-in on a big free agent this winter since to sign Bautista, they’d need to give up a first round draft pick to Toronto. Next year that rule changes, meaning a wild wild west scurry to bulk up the roster with no loss of young talent. then there’s all those promotional contracts JB has in the Great White North with the likes of Canada Goose clothing and Canadian Tire stores. Unlikely he’d get as many endorsements should he move on to LA, New York or Tampa (as has been laughably suggested as a dropping spot for him.)
Bautista has strong ties to the community in Toronto, does a great deal of charity work and is adored across Canada. He needs to stay there.
But make note of it- the team needs him just as much as he needs Toronto. The Jays for all their apparent hitting prowess made the playoffs last season on the strength of their pitching and nothing more. The offence was run of the mill at best and dropped over 130 runs from 2015. the loss of RBI-king Edwin Encarnacion isn’t made up for by the signing of Kendrys Morales, although he’s not a bad Plan B for a designated hitter. With Michael Saunders also gone, for the time being, Toronto look to be down about 60 homers and 140 RBI right now compared to the team they ended the season with; not good for a team with only so-so hitting to begin with. All the near no-nos of Marco Estrada and a storybook comeback from Marcus Stroman aren’t going to pitch a team that potentially only scores 600 runs in a strengthened division into the playoffs in ’17. As it stands now, an outfield of Gold Glove-worthy Kevin Pillar, good for a bench player E. Carrera and “vying for the most over-rated player in history of the game” Melvin uPton will assure the team of the worst hitting OF in the league. They need a guy out there who can hit, and a guy who will excite the team in the clubhouse. AKA- Jose Bautista.
The case is made more clear when we look at the alternatives. Mark Trumbo has been suggested, although who knows if we can even get the California native to move north. Sure Trumbo led the league ih HR in 2016, and could no doubt power a few out of Rogers Centre. However, his 2016 47 homers was an outlier; he has a 5-year average of just 26 HR. He also struck out an alarming 170 times in ’16 while walking just 51 times, far inferior to BAutista’s numbers. And while Baltimore proved Trumbo could be used in the outfield, they also proved he shouldn’t be. Five errors and just one DP turned in over 90 games played in right last year show that as outfielders go, Trumbo’s a decent DH. Talk if you will about the slowing of Bautista in the OF but stats show that Trumbo would be worse. his 2016 WAR was just 1.6- almost identical to Bautista- due to a terrrible -2.8 rating in the outfield. That is, stats show Baltimore lost 3 games by having him play OF rather than an “average” minor leaguer. With slow-footed Morales now the DH in Toronto, Trumbo would need to be the everyday 1b, making Justin Smoak redundant. Now Trumbo would hit better than Smoak but therein lies the problem- it’d be hard to find a taker for the lacklustre Smoak and his $8M, two-year contract. So, we’d need to factor his contract into the amount to spend on Trumbo, meaning that unless Mark could be brought onboard for , say $11M a year (unlikely) he’ll cost the team more than Bautista and still leave them with a mediocre outfield.
Colby Rasmus? There was a reason the team let him walk away, and that reason was largely that hard-working players like Mark Buehrle named him specifically as lazy, that fans saw a player who seemed entirely indifferent to trying and a player who was run out of St.Louis previously for his outspoken unwillingness to listen to coaches. The 30 year-old Rasmus hit all of .206 with 15 HR last year and for him, a .234,22HR,60+ RBI season (like Bautista’s “off” season in ’16) would be a career year.
Bringing back Michael Saunders wouldn’t be terrible- if they can get him back at a bargain-basement price. The 2016 All Star from BC likes Toronto well enough but is a below-average fielder and had a remarkable drop-off in productivity in the second half. Whether it was from a surge of cocky indifference (I don’t think that to be the case), an unreported injury or just him getting burnt out after playing every day, he seems a risky proposition to rely on for more than a bat off the bench.
Which leads us to trade talk. Andrew McCutchen? jay Bruce? Both are said to be offered by their teams, and both are under contract for 2017 at “reasonable” rates – around $14M. But let’s not forget that Bruce had a Saunders-like drop off in the second half last year, with slugging pct. dropping from .559 to a weakling .391. His career best homer season was 4 years ago now, with 34. McCutchen, for all his reputation and smiling, is in a serious three-year decline. Batting average: .314/.292/.256. On base: .410/.401/.336 Stolen bases: 18/11/6. 143 K in 2016, zero RBI in 8 career post-season games, a negativeWAR last year (yep- statistically Pirates would have won more benching him and using a random minor leaguer)…is his decline a result of a team that seems to have lost direction or is the opposite the case?
Whichever it might be, the point is neither Bruce nor McCutchen are strong candidates to do fantastic things for Toronto in ’17. But both have big reputations and aren’t going to come cheap. Pittsburgh have already turned down good packages of young players for McC; toronto might have a hard time putting together enough young talent to wrestle him away from Pennsylvania and to do so would be reckless to say the least. Would, for example, a team with him but without Marcus Stroman (said to be one player asked for) and roberto Osuna be better?
The Jays need Bautista and to bet on him being healthy and rebounding, even if not to 50-homer levels, to perhaps .260 and 35 HR plus continuing to fire up the lower-key players around him. Bautista needs to realize Toronot is where he is loved and that his best offer is whatever Toronto is offering today, not what Tampa or the Dodgers might just think about offering in February.