Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Dilemma of Jose Bautista

Jose Bautista is leading the major leagues with 36 home runs. Before this year he never hit more than 16 in a season. In fact, in his six years in the majors he had a total of 59 in over two thousand plate appearances. Hell, before this year he never hit more than 36 doubles in a season. Bautista, who turns 30 in October, had a career OPS of .729 coming into the year. This year it is .965. The five guys with a higher OPS are Miguel Cabrera, Josh Hamilton, Joey Votto, Albert Pujols and Kevin Youkilis.  You don't have to be Bill James to figure out which one is not like the others.

Bautista is having an outlier of a season that would make Malcolm Gladwell proud. Last year he was eligilbe for arbitrtion but he and his team, the Toronto Blue Jays, agreed to a one-year deal for $2.4 million, the same amount he made the year before. It is highly unusual for an arbitration-eligible player not to get a raise, so that pretty much tells you everything you need to know about Bautista and where he fit into the Blue Jays plans. Through 26 games this year he was hitting .203, had an OPS of .703 and had four home runs. His career was on life support.

Then he got hot. In May Bautista hit 12 homers. This was so far off his career numbers you can imagine Harry Doyle saying "JUST a bit outside," when he came to the plate. The hot streak brought his average up to .251 and his OPS to a Mantle-like .972.  

Of course this was not sustainable, and in June Bautista had two 2-home run games, but that was it. His batting average dropped to .228, his OPS to .884. Sabermetricans across the land could relax, mean reversion was a beautiful thing. Bautista made the all-star team but didn't get invited to participate in the Home Run Derby. His season had fluke written all over it.

But just like that Jose got hot again and in July he hit 11 more bombs. He got his average back up to .260 and his OPS to .964. And he's kept it there while adding five more home runs in August and leading the American League in walks.

Bautista has been solid in the field as well. He started the first nine games of the season in right field, but then started 27 of the next 31 at third base. Since then it's been mostly right field with the occasional start at third. Despite only starting 82 of the Jays 116 games in right he leads all major league outfielders in assists. If major league baseball named an All-Pro team like they do in the NFL, Jose Bautista would be the starting right fielder.

Now the big question. Jose Bautista turns 30 in October and has made about $8 million in his entire professional career. The Blue Jays control his rights for one more year and he is eligible for arbitration if he and the team don't agree to terms. After 2011 Jose will be eligible for free agency.

What do the Blue Jays do? They have a player entering the decline phase of his career who has never put up numbers remotely close to the ones he's putting up this year. If they go to arbitration, Bautista will likely be awarded $8-10 million and will be eligible to walk away from the team after the season. Should they offer him a multi-year contract and commit themselves to a player in his early thirties with little track record to suggest this performance is sustainable? Can they let the major league home run leader walk after next year when he has a body that suggests he may have five or six more productive seasons in him? What's the right number to offer him in dollars? In years?

How about the issue from Bautista's side? He has now locked in a big number for next year, most likely an amount that is greater than he has made in his entire career, combined. What should he do? Go to arbitration or sign a one-year deal and then roll the dice that he will have another great season and get a monster payday as a free agent in 2012? What if he reverts to his past performance going forward? Should he look for a longer term deal with the Jays and sign a contract that will set him up for life, most likely eschewing the chance for the huge contract free agency might bring?

Of the five players with a higher OPS listed above, Cabrera (age 27 season) recently signed an 8-year/$152 million deal. Hamilton (29), making $3.25 this year, will be eligible for arbitration for a second time and will get at least $10 million if he doesn't sign a longer term deal. Votto (26) will be eligible for arbitration for the first time. Pujols (30) will make $16 million next year, in the last year of his deal, and then will probably sign one of the biggest contracts in history and Youkilis (31) will make $12-13 million each of the next three years.

If I'm the Jays, I roll the dice and let Bautista go to arbitration. If he has another great year it will be very costly, but I have to see him do it again before I would tie up long-term money. If I'm Bautista, I tell my agent Bean Stringfellow to ask for a 4-year/$40 million deal. That deal doesn't bankrupt the team and it sets me up for life. If I have another great year I leave a lot of money on the table, but if I revert to my previous performance, I'll never see it.

My answer, 4-years/$32 million. Both sides should sign it today.

Update: Some have suggested there is no chance Jays GM Anthopoulos does that deal. I'm guessing they are right. I originally suggested 3-years/$20 million and was convinced by others there is no way Bautista does that deal. So the question is, where can a deal get done? Or is it arbitration and then free agency for Jose?


Towmduii said...

Bautista power outburst prior to final arbitration year = suspicious. See Gary Mathews Jr. sudden improvement late in mediocre career.

pastlives said...

I think 3/24 (6, 8, 10) with 12M club option/1M buyout gets it done.

Canman said...

Gary Matthews Jr? What are you talking about dude? That is total hogwash - first of all Gary Matthews never had a season anywhere near what Bautista has done this year. You should check your facts before spewing this kind of nonsense - he never hit 20 HRs in a year - in his Best season Matthews was 19 HRs and 79 RBIs & he never came close to that again. Bautista already has 37 HRS, 90 RBIs and there is still 6 weeks to go. Unless he gets injured he will easily hit 45 HR and 110 RBIs - numbers that Matthews Jr could only dream about. On top of that Bautista led the majors in September of last year with 19 HRs so he gave a hint of things to come at the end of the season

Canman said...

Sorry Typo - Bautista had 10 HRS in September of 2009

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