Jose Bautista may deserve $150 million, but Jays won't give it to him
While Yoenis Cespedes' fleet of fancy cars has generated more buzz this week, Jose Bautista has been making headlines all month with regards to his future with the Blue Jays. Back in November, the 35-year-old slugger had his option picked up in what turned out to be a very club-friendly five-year deal, and while Toronto's new regime has expressed an interest in re-signing him beyond 2016, the two sides are suddenly engaged in a public battle that suggests they will part ways next winter.
In the first week of February, Bautista told the Canadian Press that it would be "an honor" to finish his career in Toronto, saying, “Fans-wise, city-wise, having the country behind us and every other aspect of being a Toronto Blue Jay player is something that I love.” He added that he had recently had a positive meeting with new club president Mark Shapiro and general manager Ross Atkins, who replaced Paul Beeston and Alex Anthopoulos, respectively, this past off-season. Soon afterwards, team sources told ESPN's Jayson Stark that the two sides would begin negotiations towards that end.
Earlier this week, however, the slugger told the media he has no intention of giving the team a hometown discount, saying, "In my eyes, I’ve given this organization a five-year hometown discount already." TSN's Rick Whitehead made waves by reporting that sources within the organization told him Bautista is seeking five years and $150 million. On Wednesday, Bautista was reported as saying that his number is actually higher, albeit with an annual value below $30 million.
Bautista is coming off a strong season in which he bashed 40 homers and hit .250/.377/.536 for a 149 OPS+ and 5.1 Wins Above Replacement (baseball-reference.com version). He earned All-Star honors for the sixth straight year, helped the Jays to their first postseason appearance since 1993 and then authored the biggest moment in Toronto sports history since Joe Carter’s World Series-ending walk-off homer. Bautista’s seventh-inning–three-run homer in Game 5 of the Division Series against the Rangers provided the margin of victory in a very wild game and was punctuated by a bat flip for the ages:
It was a signature moment that provided catharsis from the pent-up tension of both a controversy-filled inning and a 22-year wait, and it's one that's been reproduced on t-shirts, Christmas sweaters, posters and other merchandise. If Bautista weren't already an icon before he hit that homer, he is now.
Bautista is far removed from the journeyman who had hit a combined .238/.329/.400 for five teams in six seasons through 2009. Under hitting coach Dwayne Murphy, he harnessed the raw power that had been evident in his prospect days by reworking his mechanics to pull the ball with one of the game's highest frequencies. After knocking 10 homers in September 2009 via his revamped approach, he broke out to bash an American League-high 54 the following year, after which the Jays signed him to a five-year, $65 million deal that included a $14 million option and $1 million buyout for '16.
Although Bautista battled wrist and hip injuries to the point of playing just 200 games in 2012–13, he began the deal with another AL-leading season of 43 homers, and over the life of the contract—excluding that 54-homer season, remember—he’s hit for a .270/.393/.540 line with a 155 OPS+ and an average of 35 homers and 5.4 WAR per season. His 173 homers since then are tops in the game (teammate Edwin Encarnacion, who is also in the option year of a very club-friendly deal, is second at 168), and his 26.9 WAR ranks eighth.
The Blue Jays—and their parent company, Rogers Communications—have gotten far more than their money's worth so far, and Bautista knows this. Via the Toronto Star's Richard Griffin, he said, "I know what my value is. Baseball has a great way of measuring each player’s value and it’s about how much of that are they willing to share with the player.… It’s no secret that in a publicly traded company, everyone can track their performance fairly easy.… I think there’s a direct correlation with the success of their earnings per share after we started experiencing success."
To some extent, Bautista is in a no-win situation. Fighting a public relations battle with a media conglomerate recalls the old saying (erroneously attributed to Mark Twain), "Never quarrel with a man who buys ink by the barrel." Unnamed sources within the organization can leak his demands to the media, leaving Bautista to answer to an entire country’s worth of fans. That isn't to say that he should back down from his demands, which are best understood as a premium paid in order to preempt his free agency. They are the cost of his forgoing the right to field multiple offers and let the market set a fair price, much as the $310 million figure attached to Robinson Cano (by his agent, not from his mouth) in mid-2013 was viewed by late November of that year:
That figure was no longer relevant when the off-season began, sources said. The $310 million was the midseason request, and Cano’s side expected to start clean when off-season negotiations began. That happened on Monday, when Cano’s reps—a group headed by longtime baseball agent Brodie Van Wagenen, and Roc Nation’s Jay Z—had their first off-season discussions with the Yankees.
Cano wound up getting $240 million—around 23% less than that jaw-dropping price, but still one of the largest contracts in history—but he had to switch teams to do so. That certainly appears to be where the Blue Jays and Bautista are headed.
With all of that in mind, what's a fair price for Joey Bats? We can throw him into our What’s He Really Worth model, which takes into account a player's last three years of performance and estimates the 2015 market cost for a win ($6.5 million), a 5.4% rate of annual inflation and, for a player in his mid-30s, a decline of at least 0.5 WAR per year for its aging curve. The complication there is that Bautista is already signed for 2016. Still, if we include that $14 million price as part of what would be considered the first year of a six-year extension (hence the report of a higher price tag than $150 million but an AAV lower than $30 million) and ramp up Bautista's decline to 0.7 WAR per season over the final three years of the deal, we get this as a starting point:
Holy cats, Joey Bats! By that first-cut set of assumptions, Bautista actually projects to be worth more over the life of the extension than he’s reported to have asked—though to be fair, that includes the best of his seasons at the top of the heap, one that figures to be yet another bargain. Removing that from the above calculations yields 17.2 WAR and $135.6 million for 2017–21, or about 10% below the $150 million figure. Chipping away at that, if we assume Bautista heads into the steeper portion of that decline phase starting next season—say, by spending more time at designated hitter because the Jays don't keep Encarnacion, though that's just one scenario—the 2017–21 values drop to 15.4 WAR and $120.9 million. If we assume that the steeper decline starts this season, with a 4.4 WAR year in 2016 and then 3.7 in '17 and so on, we get to 11.5 WAR and $89.5 million, a far cry from $150 million.
On the other hand, suppose that Bautista heads into free agency having put up a 6.0 WAR season (he was at 6.1 in 2014), and we run this exercise next winter. Our baseline assumption for the value of his 2017 season—a 5/4/3 weighted average of the previous three years, with the most recent one weighted the most heavily—would be 5.7 WAR, with five-year totals of 21.6 WAR and $171 million even assuming the 0.7 WAR per year decline. Ramp that up even more aggressively to a full 1.0 WAR per year decline and it still comes out to 18.6 WAR and $145.6 million over five years. On the other hand, if he lays an egg and comes in at 3.0 WAR in 2016—a performance that for the price of $14 million would still be a favorable outcome for the Blue Jays, mind you—we'd calculate his weighted average for 2017 at 4.5 WAR. Using the two-step decline (0.5 per year up to 2018, 0.7 after) yields this:
Were he to maintain the 0.5-per-year decline throughout the scenario, the yields would be 17.5 WAR and $138.7 million. The 0.7-per-year decline cuts that to 15.5 WAR and $121.7 million in value.
Obviously, the variety of scenarios produces a wide range of outcomes, illustrating how much harder it is to project a contract one year before it goes into effect. You can bet Bautista and his agent (Jay Alou, son of former major league outfielder Jesus Alou) know this very well and understand calculations such as these, even if their assumptions on the parameters (cost of a win, inflation, aging curve) differ. Still, going by that second table above, one can see that it only takes a 20% premium to push the asking price above $150 million, and that's with a fairly conservative valuation scenario.
It doesn’t make sense for the Blue Jays to assume that risk at this juncture, but that’s just one reason why I don't think Bautista will get his $150 million, either from his current team or anyone else. I've been wrong before about how well he would hold up over the course of his current deal, but then the entire industry was scratching its head at the time of that contract, because there just wasn't much of a precedent for such a radical mid-career burst of power at the time—as though Brady Anderson were able to carry forward his 50-homer spike from 1996 instead of needing the next three seasons to exceed that total. For Bautista (and Alou) to convince a team for the second time that he's the guy who's going to defy the gravity of baseball's inevitable aging process—this time up to age 40, or perhaps beyond—is a tall order.
Beyond that, one need only look at the fact that aside from the 26-year-old Jason Heyward (who received an eight-year, $184 million deal from the Cubs), the other outfielders in this winter’s well-stocked free-agent market, from Justin Upton to Yoenis Cespedes to Alex Gordon, came home with smaller deals than anticipated—and they’re all at least a few years younger than Bautista. The 30-year-old Cespedes got the highest AAV at $25 million, but also the shortest deal at three years. The 32-year-old Gordon, the oldest of that group, has produced slightly more value than Bautista over the past five seasons, yet he stayed in Kansas City for four years and $72 million plus a mutual option. Next winter’s free-agent market will be less crowded even if Cespedes opts out, but I don’t see evidence to suggest the top of the market will jump from $25 million per year to $30 million for outfielders of any age, let alone those on the back half of their thirties.
Thus, I think it makes sense for both Bautista and the Blue Jays to cease fire in this PR war and to pick up the discussion once they have more information—about whether the Jays can show that they’re more than one-year wonders, and whether Bautista can continue to defy time. One shouldn’t begrudge his demands, but he’s obviously not going to get the money he wants right now, and neither side stands to win by trashing the other. That only serves to increase the distance between the star and a fan base that has waited for so long to invest such emotion.