There’s a bit of a misconception going around that by trading Vernon Wells, the Toronto Blue Jays can now afford to sign Jose Bautista to a multi-year contract.  The reality of the situation is actually that by trading Vernon Wells, the Toronto Blue Jays can now afford to wait on signing Jose Bautista to a multi-year contract.

Jon Paul Morosi of FOX Sports recently spoke with Bautista’s agent Bean Stringfellow about a multi-year deal and the impending arbitration hearing in which his client and the Blue Jays are almost $3 million apart.

Jose is interested in exploring it, but they have not made any multiyear proposals. As the date gets closer, we’ll see what direction we’re going to go. It takes two sides to engage in talks. Jose is content going either way. He loves playing for the Blue Jays. He also understands that he’s a free agent at the end of this current season. Alex and the people in Toronto have treated him so well.

I’ve always assumed that there’s a bit of disingenuousness on the part of teams when it comes to making their case in arbitration hearings.  No matter what the Rangers tell the arbitrator during their hearing to decide what Josh Hamilton will make next season, Texas still wants the AL MVP on their team, putting up AL MVP like numbers all year long.

However, when the Toronto Blue Jays make their case against Jose Bautista’s $10.5 million arbitration claim, their arguments will also be their genuine worries.  By now we all know the Bautista story: few, if any players in MLB history have come from such a history of mediocrity to put up MVP caliber numbers at the age of 29.

From 2004 – 2009, Jose Bautista appeared in 575 games with 2038 plate appearances.  Over that time he hit 59 home runs, had an on base percentage of .329 and a slugging percentage of .400.  In 2010, Bautista appeared in 161 games with 683 plate appearances.  Over the course of last season he hit 54 home runs, had an on base percentage of .378 and a slugging percentage of .617.

The Blue Jays’ arguments and worries are pretty obvious: Which is the real Bautista, the one that positively demolished everything he saw last season, or the player who consistently struggled against right handed pitching in his six previous years?

The thinking goes that if Toronto were to offer Bautista a multi-year contract, it wouldn’t be for as much or as long as it would be if Bautista is able to duplicate his 2010 in 2011.  Of course, there’s a discount for a reason. By signing Bautista to an extension right now, an element of blindness exists as to his ability to duplicate the numbers he put up in 2010.

Make no mistake, the Blue Jays want Jose Bautista on this team.  They didn’t trade him at the deadline last year and they didn’t seem serious to interested teams during the Winter Meetings.

But if that’s true, then why not lock him up now?

It comes down to being a bet.

Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos is willing to risk the potential increase in terms of a contract to see Bautista play baseball this season.  And with the $86 million no longer being owed to Vernon Wells, the Blue Jays can afford to do exactly that instead of jumping at the chance to be in partnership with Bautista at a reduced rate. Anthopoulos can afford to play the slow roll in this situation.

If Bautista’s numbers severely diminish this season from last, the Blue Jays can let him go and in all likelihood still receive draft pick compensation when he signs elsewhere.  No harm.  No foul.  If Bautista’s numbers regress a little bit, but still make him an important member of the team, the Blue Jays can consider if he has a place in their long term plans and then choose whether or not to compete with a free agent market that may be scared by his regression.  If Bautista equals or betters his 2010 numbers, the Blue Jays will have to compete with the big dogs to retain his services, but with Wells gone, this is something they can realistically do.

Which of those three options seem most likely?

As for Bautista’s place in this team long term, there’s another reason to wait a year.  With Brett Lawrie moving to third base, Bautista’s future with the team would be in one of the corner outfield spots.  Travis Snider has one of those spots locked up, but who else from the Jays organization is knocking on the door?

Eric Thames has been steadily rising through the system, and with 27 home runs and an OPS just below .900 in his first full season at Double A, the 24 year old corner outfielder might be given the opportunity to impress at Triple A this year.

The success or failure of Thames could have just as much say in Bautista’s future in Toronto as Bautista himself.  But whatever the most important factor is in deciding the slugger’s future, the Blue Jays can finally afford to sit back and wait for it to emerge.