Bautista Plays Hardball

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the Vernon Wells trade and how it doesn’t allow the Jays to sign Jose Bautista to a multi-year deal as much as it allows them to wait before signing Jose Bautista to a multi-year deal.

In other words, the only reason to sign Bautista right now is to hedge your bets against him having a similar season this year and watching his value soar even higher.  By freeing up $86 million dollars, the Jays could potentially extend Bautista later in the season if, in the early going, he’s able to reassure everyone that his 2010 season wasn’t a flash in the pan.

Well, not so fast, says Jose Bautista.

I won’t be open to [negotiating] after the [arbitration] hearing. After the hearing, I believe we will notify the team that [a long-term deal] is not going to be a possibility, unless it’s in that window they have from the end of the season until the free agency period begins. My desire is to play in Toronto long term but, after the hearing, or during the season, I have come to the conclusion that it’s probably not the best thing for me to be negotiating any type of deal. I want to focus on the game and trying to win ball games. If I’m in that type of negotiation, it’s going to shift my focus from what I need to worry about and that’s baseball. I don’t want my mind to be elsewhere when I come to the ballpark to help my team win.

How very Pujols of you, Jose.  Translation:  I’ll be your player, but I ain’t gettin’ played.

MLB rules dictate that as soon as the World Series is over, clubs get a five day window for exclusive rights to their potential free agents before they go on the open market.  It’s unlikely that Bautista, if he manages to have a similar season wouldn’t want to at least test the waters of that market before signing a deal.

Bautista’s statement is essentially eliminating the middle ground for the Jays.  Toronto only has two options: 1) They can hedge their bets prior to Monday’s arbitration hearing, or 2) risk having to pay top dollar in the offseason.

Waiting it out isn’t as horrible as it sounds.  While it isn’t ideal, the $86 million that the team saved in the Wells trade, still offers them the freedom to wait and see, even if it’s for a little bit longer and potentially for more dollars or years than they may have anticipated.

Why is waiting more appealing than a cheaper contract right now?  Because Bautista’s future on this team not only depends on how he performs in 2011, but also on the performance of players currently in the Jays system.

While it’s certainly a problem you’d love to have, the timing of Bautista’s coming into prominence may be a bit frustrating for the Blue Jays.  Despite how many plate appearances John Buck made least season, Toronto is in the middle of a rebuild.  And so far they’ve been very successful in acquiring new players and developing the players already in their system.  This means that for the first time in years, there are fresh candidates for promotion.

Assuming that Brett Lawrie becomes the Jays every day third baseman in 2012, Bautista would be pushed to a corner outfield spot.  Given the strength of his arm and Travis Snider’s hold on left field, it can also be assumed that if Bautista does have a place on this team, it’s in right field.

The Blue Jays happen to have a 24 year old corner outfielder who has continued to impress at each level he’s played at since being drafted by Toronto in the seventh round of the 2008 draft.  Last season, Eric Thames in his first year at Double A put up the following numbers:

573 PA, 8.9 BB%, 24.4 K%, .370 OBP, .526 SLG, .238 ISO, .393 wOBA.

Despite a slight decrease in power numbers, which can easily be attributed to the fatigue of a 153 game season, Thames also went on to have a successful Arizona Fall League, getting on base 37% of the time and improving his BB:K ratio from his time in New Hampshire.

The numbers that Thames and Lawrie are able to put up this season could have just as much consequence on Jose Bautista’s future in the organization as what Bautista is able to do himself.