After the Blue Jays freed up $86 million in committed payroll from the Vernon Wells trade, fans and pundits speculated that the team would use some of their savings to sign Jose Bautista to a multi-year deal. Yesterday, we learned that the Blue Jays and Bautista had postponed their scheduled arbitration hearing in order to further discuss that very same subject.
For the past few weeks, I’ve been arguing against offering Bautista a multi-year contract, claiming that the money that the team has saved by ditching the long term deals given to Wells and Alex Rios would be better saved rather than spent for the time being.
My point being that if Bautista is able to match his 2010 in 2011, and the Blue Jays want to bring him back, the money saved would allow them to compete for his services on the free agent market. If Bautista regresses, which as a 30 year old with a single season of above average baseball wouldn’t be surprising, the Blue Jays will have the opportunity to consider whether or not he has a permanent place on this team before making their decision. If he falls all the way back down to the earth that was beneath his feet in every other season before 2010, Toronto can walk away relatively unscathed. No harm, no foul outside of increased arbitration figures. All the while, the team would be able to see how the younger players in their system further develop.
In other words, the team has the money to buy him now at a discount, but I believe that money would be better spent, or rather not spent, waiting a year. Obviously, any argument for or against a long term contract depend on the actual figures, but the main one against my point of view is that the extra money doesn’t allow them to wait and see, it allows them to take a risk and write it off more easily if it doesn’t pan out.
I understand that argument, but to me, risks are for the desperate, not those already on the path to success. And with their recent transactions that shed unwanted payroll and created a farm system that now ranks among the best in baseball, the Blue Jays aren’t just on that path, they’re turning it into a road.
There’s no need to take a risk on cashing in on a lower rent Bautista, when the downside to spending so much money is that he becomes a similar burden to Wells and Rios. The potential savings from avoiding competition on the free agent market don’t match up to the potential cost of another albatross contract.
You can make the Jayson Werth comparison all you want, but that deal was laughable to most of baseball, and Werth would still appear to be a more consistent performer even if Bautista is somehow able to repeat his 2010.
Last night on Twitter, friend of Getting Blanked Jonah Keri speculated that the Blue Jays are probably looking at a three year deal for Bautista, spending somewhere between $36 and $39 million. That seems high to me, especially considering the arbitration figures that were filed by both Bautista and the Jays, but the $12 – $13 million annual price tag stands out. The last four guaranteed years of Alex Rios’ contract will pay him $12 million in 2011, $12 million in 2012, $12.5 million in 2013 and $12.5 million in 2014.
While Rios has never had a season like Bautista had last year, his career peak to this point came at the age of 27, which was followed by a drastic decline the next season, and a rebound last year. Let’s assume that Bautista regresses from last season into a four WAR player, which is still a massive improvement over everything he showed prior to last season. Would you be willing to pay him the Alex Rios money that the Blue Jays were so grateful to rid themselves of to essentially perform like Alex Rios?
If there’s one player whose career arc can compare to Jose Bautista’s, it’s Carlos Pena’s. Both players were disappointing prospects who came out of nowhere to have career years at the age of 29. Pena has since gone on to have three seasons of declining production culminating in last season’s depressing accomplishment of having a batting average below .200, while collecting more than 150 strikeouts.
Like Bautista, Pena was entering his final year of arbitration after his career year. The Rays signed him to a three year deal that paid $24.125 million, divvied up as such: $6 million in 2008, $8 million in 2009 and $10.125 million in 2010. Over the course of the contract, Pena accumulated 7.8 WAR, which according to the dollar value of WAR worked out by FanGraphs, could be seen as a success. But in terms of a team that consistently takes advantage of the market inefficiency bargains that pre-arbitration players offer, it can be seen as less of a winner.
If, as Keri suggests, Bautista will be seeking a figure substantially more than $24 – $27 million over three years, I can’t see the value in it. In discussing a multi-year contract, the Jays should be looking to pay for two years of 7 WAR, and a roll of the dice with the third and final.
Under those tempered expectations, I could excuse the Jays for pursuing a three year deal with Bautista, but I still think it’s best to let him play out 2011 and see what other teams are willing to offer him after his numbers regress back to the mean. By doing so, the team also has the option of taking a page out of the Rays handbook and seeing what their own pre-arbitration players can do with another year of development.
By signing him now, the Jays limit their options for the sake of potentially saving a few dollars, and even that is to assume that Bautista will have a place on this team in 2012 and 2013. If Bautista’s incredible season taught us anything last year, it’s that we can analyse and ponder all we want, but when a ball bounces off a bat there’s no telling where it’s going to end up.