We learned last off season that two policies in particular combine to make the Toronto Blue Jays a favourite among the rumour mongers: 1) Exercising their due diligence in checking out every available player; and 2) Refusing to speak with the media about any prospective player acquisition, whether it be confirming or denying,
It makes sense. When it comes to free agent signings, agents can drive up the price by insisting that there’s another interested team. The Blue Jays would’ve done their research on the player and yet, they won’t publicly deny it if their name gets attached. The same holds true for trades. A general manager can raise the price of what he’s selling by suggesting another interested party. Once again, the Blue Jays have no doubt inquired into the player’s services if he was known to be available and they’re unlikely to deny interest if questioned by the media.
In the infancy of this off season we’ve already heard rumours connecting Toronto with high priced relievers, Japanese pitchers and rapidly ageing designated hitters. The list will only grow as the off season gets older, and by the time the winter meetings roll around, it wouldn’t be completely surprising to learn that general manager Alex Anthopoulos is speaking with reanimation experts about the possibility of raising Christy Mathewson from the dead to pitch for the team.
This has become the role that the Toronto Blue Jays play in the early parts of the off season. And then they go about doing what no one could possibly have foreseen. Therefore, my candidate for this off season’s most unexpected transaction is trading Jose Bautista.
First, let’s examine the lack of options on the free agent market. With the exceptions of Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder, there’s a lack of high impact power bats in this year’s free agent class. The market is so terrible in fact, that Aramis Ramirez opted out of a $16 million payout in 2012 to try his luck in free agency. After the two first baseman, both of whom will be seeking more than six years and an average annual salary in excess of $20 million, the next biggest offensive threat from last season was David Ortiz. The Red Sox DH certainly had a good season last year, but given his age and body type, it’s difficult imagining him as a candidate for multiple year deal with any team.
Other big names available include Jose Reyes and Jimmy Rollins, but neither have the sort of power to compare with Pujols or Fielder.
However, Jose Bautista can offer teams a better offensive option than perhaps any free agent bat, with positional flexibility to play a corner outfield spot or third base, all while under team control for the next four years at $14 million annually and a club option for a fifth year at the same rate. There isn’t anything close to a better deal on the open market.
It may seem redundant to justify the appeal of the player with the highest offensive contribution in baseball this past season, but this only really works for the Blue Jays if there’s a significant return. In order to realize that return, the team acquiring Bautista would have to weigh the cost in players they’re giving up and salary they’re taking on against a simple free agent acquisition.
But why would Toronto be interested in moving such a valuable contributor at such a decent rate? Two reasons immediately come to mind:
1) Outside of Bautista, the Blue Jays’ core is incredibly young. The right fielder is currently the oldest member of the team’s 40 man roster. More than half of the position players on the roster are more than five years younger than Bautista. Given the evident age gap between the team’s MVP and the likes of Brett Lawrie, Colby Rasmus and even Travis Snider (fingers crossed) combined with the upcoming high level talent yet to even reach the 40 man roster (Travis D’Arnaud, Anthony Gose, Jake Marisnick, etc.), what are the odds of Bautista still being the relevant force that he is when the rest of the team is ready to seriously compete?
I don’t think it’s very good.
By the time the lineup is comprised of the elite players that Anthopoulos has been acquiring, Bautista will be further into the declining stages of his current deal. That’s not to say that he’ll be a terrible player, just that he won’t be the player that he was last season over the length of the entire contract.
2) Moving Bautista wouldn’t symbolize another rebuild as much it would a redistribution. Last season, Bautista accounted for more batting runs above average than all but five entire teams. He had almost five times as many as the next closest Blue Jays player Yunel Escobar, and without him on the team Toronto would have a negative batting value on the year. As the team is currently built, he’s the epitome of the phrase “all of your eggs in one basket.”
While one player with an eight WAR season is better than two with a four WAR season, the Blue Jays only had three position players, including Bautista, with more than two wins above replacement last season, and one of those players only appeared in 43 games. That’s a dangerous situation considering the reckless manner that Bautista sometimes exhibits in the field or on the base paths.
For all the eye rolling at free agent and trade rumours involving the Blue Jays, this team has several needs that can’t possibly be met via free agency alone. However, Bautista, whom FanGraphs recently ranked as having the second highest trade value in baseball, could bring back the type of return that justifies giving up the best offensive player in baseball.
No player in baseball has more present value than the Blue Jays slugger, who is currently in the midst of one of the best seasons we’ve ever seen. At just $14 million per year for each of the next four years, he’s producing at a best-player-in-baseball level while getting paid a little less than Jason Bay or Adam Dunn.
To the right team, he’s worth a young starting pitcher, a reliable bullpen arm or two and even a Major League ready second baseman or another young, cost controlled outfielder.
A pitching-rich, power-needing team like the Atlanta Braves would be foolish not to kick the tires and at least find out what kind of return the Blue Jays would be looking for. I also wonder about the Oakland A’s, whose finances seem to always keep them out of contention for the best players. It shouldn’t be forgotten that the Athletics made a run at Adrian Beltre last off season. How much more value is there in Bautista’s four years at $56 million, plus a team option than the $66 million owed to Beltre over the next four years, plus a voidable option?
Of course there will be those who say that trading Bautista only two years after trading Roy Halladay and a year after ridding themselves of Vernon Wells would be disastrous to any public relations capital that Anthopoulos has created for his team since taking charge.
However, in addition to suggesting that the team emphasizes redistribution over rebuilding when speaking with the media about the imaginary trade, I’d also suggest that Brett Lawrie has already overtaken Bautista as the most marketable player on the team. Before he’d even played a game, promos featuring the third baseman were already being shown on television. His birthplace in British Columbia was brought up during every single broadcast. And his all out effort style of play was beyond endearing to a fan base that is constantly comparing baseball to hockey. And that’s all after only 43 games.
It seems to me that if the Blue Jays aren’t going to build a contending team around Jose Bautista in the extremely near future, and the recent negative comments from President Paul Beeston on long term free agent contracts seem to indicate that they’re not, it would be a waste not to move Bautista right now, at the height of his value.
It may not be a popular decision, but the new crop of talent on the team now (including a certain young Canadian), and the fresh talent that’s received in return would quickly allay any fears of optics suggesting that the organization is acting as a farm team for other clubs. But even more importantly, it would create a more competitive team.
Not only would such a trade have the potential to immediately make the Blue Jays better overall, it would also improve the team’s balance of talent in the future.
In conclusion, picture the Toronto Blue Jays, as they are, but without Jose Bautista. Now imagine they went out of their way to acquire him. Would there be a point in that? Does he belong on this team as it’s currently assembled?