108: Did the Blue Jays (and their fans) really win with the Bautista deal?

 Bautista is back for another year with the Blue Jays, but everything comes with a price. (photo: Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

Bautista is back for another year with the Blue Jays, but everything comes with a price. (photo: Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

25 Jan. 2017

By Tyler King

Canadian Baseball Network

Contrary to popular belief, winning is not everything. Not always, and definitely not in professional sports. At the risk of sounding patronizing, winning is obviously something. But then of course, so is money.

To a baseball team that’s owned by a publicly traded company, it’s the bottom-line, you know - the dollars and cents, that really matters.

(And yes, Rogers is a publicly traded company.)

Now obviously winning can increase that bottom line if it results in sold out stadiums, an obsessive fanbase, and outrageously priced playoff tickets, as it has over the past two seasons for the Toronto Blue Jays. But at the end of the day the allegiance of any corporate owner is not to the fans, rather it’s to the shareholders (although these lines can, admittedly, become quite blurred).

If you think about it, winning is not even everything to every fan. How else could you explain the disappointment voiced by many Blue Jays fans when Munenori Kawasaki - who was about as useful on the baseball field as a hockey puck - left and joined the Chicago Cubs? To say the strange Kawasaki-fan relationship was based more on his ability to hit a ball than to dance and sing in broken english is to completely delude oneself.

Then there are players like Jose Bautista - players who mean so much to a fanbase that the inability to view their performance (and contracts) objectively makes some reasonable sense. 

But lets not kid ourselves, Bautista is likely a bit past his prime, albeit still very effective; and he’s been the face of a starved franchise for so many years, the author of so many memorable moments. 

The question is, what is that worth?

You should know that this question is meant to be hypothetical, although earlier this month Blue Jays management tried to answer it more literally with “18.5 million dollars over one year, with a two year mutual vesting option” - the terms of the deal that will see Jose playing north of the border for the 10th straight season.

Regarding Bautista’s return, the consensus among fans seems to be trending towards joy. Seeing him in any other uniform would feel a bit odd (I won’t say “betraying”) and, lets face it, even if he is declining he’s still going to hit his 20-30 homers. (And who wouldn’t want that?)

Among the baseball pundits, however, the tone is slightly more indifferent - that is to say, the deal has not really been touted as either good or bad. The fact that it is only a one year deal has the apparent effect of alleviating any criticism towards either side, but especiallytowards management (leaving the whole Edwin Encarnacion angle aside).

If Bautista’s age and injuries catch up with him, well so what, it’s only one year! And if he hits 35 bombs, well then genius move re-signing him! You see, they can’t really lose.

The thing people seem to be forgetting is that 18 million dollars is still a lot of money for a player, but it’s even weightier when you’re short a true first baseman and a bonafide (or, for that matter, not bonafide) left-handed reliever.

The truth is, the actual dollar amount of the contract shouldn’t matter. What should matter is the value you get for that money given the current the market (if you don’t know what I mean, Brad Pitt can explain it much much better via the film Moneyball). 

So in order to objectively analyze the Bautista deal, what needs to be done is to evaluate the market, which can be arbitrarily done by comparing his deal with other transactions that took place this off-season regarding players with similar numbers.

Thankfully, three decent 30-something-year-olds have been dealt since last November, making such an analysis possible. 

Mitch Moreland, Brian McCann, and Ian Desmond, all American League hitters with decent power numbers, will have new homes or new contracts in 2017.

Now before you hurl your laptop against the wall or draft up a scathing email, know that I am not saying any of those players have the same track record, pedigree, or name recognition as Bautista. But based on sheer offensive production in the last year or two, you will see that there are some similarities.

For point of comparison, the 36-year-old Bautista (and age is not a trivial fact) has hit .261/.382 /.528 over his nine years with the Blue Jays. In an injury plagued 2016 campaign, that production dipped slightly, as he hit .234 / .366 / .452 in 116 games. He did, however, still manage 22 home runs over his 517 plate appearances. To be fair, he has also been an all-star six times, and has had three 40-plus home run seasons (something none of those other guys have done).

So again I stress, the three players mentioned above are not Jose Bautista. But if you isolate last year, there are some reasonable comparisons to be made.

For example, the 31-year-old Mitch Moreland - a first baseman (wink, wink) who the Jays were rumoured to have been coveting but who eventually signed a one-year deal in December with the extremely scary Boston Red Sox - hit .233 / .298 / .422 with the Texas Rangers in 2016. He also hit the same number of home runs as Bautista (22), although Moreland did it in fewer plate appearances.

Obviously the thing that stands out the most is Moreland’s embarrassingly low on-base percentage, which was nearly 70 points lower than Bautista’s last season. He has also never hit more than 23 home runs in a single year.

But, all that aside, the Red Sox signed him for just $5.5 million ... and whether you can quantify (or justify) a 13 million dollar difference between the two players I won’t begin to attempt. However, I will say this: 13 extra million is 13 extra million.

From a recent offensive production perspective, former New York Yankees catcher Brian McCann appears to be a lot closer to Bautista (although he had been playing in a stadium with a bush league fence in right field). In 2016 McCann hit .242 / .335 / .413. He also hit 20 home runs in 492 plate appearances. Over his career, he has hit 20-plus home runs 10 times, making his track record more reputable than Moreland’s as well.

McCann is also slightly closer to Bautista in age, at 32, and although still effective, his best days are also widely considered to be behind him. This is likely why the Yankees agreed to ship McCann AND cash to the Houston Astros for two minor leaguers this off-season.

McCann’s expensive contract of $85 million over five years is much more comparable to the amount Bautista makes (and deserves). Over a single year, it equates to roughly 17 million, very close to the 18.5 Bautista will be making in 2017. 

The fact that the Yankees were willing to ship some cash along with McCann should tell you a lot about how they feel about his contract.

(If we’re making a direct comparison, chalk Bautista’s deal up as a win for the Blue Jays.)

The now 31-year-old Ian Desmond was a player who did very well this off-season, signing a five-year 70 million dollar deal with the Colorado Rockies thanks to some impressive numbers in 2016. Despite making only eight million last year, the shortstop turned outfielder actually rejected the Rangers’ qualifying offer of 17.2 million, electing, unlike Bautista, for the longer-term deal instead.

Now that Desmond will make an average of 14 million per year - catapulting him into a similar contractual bracket as Bautista - his numbers will undoubtedly face more scrutiny. But if he performs like he did last season, there’s no question he’ll be worth it.

In 2016, Desmond hit .285 / .335 / .446 with 22 homers, making his production very comparable to Bautista’s (however, Desmond did have over 150 more plate appearances). He also had 87 RBI compared to Bautista’s 69, not to mention a very respectable OPS of .782 (Bautista’s was .817).

If he keeps up that production, the Rockies may have actually got him for a steal. 

But that’s not to say Desmond’s deal is better than Bautista’s, especially not from a management/ownership standpoint, as the Blue Jays are poised to capitalize from Jose’s return in a multitude of ways - ie. merchandise sales and the fanbase’s all-around “goodwill”.

And from a fan’s perspective, is it even possible to view the Bautista deal in any truly objective light? My guess is probably not.

In that sense perhaps the only question that really matters is: was it worth bringing JoseBautista back? 

Of course the correct answer to that is, “hell ya it was”. 

Just don’t ask me why ...


Follow Tyler and #Section108 on Twitter: @tylerjoseph108