In the end, both sides miscalculated. Jose Bautista misread the market for power hitters, and had to settle for what Toronto was offering. The Blue Jays mishandled the slugger they really wanted, and had to settle for the 36-year-old Bautista. It’s not romantic, but it’s a marriage nonetheless: Bautista and the Blue Jays eventually realized they weren’t going to do any better.
Reports have Toronto and Bautista agreeing to a one-year deal worth $18 million dollars. There are mutual options for years two and three, for similar money, but it’s hard to see any situation where both sides would pull the trigger, making this a short-term, wait-and-see deal for both sides.
It’s a far cry from the five years and $150 million that Bautista’s side was reportedly floating last winter. That was obviously shooting for the stars, but two things conspired to make sure Bautista wouldn’t get anything close to it. The first is that the free-agent market for hitters never really developed—not even Yoenis Cespedes got $30 million a year. The second is that Bautista had the worst of his nine seasons as a Blue Jay. No one was going to sign him through his age-40 season.
The batting average was his lowest in a full season in his career, while his 116 games mark his lowest total since 2012. As a result, his 22 home runs were his fewest since he hit 13 in 2009; his 69 RBI were his fewest since 2012, when he played just 92 games. Bautista failed to make the All-Star team for the first time since 2009.
Just a down year? GMs weren’t willing to bet on it. That Bautista signed for barely more than Toronto’s qualifying offer is a sign that no other team was willing to give multiple years, at least not at dollar amounts that would get the deal done. Sluggers of Bautista’s age have been known to fall off a cliff around now, and if that’s what’s happening here, the first stumble would look a lot like his 2016.
Still, this is a relatively low-risk move for Toronto, and Bautista is a pretty handy plan B for a team that biffed negotiations with Edwin Encarnacion and saw him leave for less than the Jays had offered. The team, under new front office management, hasn’t fully decided on a rebuild or a push to keep its championship window open, and this doesn’t commit them to either. Similarly, if Bautista is able to prove 2016 was just a blip, he’ll be free to seek a multiyear deal next offseason.
If baseball economics—and player aging curves—were what they were 15 years ago, Bautista might’ve gotten that $150 million. But these days GMs aren’t about to pay for past performance. Which is a shame for Bautista, who massively outplayed his last five-year, $65 million deal. But Toronto is a good spot for Bautista, who’s been the face of the franchise as it’s emerged as an MLB power. And the Jays avoid completely dynamiting a roster that’s earned two straight ALCS appearances, even as they keep their future options open. This one-year contract is, in the final accounting, a win for the Blue Jays. But this isn’t exactly what either side wanted, and no one being thrilled with their lot is often the sign of a good compromise.