Jose Bautista can still help the Toronto Blue Jays — just not as much as a couple of prospects and a strong bullpen arm.
Now within striking distance of the AL East lead, the Jays must decide how best to reinforce their weak spots. The most glaring: a bullpen with the worst save percentage and ERA in the division.
Knowing they must move something of value to get useful pieces in return, the Jays would be wise to deal one of their soon-to-be free agent sluggers before their trade value expires. Should it be Edwin Encarnacion, Jose Bautista, or both?
Fans would be reluctant to see either of these stars sluggers dealt since the pair helped get Toronto so close to a World Series appearance last season. However, if the Jays want a return trip to the postseason, they’re going to have to bolster the team they have now and stop dreaming about the team they had in 2015.
You have to give to get in this sport, so you might as well give up what you’re likely going to lose anyway. For my money, that trade is Bautista, and it’s not even close.
Bautista has already started his decline. Baseball is a young man’s sport and Bautista, at age 35, is now on the wrong side of the age curve, and his numbers are beginning to reflect it.
Bautista is currently slashing a .230/.360/.455. While Bautista’s on-base percentage is in line with his previous seasons and his walks total presently leads the American League, his slugging percentage of .455 is nearly 100 points off last year’s total. His strikeout percentage is also the highest it has been in the past five years, while his isolated power is at its lowest during that same span.
In fairness, these numbers are still quite strong, but they are heading in the wrong direction. Knowing that Bautista is hunting for an alleged $150 million contract for five years — a contract the Jays would be stupid to offer even half of — his present numbers are not supporting of a commensurate rate of future production.
Bautista’s defensive prowess and health are also pushing down. While his recent trip to the DL — the result of an ugly meeting between him and an outfield wall — is a freak occurrence, the nagging hip flexor he’s been fighting with all season is not.
Bautista is not washed up. He is, however, no longer price effective for the Jays given his age, his potential for rapid decline, the Jays’ present need for bullpen arms, his value to another team short on hitting and his impending free agency. Roll all these things together and it’s not an emotional decision — it’s a logical one: Flip Joey Bats before he has no value left.
That’s not to say there isn’t an emotional consequence. Blue Jays fans will most assuredly rage against the departure of Bautista, a name that has given them more to talk about in the past few decades than almost any other. That said, winning a championship is generally more fun for everyone than talking about bat flips.
I glossed over his contract demands, but they are a major part of this. Bautista is not worth close to $150 million for five years. The Jays have extracted his best years and would be better off rolling that money into a younger hitter who potentially has more great years still on the horizon, or retaining someone who is operating at a sustainable plateau, like Encarnacion.
Encarnacion, 33, is starting to heat up again, and, with three fewer years’ worth of Major League mileage on his body, he offers a superior upside to the aging Bautista.
Encarnacion has always been less versatile that Bautista, both on field and in the lineup. That versatility, however, will be a diminishing returns asset as Bautista ages and slows. Bautista’s next contract will most likely overcompensate him through his twilight years. A similar contract given to Encarnacion covers him from age 34 to 38, or three years of near-peak production and two years of decline. Bautista’s theoretical five-year deal would likely pay for one year of peak production and four years of decline.
However, what really makes Bautista’s departure more palatable is that the Jays have so many good replacements for him. Josh Donaldson has been as advertised. Encarnacion has hit 18 homers this year, and is on pace for 36. Michael Saunders is an offensive inferno, finally showcasing what was always rumoured to be there with an otherworldly slugging percentage of .596.
Heck, I’d even endorse Kevin Pillar at this point as a possible power plant — after his three homers in five games last week — were in not for the fact that he has only one more walk than home run (eight walks, seven homers), which screams unsustainable. But then there is the completely sustainable Devon Travis, the mystery that is Troy Tulowitzki, and the fallen angel Chris Colabello.
History tells us that Bautista’s offensive numbers will taper off precipitously, his DL time will increase and his on-base percentage will drop off in the coming seasons. His contract requests aren’t reasonable for a club looking to add depth and value. But, most importantly, the reason the team’s not in first now isn’t due to a lack of offensive production, but rather poor bullpen performance. Even if you look at the past season and this season combined, the Jays could have sustained similar success without Bautista, thanks in large part to offensive contributions from other players.
No matter what the Jays decide to do, the good news is it looks like there will be a lot of bullpen arms on the market this season. There won’t, however, be a lot of those arms coming from contenders who want to swap an arm for a bat. Look for a three-way trade that sees a team moving prospects to a losing team, like the Giants dealing youth to the Braves in order to get an reliever like Arodys Vizcaino, who they could then flip to the Jays. The Giants are on the lookout for a bat to replace injured outfielder Hunter Pence, and Bautista could fit the bill. The Cardinals are another club that could use a stabilizing hitter and have a number of hard-throwing pitchers to offer.
One final bit of good news is there will not be a surplus of power bats, meaning that more than a few teams could be willing to make great offers for rental thumpers such as Bautista and/or Encarnacion.
Dirk Hayhurst, TSN Baseball Analyst
Dirk Hayhurst is a former Major League pitcher with the Toronto Blue Jays and San Diego Padres and a best-selling author.
Follow him on Twitter: @thegarfoose
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