Free agency might not be kind to Jose Bautista

Jose Bautista struggled at the plate in 2017, and it looks like he’ll struggle to find a home in 2018 (EFE/Archivo)

Last offseason Jose Bautista took a long time to find his best fit in free agency before electing to return to the Toronto Blue Jays. This year, he may find himself waiting again, but it likely won’t be a wait of his choosing.

When the Blue Jays choose not to exercise his $17 million option for 2018 – a near-certainty as reported by Sportsnet’s Shi Davidi – his tenure with the Blue Jays will officially end, despite his stated desire to return to Toronto. He’ll then float out into the waters of free agency where a safe port of call won’t be easy to find.

Bautista’s problems start with his awful 2017 season. The 36-year-old hit just .203/.308/.366 in 686 trips to the dish and was a negative WAR player by both FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference. There are a couple of things he still did well like taking his walks and throwing out base runners from the outfield, but they were more than cancelled out by a ballooning strikeout rate, poor range, and an inability to get around on fastballs.

Beyond just his poor production, he’s also fits the kind of player profile that has been rewarded less and less in free agency recently. Bautista is a bat-first player to the point where he’s essentially bat-only. The Blue Jays ran him out in right field all season because they lacked solid alternatives, knowing that they were punting defence at that spot. While he’s still good for a few outfield assists, the number of balls that fall in on his watch cause far more problems that his arm solves.

If you could be confident Bautista would be a significantly above-average hitter, playing him in the outfield every day might be a viable option, but his ugly 2017 season has eroded that confidence completely. Whether you’re sheltering his defensive vulnerabilities at DH or living with them in right field you need Bautista to hit well for him to hold any value.

He does have some versatility with his ability to man the infield corners in a pinch, but he’s not going to be a defensive plus there, either, and he hasn’t logged more than 100 infield innings in a season since 2011.

So, who wants a player turning 37 with serious offensive question markets and known defensive deficiencies? The assumption has been that Baustista will land a job with a small market club like the Tampa Bay Rays or Oakland Athletics, who always seem in the market for reclamation projects. It’s an understandable notion based on the idea that either squad is usually the type to bet on a cheap slugger with warts.

The problem for Bautista is that it’s not 100 percent clear he fits the slugger profile in today’s game. As home run rates continue to soar and the long-time Blue Jay continues to decline, he looks less and less like a plus power source. Last season, his slugging percentage was just above league average; this year it fell below.

via FanGraphs

Yes, Bautista managed 23 home runs in 2017 – but that doesn’t mean what it used to as that mark was tied for 85th in the major leagues this year. It’s just three more than Elvis Andrus and three fewer than Scooter Gennett. In 157 games of work this year, it’s not a job-justifying total. If Bautista had been playing for a team with less money and franchise history tied up in him this year he likely would have been benched.

None of this skepticism of Bautista’s job prospects even acknowledges his agency. The outfielder is known a proud man, so perhaps he wouldn’t play unless a certain salary demand is met. Maybe he’s only interested in an offer where he’s assured a full-time role. He hasn’t spoken about any of that yet – and it’s unlikely he will – but he probably isn’t interested in just any offer. Like most people, he probably has a few boxes to check before he signs on a dotted line with a new employer.

There’s also the not-so-unspoken issue of Bautista’s demeanor. Fellow Blue Jays like Marcus Stroman, Kevin Pillar, and Teoscar Hernandez have repeatedly spoken highly of him as a teammate and any accusation of him being a locker room problem is unfounded. However, his fiery, expressive style on the field certainly rubs some people the wrong way – particularly old-school types.

Although he would likely be embraced in most clubhouses by players and coaches, the people signing the cheques around baseball are almost exclusively a collection of old-school dudes who as a demographic tend to prefer their players stoic verging on robotic. Even if a general manager wanted to sign Bautista, it’s not hard to envision an owner deciding he didn’t want the combative veteran wearing his team’s jersey – especially since the on-field upside isn’t even close to what it used to be.

Jose Bautista is a compelling character who’s put together a storied career full of unforgettable moments. That makes him worthy of the reverence of Toronto Blue Jays fans, but it may not help him land the job he’s looking for in 2018.