Toronto signed Bautista to a one-year deal worth $18 million on Wednesday. The contract includes a $17 million mutual option for 2018 and a $20 million vesting option for ’19.
Bautista, who ranks near the top of many of Toronto’s all-time offensive records, was arguably the best free agent remaining on the open market. The six-time All-Star is coming off a down year by his standards, although he finished with 22 home runs and a .366 on-base percentage.
The decision to sign Bautista marks a significant shift in direction from the Blue Jays’ front office. Bautista was not Plan A, B, C or probably even D, but with Spring Training quickly approaching, two sides that seemed destined for a separation were almost forced to reunite.
Toronto missed out on bringing back slugger Edwin Encarnacion and signing fellow free agent Dexter Fowler. The club explored possible trade scenarios for Pittsburgh’s Andrew McCutchen and the Mets’ Curtis Granderson. Any of those moves likely would have ruled out Bautista’s return, but when they didn’t work out and the Blue Jays were left to evaluate their remaining options, Bautista was the best player available.
Bautista, on the other hand, always wanted to return. He has been the face of the franchise for the past seven years and has helped restore buzz to Rogers Centre, which enjoyed nightly sellouts en route to the Blue Jays’ back-to-back appearances in the American League Championship Series in 2015 and ’16. He’s a star player with significant ties to the local business community and very little incentive to switch locations.
Even so, Bautista appeared to see the writing on the wall at the end of last season. Encarnacion was expected to be the free agent who would remain in Toronto, and the belief was that Bautista would get the multi-year deal he was seeking from other contending teams such as the Yankees, Red Sox or Giants. In the end, Bautista’s market did not materialize as expected, and his options came down to remaining with the Blue Jays or signing with a team that had little hope of reaching the postseason.
Bautista’s contract is a compromise of sorts between two parties who weren’t able to accomplish what they set out to do at the beginning of the offseason. Toronto wanted to get younger, faster, more athletic and less reliant on the home run, yet the club’s lineup remains largely intact, with Encarnacion being swapped out for the even slower Kendrys Morales. Bautista was dead set on receiving multiple guaranteed years in what he hoped would be his final Major League contract.
Despite the change of course, both sides may benefit greatly. Toronto clearly had a need for another middle-of-the-order bat, but the remaining candidates through free agency did not inspire a lot of confidence. This team considered itself a contender yet had a pair of glaring holes in the outfield with less than a month remaining until Spring Training. In the end, the Blue Jays needed Bautista as much as he needed them.
Bautista, meanwhile, gets to remain in the city he has called home for the past nine years, in a clubhouse where he’s comfortable, playing for a team that should be fighting for a spot in the postseason. There’s also a chance he will get to re-enter the market a year from now without his value being hindered by a qualifying offer that’s tied to a compensatory Draft pick a signing team would need to forfeit.
Prior to reaching a deal with Bautista, the Blue Jays had a payroll of approximately $135 million when factoring in arbitration projections. With a reported payroll of $160 million to $165 million expected for 2017, that should leave the club with somewhere in the range of $10 million left to spend this offseason.
Ideally, Toronto would still like to add a lefty reliever, backup catcher and veteran pitchers on Minor League deals. It’s not immediately clear if the organization will add another left fielder or instead use a platoon of Ezequiel Carrera and Melvin Upton Jr.
Bautista showed some signs of decline during an injury-plagued 2016 season, producing his worst strikeout rate (19.9 percent), HR/FB rate (16.3 percent) and OPS (.817) since ’09. But the campaign was not without its positives, as the slugger recorded an impressive 16.8 percent walk rate with strong average exit-velocity (92.6 mph) and fly-ball-distance (330 feet) marks, per Statcast™. Although Bautista’s fantasy appeal is reduced by his recent health woes — he has logged fewer than 120 games played in three of the past five years — the powerful veteran should still be selected by the midpoint of mixed-league drafts. Meanwhile, teammate Josh Donaldson is firmly in the first-round conversation, as his statistical outlook receives a boost from the return of Bautista to Toronto’s lineup.