Were you to simply go by the narrative, Jose Bautista is absolutely finished. He's 36 years old. He's dealt with injuries over the past few years. He's coming off his toughest year since first joining Toronto back in 2009. His defense isn't what it once was. There are other sluggers
Were you to simply go by the narrative, Jose Bautista is absolutely finished. He's 36 years old. He's dealt with injuries over the past few years. He's coming off his toughest year since first joining Toronto back in 2009. His defense isn't what it once was. There are other sluggers like Mark Trumbo and Chris Carter available. He received and declined a qualifying offer.
These are all indisputable facts. And yet, all the focus on the negatives does seem to have obscured one important fact, which is that even a 2016 season which was lackluster by his lofty standards was still pretty good. As his market appears to have declined to the point where a one-year deal is possible, some team is in line to get a potential steal, if that club focuses on what he can still do and not what he can't.
Here's what we mean by that: Bautista had a line of .234/.366/.452 in 2016, which was good for a 122 Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+) where a score of 100 is "league average." That means he was 22 points above average, and in what was clearly Bautista's least successful year with the Jays, he was still as good or better than the following sampling of stars, at least at the plate:
120 -- Dustin Pedroia
120 -- Victor Martinez
116 -- Buster Posey
115 -- Adam Eaton
112 -- Bryce Harper
111 -- Chris Davis
109 -- Matt Kemp
108 -- Carlos Gonzalez
102 -- Todd Frazier
That's just a random selection of big names that he outperformed; among 146 qualified hitters, he was tied for 44th, so in the top third. In other words, even a bad year from Bautista was still pretty good. So the question then is, was Bautista's down year the beginning of the end, or did the injuries he suffer impact his production?
The answer is probably "a bit of both," because he is 36, and we should never expect the version of Bautista who hit 54 homers in 2010 to show up again. Still, we can look at the underlying data that went into a season interrupted by trips to the disabled list for an injured toe in June and an injured knee in August. Let's look at two different viewpoints to see how his season went.
First, what was his production around the two DL stints?
Before June injury: .230/.360/.455 286 PA, 120 wRC+
Between DL trips: .190/.304/.397 69 PA, 88 wRC+
After August injury: .262/.401/.469 162 PA, 139 wRC+
From that view, it sure looks like the few weeks of potentially rusty play after the toe injury did a huge number on his overall stat line, as Bautista was pretty good before he got hurt and very good after he got hurt.
Gif: Jose Bautista HR
What about using Statcast™ to see how hard he hit the ball? If his bat speed was slowing, which wouldn't be uncommon for a player his age, we might see it showing up in fewer balls coming off the bat at 100 mph. In 2015, 36 percent of his batted balls had an exit velocity of 100 mph or more, 12th-highest of 253 players with at least 200 balls in play.
In 2016, that number was a very similar 37.1 percent, 15th-highest of 247 players with 200 balls in play, which is to say that there was no difference in how often he hit the ball at triple digits, and still among the league leaders. (He did see his batting average on those crushed balls drop from .632 to .543, despite little change in launch angle or distance, which could point to good defense or bad luck.)
Now, the concerns we noted about him at the top remain valid, and the market simply doesn't value aging sluggers the same way that it did even five years ago. But for a team looking only for a commitment of one or two years -- especially a team who doesn't need to worry about losing its first-round Draft pick, either because it's a protected Top 10 pick or it already lost one by signing a qualified free agent, there's easy value here.
So: Who's a remaining fit? There's a certain point where the contract is low enough that literally any team ought to be interested, which is why you're hearing surprising clubs like the Twins in the mix. But in terms of position, value and need, let's give you five good fits for a still-dangerous Bautista, who could split time at designated hitter, right field and first base.
Gif: Jose Bautista hits homer
You're seeing a National League team unlikely to contend in 2017, and you're confused. And yet, think about where the Phillies are. They have a low payroll and a talented young pitching staff backed by a very weak offense. They have corner outfield spots staffed by the likes of Roman Quinn, Tyler Goeddel, Aaron Altherr and Howie Kendrick, and they have the relatively unproven (if impressive in half a season in 2016) Tommy Joseph at first base. Plus, they have a protected Draft pick and a park conducive to offense. For the cost of money and a second-round pick, bringing in Bautista to mash, support the pitchers and turn into a potential non-waiver Trade Deadline piece seems like exactly what a rebuilding club ought to do.
Not traditionally a free-agent spender, the A's have talked to Trumbo and nearly signedEdwin Encarnacion. They've made it clear what they want, and no, the signing of Trevor Plouffe wouldn't prevent this. Bautista spending part of his time as a platoon bat with the lefty-swinging Matt Joyce in right, part of it spotting the lefty-swinging Yonder Alonso at first, and the rest in the mix at DH would work well. Besides, who wouldn't want to see him next to the masher Khris Davis in the heart of that lineup?
Look, we know that executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette said O's fans aren't fans of Bautista, and how unlikely that makes this. But that doesn't change the reality of the situation, which is that they have unproven rookies (Christian Walker and Trey Mancini) at DH and platoon lefties in the outfield corners (Seth Smith and Hyun Soo Kim). Fans would get over any perceived dislike about three seconds after Bautista's first homer off the Red Sox while wearing black and orange. Sure, they could find the $50 million or so it'd take to bring back Trumbo, but Duquette manages to find the right new veteran slugger to take advantage of Camden Yards each year, like Nelson Cruz and Trumbo. Why not Bautista?
Staying in a place where he's beloved and comfortable always made a ton of sense, and the Blue Jays still have a big need for a righty slugger after having lost Encarnacion to Cleveland. This still feels like the most likely fit, if only because it's becoming increasingly clear that both sides need one another so desperately. However ...
.... there's a clear opportunity for Tampa Bay to make the kind of splash it rarely makes. Tropicana Field isn't as appealing a place to hit as some of these other suggestions, so Bautista might not like this as much, but the quietly solid Rays, who have a protected pick, could badly use some offense if they hope to compete in the American League East. (Which seems to be the case, since they signed Wilson Ramos and didn't trade Chris Archer or Evan Longoria.) Steven Souza Jr., the projected right fielder, has done nothing to prove he should stand in anyone's way, and Brad Miller and Corey Dickerson are both lefties at first and DH. Waiting until the market suits their purposes before pouncing is the Rays' way. If not now, when?
Mike Petriello is an analyst for MLB.com.