January 04, 2017
Jose Bautista, one of the biggest bats on the free agent market, remains unsigned and the Phillies has been mentioned as a potential suitor by a national media publication (although, if you keep reading said story, still an unlikely fit).
None of this is the least bit surprising.
Spring training camps open in a little more than a month and the options are dwindling for Bautista. But as a 36-year-old slugger coming off an off-year/injury-plagued season, it’s hardly shocking that Bautista remains unsigned.
It’s part of the reason we identified him as a potential Phillies target way back in September, and then again in November, because the idea of getting him on a short-term contract would probably fit into the buy-low mindset the Phils front office has operated within the last two winters (see Jeremy Hellickson last offseason, Clay Buchholz, Howie Kendrick, and the collection of assembled relievers this offseason).
Is it still more likely the Phillies choose to upgrade their offense month without a big-splash signing and add Michael Saunders or Brandon Moss (two others were listed as fits in November) before Camp Clearwater opens? Sure. But the longer Bautista remains unsigned, the more interesting a potential marriage between the two parties becomes.
Here is why Bautista remains a near-perfect fit for the Phillies:
As with most players in their mid-to-late 30s, Bautista’s defensive skills have declined recently, but in a small ballpark like Citizens Bank Park, he can surely play a corner outfield spot and first base. He’s also played significant time at third in his career, although that seems an unlikely option at this point in his career (and the Phillies have Maikel Franco entrenched there anyway).
But the point here is Bautista, on a short-term contract, would not be blocking any of the Phillies near-MLB-ready prospects from getting on the field. It would appear highly unlikely that Nick Williams or Dylan Cozens are in the big leagues before July, and, by that time, Bautista could be a very attractive trade chip for a contending team. And even if one of those guys did arrive to the big leagues early, Bautista could play first base, too. And it would do the Phillies zero harm to have the oft-injured Roman Quinn begin the season at Triple-A (where he has yet to play).
It’s also worth noting that the other corner outfield spot is currently being manned by Howie Kendrick, a veteran on a one-year deal. There’s no guarantee that Kendrick makes it through the entire 2017 season on the Phils roster, so that’s another place Bautista could play regularly. (And then there’s also the idea of shifting Kendrick to second base, but Cesar Hernandez is obviously currently doing quite well in that spot). Kendrick, depending on whether or not he produces, could also morph into a super-utility type player.
The free agent market is rarely kind to aging players – even Bautista’s former Toronto teammate Edwin Encarnacion (who turns 34 this weekend) was only able to get a three-year deal on the open market last month. At this point, it would seem unlikely that Bautista gets anything more than a two-year deal, and, perhaps, is more intrigued by a one-year deal with a chance to hit the market against next winter.
Bautista’s preference may be to do that in Toronto, where he has established himself as one of the game’s premiere power hitters in the last seven years. But, according to one report last month, the Blue Jays aren’t as interested.
Look around the league and it’s difficult to find a fit with a potential contender. Baltimore? Sure, it would seem to make sense, except their general manager said their fans wouldn’t want to root for a former villain in their own uniform. Texas? Makes a lot of sense since they’ve lost three bats already this winter (Carlos Beltran, Ian Desmond, Mitch Moreland) but it doesn’t make a lot of sense given the, uh, bad blood, between Bautista and the Rangers.
Enter non-contending teams. Oakland could be considered a sleeper after making a spirited run at Encarnacion. But the Phillies should have the financial wherewithal to outbid Oakland or any non-contending team that’s interested in Bautista’s services.
According to baseball-reference.com, the Phillies currently have a projected payroll just over $107 million. That’s roughly $73 million fewer dollars than they had committed to their opening day payroll just three years ago (in 2014) when they were among the top three highest spending teams in the game.
We’re not saying the Phillies – who aren’t expected to contend this year and are probably unlikely to jump into the mix in 2018, either – should max out on salary at this juncture of their rebuild. The point here is they could easily offer Bautista a very attractive salary for the ’17 season and still have an Opening Day payroll well short of where they were during the 2010-2014 seasons. Add in the attendance uptick someone like Bautista could bring (you cannot argue whether or not he’s fun to watch) and it would seem like a worthwhile investment that would fit into the team’s plans.
Since the Phillies finished with one of the 10 worst records in baseball in 2016, their first round pick is protected from free agent compensation. But if they were to sign Bautista, they would still forfeit a pick: their second-rounder (45th overall) in the 2017 draft.
Surely a rebuilding team like the Phillies would be very wary of forfeiting any pick for a veteran. But the 45th overall pick isn’t the fifth, 15th or 25th pick, either.
While selecting any one pick selection is admittedly somewhat arbitrary, here are the seven players that went 45th overall from 2009 to 2014 (years selected because they all should have either reached the majors or risen into premium prospects by now): right-hander Bryan Price (2008), left-hander Mike Belfiore (’09), right-hander Luke Jackson (’10), shortstop Trevor Story (’11), outfielder Barrett Barnes (’12), right-hander Teddy Stankiewicz (’13), and right-hander Jake Stinnett (’14). There is obviously one pretty big name among that bunch (good work, Rockies). But, beyond that, is there a player listed there you wouldn’t trade for one or two years of Jose Bautista (and the potential trade value Bautista would bring at an upcoming trade deadline)?
And then there is, of course, the risk that Bautista just isn’t a dynamic, impact, middle-of-the-order bat anymore. He slashed .234/.366/.452 with 22 home runs in 116 games last year, compared to .250/.377/.536 and 40 home runs in 2015. It should be noted that Bautista did finish strong, hitting .288 with a .440 OBP and four home runs in his last 17 games, helping Toronto track down a second straight playoff berth.
If he is still a formidable bat (and at the very least, one with very good on-base skills, something the Phillies have obviously lacked), Bautista could have just as much of an impact when he’s in the batter’s box as he could on the development of the rest of the young hitters in the Phillies lineup, who wouldn’t have as much stress/pressure on their own shoulders to perform. (Think Jim Thome and the young-but-eventual core of the Phillies offense back in '03-'05).
So what kind of salary would a player of Bautista’s age and talent command? Last April, Adrian Beltre signed a two-year, $36 million extension about a week before his 37th birthday. Eight years ago, the Phillies signed Raul Ibanez to a three-year, $31.5 million deal six months before his 37th birthday.
Surely the Phillies would likely be more interested in a one-year deal. And, again, given their payroll flexibility, the Phils could overpay on a one-year deal to attract Bautista.
Personally, if I was making an overture to someone of Bautista’s ilk, I’d probably like to have him in my uniform for two years (and then deal with the ramifications it has on playing time for younger players when and if that time comes). But I can see the argument from both sides.
Regardless, even if it is being reported as unlikely, there is interest from the Phillies side. And the idea of a one-year, $20 million deal (fewer dollars than they had sunk into Ryan Howard in the last three seasons) or a two-year, $32 million deal sounds kind of enticing, especially if you’re more than ready to watch an offense with a pulse again in South Philly in 2017.