The Case For Extending Bautista

Tuesday, September 21 2010 @ 03:47 PM EDT

Contributed by: Dave Rutt

Much of the talk this year has focused on Jose Bautista, and for good reason - he recently broke the Jays' franchise record for home runs in a season and will likely soon become the first Blue Jay to ever hit 50. In the Year of the Pitcher, he leads the majors in home runs by a whopping ten over Albert Pujols, and his .998 OPS ranks 4th in the bigs. This incredible power surge seemingly came out of nowhere, and has prompted numerous discussions about What To Do With Jose Bautista.

Obviously any team would love to keep a player like Bautista, but it's not that simple. Jose will be a free agent after 2011, and since he's reaching free agency later than many players (he'll be 31) he only has this one chance to cash in with a big contract. So extending him might be a little expensive. AA has said some things along the lines of "the money's there if we need it" though, and any Bautista extension will certainly be much, much more reasonable than the Vernon Wells mulligan.

Secondly, there's his age, as previously mentioned. Bautista's case is weird since he didn't have his first good (great!) season until the age of 29, so it feels like, now that he's "figured it out", he'll have a good 4-5 year peak. But that'll take him into his mid-30s, and many players start to decline before then, so maybe that's an incorrect assumption to make.

Third among possible extension roadblocks is the team's timetable for winning. Bautista's window as a potentially great player is short even if he does maintain his current performance for a few years, so management should think about whether that window lines up with their target dates for competing. However, I think most around here would agree that that timetable has moved up given the team's performance this year, and I don't see this being an issue.

Of course, the biggest issue with extending Bautista is trying to project his performance going forward. He isn't a young hotshot who improved incrementally and is now blossoming into stardom. He bounced around throughout his 20s, gaining (fairly or not) the label of "utility player", then flipped a switch and is suddenly the best power hitter in the game. There isn't much precedent for this kind of career path, so any projection of Jose's future performance is inherently extremely risky.

So hopefully the Jays are doing all they can to make a best guess at that future performance before deciding how to proceed with Bautista. We could talk about whether Bautista's plate discipline (95 walks, 106 strikeouts) portends well, hypothesize on whatever swing adjustment was made prior to Sept. 09 and decide if that means Bautista's success is sustainable, etc. However, that's not the point that I want to make.

Look, the AL East is always going to be a difficult division to win, what with the Yankees and Red Sox buying any player they want and the Rays continually churning out great young teams. Not to mention the improving Orioles. So it's impossible to win the division with a "pretty good" team, as it may be in other divisions:

Last year, the Minnesota Twins won the AL Central with 87 wins.
In 2008, the Los Angeles Dodgers won the NL West with 84 wins.
In 2007, the Chicago Cubs won the NL Central with 85 wins.
In 2006, the St. Louis Cardinals won the NL Central with 83 wins.
In 2005, the San Diego Padres won the NL West with 82 wins.

It happens every year, somewhere. But never in the AL East. It's taken at least 95 wins for the last five years to win the East, and that doesn't look like it's gonna change any time soon. And if you want to be better than "pretty good", you need star players.

I'm not saying Bautista is a star. Once again, projecting his future performance is a different discussion. But he's played like a star this year. His WAR (6.4) dwarfs any other position player (Wells is next at 3.5) or pitcher (Romero leads at 3.8). Hill and Lind, who "carried" the team in 2009, put up WARs of 3.9 and 3.5, respectively. In fact, Bautista has compiled the most Wins Above Replacement of any Jays' position player in the Fangraphs Era (since 2002). More than Wells in any of his great years, more than Delgado in his final season.

That type of player is extremely hard to find. The hope is to develop them, like Tampa Bay has been able to do with players like Longoria and Price. Unfortunately, it happens so rarely - even very top prospects like Snider usually don't become true stars - that, in a division like the AL East, in which a Pretty Good team doesn't cut it, a team like the Jays needs to grab hold of them and never let go whenever possible, even if it takes a bit of cash. Bautista might not be that type of player. He might be in the middle of one of the flukiest years in history. But it's at least somewhat telling that nobody else on the team has ever had a year like this before.

It's clearly a big risk to hand Bautista a large chunk of change, but it's the type of risk the team needs to be taking. This is a player that we know, based on prior performance, is capable of playing at a superstar level in the major leagues. There are no other players currently on the team about whom we can say that (with the possible exception of Wells, who had a 5.7 WAR season in 2006 - his next best in nine full seasons was 3.7 in 2005 which is very good but nowhere near superstar level). The Jays need to build around this type of player, filling in the gaps with above-average, 2-4 WAR type players, like Wells, Hill, Lind, Buck etc. But it starts with the superstars, and Jose Bautista is currently the only one the team (might) have.