Last night, the Jays avoided arbitration with Josh Donaldson, agreeing to a two year deal that gives him nearly $29 million in guaranteed income, and helps the team avoid a second huge raise next year if Donaldson has another great year. The team had publicly stated their desire to get Donaldson locked up long-term, but as a Super Two coming off an MVP season, Donaldson had plenty of leverage to get paid while still retaining his ability to hit free agency after the 2018 season. The team can still revisit a longer deal with Donaldson if they wish, but most likely, this two year deal signifies that he’s not looking to sell any of his free agent years at prices the Blue Jays are currently willing to pay.
So, now, with that piece of business out of the way, the Blue Jays focus can turn towards a more pressing contract issue: what to do with star outfielder Jose Bautista. The face of the franchise, Bautista is in the final year of his contract, and will likely be the best hitter on the market next winter if the Blue Jays can’t sign him to an extension this spring. Both sides have publicly stated an interest in getting a deal done, though with the Jays bringing in Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins from Cleveland to run their baseball operations department, there’s some expectation that the club will operate a bit more conservatively, and that could limit their willingness to pay Bautista the kind of money that would convince him to forego free agency.
On the other hand, there’s clearly a lot of sentiment towards just giving Joey Bats whatever he wants, and the team will face significant negative backlash if they let Bautista leave, at least in the short-term. So even with some expected belt-tightening, let’s see if we can construct an extension that both sides would be happy with.
The most important data point in negotiations is going to be Bautista’s age. Because he’ll turn 36 in October, we’re looking at a more narrow scope of potential deals than most players of his ability; this is going to be a short-term extension, most likely. When you look at what other older free agents have gotten, even coming off excellent seasons, both sides have ended up settling for deals for no more than four years. Ben Zobrist got four years for his age 35-38 seasons this winter, while Victor Martinez also got four years for his 36-39 years last winter. Going back a few years ago, Carlos Beltran got three years for ages 37-39, coming off an offensive season that is similar to what Bautista is projected to do in 2016, though his defense was certainly worse than Bautista’s is now.
So that’s the term we’re looking at, realistically. If Bautista has a good year and can hit free agency as a guy still viewed as an elite player, he can get four years, but the Blue Jays would probably be more interested in tacking on three more years to the existing one year he already has left. More than the per-year salary, my guess is the sticking point in negotiations will come down to whether the Blue Jays will extend to the fourth year, with the organization probably preferring to just stick to the 2017-2019 timeframe that would give them his 36-38 years.
Clearly, they can’t expect Bautista to continue to put up great seasons into his late-30s. As we noted last week, the highly productive older player is becoming a rarity, and the game is skewing younger and younger. The Blue Jays have to build a lot of expected decline into their offer, and expect that Bautista won’t be a particularly good value by the end of the deal. The key is to find an offer that still gives them enough short-term value to justify the fact that he’ll be overpaid at the end. As a projected +3.7 WAR player for 2016, we should expect him to go something like +3.2, +2.5, +1.8, and +1.0 over his 36-39 seasons, so he’d be selling roughly +8.5 WAR over four free agent years, or +7.5 over three.
At today’s market rates, that would put Bautista’s value on a three year deal at around $67 million, or $77 million over four years if Bautista wanted to push for that extra year. That puts him squarely in the same range as what Alex Gordon and Yoenis Cespedes got as free agents this winter; Bautista has arguments for a stronger track record than either, but both are significantly younger, and the money in the game is moving towards youth. $77 million over four years would allow Bautista to clear Victor Martinez’s deal and be the largest guarantee a player in this age range has gotten in years, but also feels like it’s probably a bit of a discount relative to what he could get if he ended up on the open market with few other good free agent hitters available.
After all, the market puts a premium on power hitting, and Bautista remains one of the game’s most terrifying sluggers. If he reached the open market coming off a strong season, I wouldn’t be too shocked if he landed something in the 4/$90M range, but he’d have to bet on himself and his health to get there. Taking roughly $75 million now would alleviate some risk, and still wouldn’t be dramatically less than he would likely be looking at as a free agent next winter anyway.
So that’s my suggestion to both sides. $75 million for the 2017-2020 seasons, covering his 36-39 seasons. Bautista gets to retire a hero in Toronto, and the Jays get to keep their contention window open a bit longer with this group. By the end of that deal, they won’t be thrilled to be paying him nearly $20 million per season, but it gives them enough value in the next few years to justify the extension, and gives the organization a real chance to have Bautista ride down Yonge Street in a championship parade.
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