If you were to cross paths with Jose Bautista and offer him a penny to play a game of catch, you might have just made the leading offer for his services.
This is, of course, a gross exaggeration of how bad a time the slugger is having on the free-agent market. But by all accounts, he’s not having a good time. The MLB offseason is a week removed from the winter meetings, and his final destination is as much a mystery now as it was when his odyssey began in earnest on November 14.
That was the day Bautista, 36, and fellow veteran slugger Edwin Encarnacion rejected qualifying offers from the Toronto Blue Jays. That meant spurning a $17.2 million salary for 2017 in favor of the riches the open market typically showers on anyone with a powerful bat. With an MLB-high 249 home runs since 2010, Bautista surely fits the bill.
But rather than run to embrace him, teams have avoided him like Adrian Beltre avoids head rubs.
The Boston Red Sox could have signed Bautista to fill David Ortiz’s designated-hitter shoes and to take aim at the Green Monster. That’s apparently what Bautista was hoping for, as Peter Gammons reported at Gammons Daily this week that he “wanted to work something out” with Boston.
But that didn’t pan out. The Red Sox took care of that opening when they signed Mitch Moreland to play first base and bumped Hanley Ramirez to DH.
Michael Ivins/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images
From the file marked “Oh, What Could Have Been…”
But then, maybe the Red Sox weren’t the best fit for Bautista anyway. Maybe he would fit best with a club that could use him at DH and in right field, where he’s been a mainstay since 2010. No three fits stand out quite like the Cleveland Indians, Baltimore Orioles and Texas Rangers.
The Indians, however, don’t seem nearly as interested in Bautista as they are in Encarnacion, who Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports rightfully highlighted as a perfect fit for them.
As for the Orioles, it seems even their front office can neither forget nor forgive the activities Bautista has been known to engage in when he’s not hitting dingers. Here’s general manager Dan Duquette, via Blue Jays play-by-play man Mike Wilner:
Duquette: “We told (Bautista’s) agent that we are not interested because our fans don’t like him.” #Bluejays #Jays #Orioles
— Mike Wilner (@Wilnerness590) December 7, 2016
Duquette: “Our fans don’t like Jose Bautista – with good reason.” #Bluejays #Jays #Orioles @JoeyBats19
— Mike Wilner (@Wilnerness590) December 7, 2016
There may be a similar sentiment in Texas. Conversations between the Rangers and Bautista’s agent didn’t go anywhere, according to Jeff Wilson of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, via ESPN.com (the Wilson article has since been deleted). Maybe the Rangers couldn’t guarantee Rougned Odor wouldn’t punch Bautista again.
With all the clear fits seemingly off the board, it’s on to the merely possible fits. Jon Paul Morosi of MLB.com reported this week that there’s not much going on there either. The New York Yankees, San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers aren’t particularly interested. The Chicago White Sox and Philadelphia Phillies might be able to use Bautista, but neither is in a hurry to win.
The sheer dryness of Bautista’s market feels like it should be surprising. Or at least, among the many things our pre-2016 selves would be shocked to discover if they traveled forward in time.
But in reality, well, this all makes sense, doesn’t it?
The open market does love to pay sluggers, but usually that’s in part because there are only so many of them to go around. That’s not the case this winter.
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
Combined home runs since 2012: 345.
Bautista is sharing the market with not just Encarnacion, but reigning MLB home run champ Mark Trumbo, reigning National League home run co-champ Chris Carter, and quality sluggers like Mike Napoli, Brandon Moss and Pedro Alvarez.
Then there’s the draft-pick compensation that Bautista chained to his ankle when he rejected his qualifying offer. Most teams would have to surrender a first-round pick to sign him. Only Encarnacion and Trumbo share that distinction, and they have two advantages.
One: They’re younger. Encarnacion is headed for his age-34 season. Trumbo, for his age-31 season.
Two: Encarnacion and Trumbo are coming off a healthier and more productive season than Bautista.
Bautista’s skills didn’t completely diminish in 2016. He continued to draw a ton of walks. And by posting a career-high 41.0 hard-hit percentage, he showed he still has plenty of pop in his bat.
On the downside, Bautista needed two disabled list stints for a bad toe and a bad knee. This is in addition to a slow recovery from a 2015 shoulder injury that limited his throwing ability.
“It’s using it when you need to, having the history of the injury last year, on an unnecessary throw, there’s more of a conscious effort on my end to just make the necessary throw,” he told Shi Davidi of Sportsnet.ca in April.
This compromised the one valuable talent Bautista had on defense, so it’s no wonder he finished with below-average metrics for a second straight year. He’s likely finished as an effective everyday right fielder.
Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images
Bautista has been worth minus-11 defensive runs saved since 2015.
Stemming from a report by Rick Westhead of TSN Sports, there was buzz during spring training about Bautista demanding a five-year, $150 million extension from the Blue Jays. He never was going to get that. Given how much his value was crippled in 2016, it’s now fair to wonder if he’ll even get a third of that this winter, as MLB Trade Rumors projected he would.
The state of Bautista’s market is such that, as MLB.com’s Gregor Chisholm reported, the Blue Jays aren’t even willing to top the $17.2 million he would have been paid had he accepted his qualifying offer. His hopes for doing better rest on a couple of scenarios.
One is that a team with a protected draft pick comes calling. But that’s where his hopes are slim. The Los Angeles Angels need their DH spot for Albert Pujols. The Tampa Bay Rays have an opening but are eternally short on cash. None of the other teams in the top 10 is a good fit.
The other hope is that one of the aforementioned teams comes around. The Indians, Orioles and Rangers are the best bets to do so. But with draft picks hanging in the balance, none have incentive to offer more than the Blue Jays, who don’t stand to lose a pick, are offering.
Could the Blue Jays up the ante? Possibly, but Bautista can’t pressure them by pointing to a DH opening. The Blue Jays filled that with Kendrys Morales. Right field is still open, but the Blue Jays know as well as anyone that Bautista can no longer hack it out there.
For Bautista, the bright and sunny thought to keep in mind is that there’s still a lot of winter left. Teams can be talked into things. Failing that, there’s always the possibility of a freakish occurrence that provides a Prince Fielder-esque bump.
But the way things have gone so far, Bautista will soon be an expert in thumb twiddling if he isn’t already. He’ll find a home eventually, but for now he’s the wrong guy in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted/linked.