Reigning home run champ Jose Bautista is the new $65 million man in Toronto, getting a five-year contract. Bautista, you'll recall, came out of nowhere last year to slug 54 homers, an almost unprecedented jump in power that left baseball stunned. His impressive turn-around put the Blue Jays in an unenviable position, with only one year left until Bye-Bye Bautista (Don't you like the sound of that?) hit the open market as a free agent. Sure, Toronto wanted to retain him, but how could they be sure that the spike they saw in 2010 was here to stay? And if they had bet on a regression from their new superstar, and it didn't come, the Jays would have no chance to sign him when free agency hit. But, newly freed from the Vernon Wells millstone, Toronto fans will want to know whether they ended up exchanging that weight for another slightly different one.
First, I have to ask you to get past the sticker shock. Yes, $65 million seems like a lot of money. And it is. But in baseball terms, where even non-superstars can get in excess of seven years and $100 million, it's a significantly less risky and expensive venture than it seems, especially when the deal runs out and Bautista is still short of 35 years old. Now to the details of the contract:
FanGraphs estimates that a free agent who performed as Bautista did in 2010 would be worth approximately $28 million per year. However, both he and the Blue Jays seem to acknowledge that that represents the upper reaches of his value, and brought the salary of his contract down to more reasonable levels. The first year of the deal, which buys out Bautista's last year of arbitration, will pay him approximately $8 million, which he will almost certainly earn. After all, Bautista was worth more than $8 million in 2009 before he became the 50-homer man, back when he was still a utility infielder-outfielder with a .408 slugging percentage. The idea that he'd slip back below that level of performance is, barring injury, unfathomable.
After that, the contract elevates to around $14 million per season for the rest of the deal. This is a hefty salary, no doubt. But if it started today, Bautista would be tied (based on my cursory research at the indispensable Cot's Contracts) for the 39th highest paid player in the game. That's not so bad, especially when you take into account the salary inflation that we're likely to see in the next several years. Bautista's contract will probably look like a bargain.
And the $14 million bar really isn't that hard to clear. According to FanGraphs, such luminaries as Austin Jackson, Cliff Pennington and Casey McGehee all bested it. And players like Torii Hunter, B.J. Upton and Corey Hart came close. My point? Jose Bautista will not have to play like the superstar he was last year to earn his keep, given that merely good players also hurdled that mark with relative ease. Essentially, if Bautista can match or exceed those "lofty" standards, he'll have been worth the money.
This is a great deal for both the team, which gets a good (potentially great) player at a decent price, and Bautista, who hedges himself against a potential decline by getting a lot of guaranteed money, while leaving himself open to re-enter the free agent market at 35. And if the Blue Jays are going to become a nouveau Rays club and challenge the Yanks and Red Sox in the next couple of years, this contract (and the player who comes with it) is going to be a big reason why.