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September 27, 2010

Contractual Matters

A Bull Market For Bautista

by Jeff Euston

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You are Alex Anthopoulos, and your busy schedule is about to get much more crowded. Not yet 12 months on the job as Toronto’s general manager, you’ve traded the best pitcher in club history, cut payroll, and just about finished paying off B.J. Ryan. Now your center fielder is about to get expensive—well, more expensive, really—and three other players already are locked in to raises for 2011. You face a long list of potential arbitration cases that could reach double digits, with 2010 home run king Jose Bautista leading the way. And, by the way, your managerial vacancy needs to be filled.

You are Jose Bautista, and it’s the season of your life. Kick-started by a fast finish in 2009, you’ve burst from obscurity this year to win a job as a Blue Jays regular, make the American League All-Star team, and lead the free world in home runs. You don’t turn 30 until the offseason, when you’ll be in line for a nice raise in your final year of salary arbitration. In one more year, you’ll be on the brink of free agency, which promises an even bigger payday and the first multi-year contract of your career, provided you keep hitting.

And that, of course, is the catch. Will Bautista keep hitting? Can he possibly keep this up? Bautista has exceeded even his 90th-percentile PECOTA projection with his monster 2010 season. For someone who was a part-time player just a year ago, the numbers are astonishing: a triple-slash line of .264/.384/.627 and a TAv of .335. Bautista jumped from a WARP of 2.2 in 2009 to 6.4 this season. On Opening Day, he had a career total of 59 home runs. By the end of the week, he’ll have at least 111.

It makes for an entertaining parlor game for fans watching from the outside, suggesting that Bautista is Toronto’s next big star or labeling him as just another one-year wonder. But for both the Blue Jays and Bautista himself, the breakout year sets up an unusual arbitration case, with both sides facing hard choices. Do 52 home runs merit a contract on par with an established power hitter like Prince Fielder? Do the Jays trust the 2010 numbers enough to offer Bautista a long-term contract? Does Bautista trust his newfound power enough to let it all ride, play one more season and hit the open market as a bona fide offensive force? Or would he and agent Bean Stringfellow prefer the security of whatever lesser multi-year deal the Jays might offer this winter?

Unless an agreement is hammered out beforehand, Bautista may file for arbitration in early January, with the two sides exchanging figures January 18. But even agreeing on a salary for a one-year deal could be problematic. In addition to becoming a living, breathing statistical outlier, Bautista is one of the rare major league players whose earnings remained flat last offseason when he and the Jays avoided arbitration and settled on a salary of $2.4 million for the second consecutive year. And with more clubs joining the trend of locking up young standout players to multi-year deals, there are a limited number of arbitration cases for players with five or more years of service.

The recent history of five-year players don’t provide particularly useful comparisons. The Marlins and Jorge Cantu settled at $6 million in February, and a year earlier, Xavier Nady and Scott Boras agreed to a $6.55 million contract with the Yankees. That would seem to be a minimum baseline for Toronto’s arbitration offer.

At the other end of the spectrum are five-year players Alfonso Soriano ($10 million from Washington in 2006) and Mark Teixeira ($12.5 million from Atlanta in 2008). Fielder, the last National League player to hit 50 home runs, will earn $10.5 million next season, his fifth full year in the majors. But with only one full season as a full-time player on his resume, Bautista and Stringfellow are unlikely to seek much more than $9 million. That would put the range for a one-year settlement in the neighborhood of $7.5 million or $8 million.

However, Stringfellow’s history with other clients suggests a multi-year deal might be an option. In 2004, he and Francisco Cordero agreed with the Rangers on a two-year extension buying out the closer's first year of free agency and giving Texas a club option for an additional season. Stringfellow also has negotiated long-term deals delaying free agency for closer Billy Wagner ($27 million with the Astros in 2002) and right-hander Ervin Santana ($30 million with the Angels before the 2009 season). A couple of less-notable Stringfellow clients, relievers Luis Vizcaino and Duaner Sanchez, chose to settle their arbitration cases rather than going to a hearing. So if Bautista is inclined to stay with the Blue Jays, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see a deal get done.

But if the Jays would prefer to wait, a safe play might be to settle on a one-year deal while continuing to discuss a long-term contract. As long as Bautista is willing to let talks carry over into the season, the Jays get a chance to evaluate his performance in spring training and the first few weeks of the season. A template for a multi-year deal would seem to be Tampa Bay’s three-year, $24.125 million contract with Carlos Pena, who was coming off a breakout 7.1 WARP season in 2007. Bautista’s price tag will be higher because Pena had two years of arbitration remaining, not one. But a three-year, $30 million offer would at least get the attention of a player like Bautista, who always has gone year-to-year. But if his heart is set on free agency, Bautista’s earning potential is limited only by his 2011 performance.

Jeff Euston is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jeff's other articles. You can contact Jeff by clicking here

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