Monday, 18 November 2013

This Week in Things That Just Won't Go Away: Jose Bautista Trade Rumours

In all honesty I've been trying to ignore this topic all together in the hope that it would just burn itself out and go away. Instead, it just seems to be gaining more and more "traction", if that's even the word for the ceaseless troll jobs we've seen coming from mostly American media outlets in recent months. You know the topic I'm talking about. It's the one where the Toronto Blue Jays, in a fit of hopeless despair after the crushing disappointment of the 2013 season, trade star slugger Jose Bautista and his ludicrously team friendly contract to [insert team of the week here] for a back of the rotation starter and a B level prospect.

The suitors for Bautista are most commonly the Rangers, Mets and recently the Phillies, but make no mistake, there are 29 teams in the league that would all love to get Bautista's bat into their lineup. What's more, there is an incomprehensibly large and vocal segment of the Blue Jays' fan base that seems not only willing to entertain the notion of trading the franchise cornerstone, but are ready to drive the all-star outfielder to the airport themselves. 

Now, I don't doubt for a second that there have been inquiries made on Bautista, as I'm sure there have been on Encarnacion, Reyes, Rasmus, and probably others too. The Jays are a team with several desirable pieces, a large payroll that may not have a lot of room to grow, and multiple holes to fill. It stands to reason that rival GMs might see them as ripe for the picking, and that Anthopoulos might be willing to listen to offers. It's his job to listen. I don't really believe in players being untouchable, should the right offer come along. However, that doesn't mean trading one of the best players in franchise history while he's still under contract for two more seasons with an option for a third should be seen as a desirable or likely scenario.

The main argument that proponents of trading Bautista cite (besides the idiocy about his leadership, which I won't even touch) is the fact that at 33 years old he's in the decline phase of his career, so they might as well get something for him while they can. I can't help but think that this kind of thinking stems from a misunderstanding of exactly how it is baseball players decline. Dave Cameron of FanGraphs wrote an excellent piece on this very topic when the Bautista to Philly for Domonic Brown plus rumour was swirling about. You should read the whole piece, because he talks about more than just this subject, but I'll relay some of the broad strokes. 

A lot of fans seem to be thinking of Bautista's decline as though it's a strictly linear trend. Each season will be worse than the one before until his contract expires or he has absolutely no value remaining, whichever comes first. That just isn't the way it works. That he's in the decline phase of his career means that we shouldn't be expecting him to match or better his 2010/11 peak, but the fact that he's descending from such lofty heights means that it's entirely possible, in fact even probable, that he puts up better seasons over the remainder of his contract than he did in 2012 and 2013. That's why, as Cameron points out, his Steamer projection has him posting a .262/.375/.519 line next season. That would give him a 144 wRC+ and 4.6 fWAR over the projected 130 games. Those are better numbers than either of his last two still very good but injury shortened seasons. Anyone in a hurry to trade that guy?

The other argument I always see in favour of trading Bautista is that his team friendly contract makes him more valuable than another similarly talented player his age would be, thereby increasing the return the Blue Jays could expect in a trade. That's true to an extent, but the team friendly contract is the MOST valuable to the Blue Jays, who get to reap the benefits of employing him without having to give up a bunch of players for the privilege of doing so. Having to fork over those players to acquire the contract makes it somewhat less valuable to the team trading for him than it is to the Blue Jays currently. I'm not saying his contract isn't a factor, but it might not be as big a factor as a lot of fans in the Trade Bautista camp seem to expect.

In his piece, Cameron mentions that part of the benefit for a team acquiring Bautista is the fact that he's only under contract for the next two or three years (depending on the 2016 option), which is rarely the case when signing or trading for a hitter of his quality. Paying big money for unproductive years is almost the price of doing business with players like Bautista, and the fact that it isn't in this scenario is valuable. However, I don't see how it's more valuable to a team acquiring him than it is to the Blue Jays who would have to replace his production somehow, so I pretty much consider this point a wash.

What I find most remarkable, is that the same people who will tell you Bautista is declining, and how his team friendly contract is a great asset in a trade, often seem completely oblivious to how those two points almost cancel each other out. Sure, Bautista is in the decline phase of his career, but so what? Even if you set aside the ridiculous 14.2 fWAR he posted between 2010 and 2011, over the past two seasons he's put up 7.2 fWAR in just 210 games. That's an average of 3.6 wins per injury shortened season over that span. If you extrapolate that contribution over a 150 game season (which is admittedly a bit ambitious for a 33 year-old) he's been about a 5 win player.

It seems like every season the dollar component of the $/WAR calculation gets bumped a bit higher, and these days the approximate figure is that a win will cost about $7 million on the free agent market. I wouldn't be surprised if after this current off-season we're rethinking that calculation yet again. If you accept that a healthy Bautista is still worth approximately 5 wins, that means he could literally decline to be half the player that he's been the last two seasons, let alone what he was at his peak, and still be earning the $14 million per year he'll be owed for the remainder of the contract. Anything above and beyond that is just gravy.

I'm not saying there's no scenario in which trading Bautista makes sense, but how cavalier many fans seem to be about it is pretty misguided in my opinion. In addition to it being misguided, however, I also consider finding a willing trading partner to be very unlikely. The Blue Jays are still pretty much in win now mode, which means that in any trade for Bautista they'll be looking to get back multiple pieces that can contribute at the major league level immediately, with any package containing at least one starting pitcher. There just aren't that many teams with that kind of surplus starting pitching to deal, let alone ones with additional pieces that are knocking on the door at the Jays' positions of need. Any team acquiring Bautista must also have aims of contending within the next three years, so would likely be loathe to part with the types of pieces the Blue Jays should be looking for in a Bautista deal.

I hate getting into hypothetical trade scenarios, as I generally feel it's a worthless endeavour. However, I will indulge for a moment just to paint a picture of the type of situation in which I could envision Bautista leaving Toronto. The St. Louis Cardinals are one team I see with both an abundance of starting pitching and a young player that could fill a position of need for the Blue Jays. A package including one of Shelby Miller, Michael Wacha, or maybe in a pinch Joe Kelly, as well as second base prospect Kolton Wong (who is thoroughly blocked by Matt Carpenter) would be the starting point for me to even consider trading Bautista. Similarly, a team like the Rangers could perhaps build a package around one of Jurickson Profar or Ian Kinsler and a pitcher. The Mets have second baseman Daniel Murphy (who won't reach free agency until 2016) and a stable of young pitchers that are either in the majors or ready to make the jump (Noah Syndergaard anyone?), but if they intend to compete in the next three years as acquiring Bautista would suggest, dealing those types of players would seem counter-productive.

As you can see, the overlap between teams with near-term playoff aspirations and teams with young, major league ready players that they can afford to part with is slim. This isn't an exhaustive list of teams that could be both willing and able to put together an appealing package, and I know that those are some pretty big asks to receive in return for Bautista, but that's kind of my point. For the Blue Jays to part with a potential 5 win player that is paid like a 2 win player, and who is unlikely to ever be overpaid for the term of his contract regardless of being in decline, that's the kind of package I think they should be holding out for. The flip-side of that is that the type of team that would be looking to acquire a player like Bautista is unlikely to be willing to part with the kinds of assets that could make an immediate major league impact. So, while I'm sure a few scenarios have been discussed between Anthopoulos and his counterparts around the league, I would anticipate any such talks quickly reaching a stalemate and so consider a Bautista trade to be not only undesirable, but highly unlikely as well.

The Toronto Blue Jays are at a point where they should be adding to their strong core of talented baseball players, not dealing from it. They should be looking to go into 2014 with Jose Bautista in the lineup AND upgrades to the rotation and at least one of catcher or second base, not one or the other. If they resort to trading Bautista to make those other upgrades, it will most likely mean they failed to do so with assets that should be far easier to part with, namely big bags of Rogers' money or a couple of their own prospects that are unlikely to be as important to the 2014 Blue Jays as Jose Bautista would be. If that's the case, it's something Jays fans should be extremely wary of, and certainly not something they should be hoping for.

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