This story is over 5 years old.


A Game of Risk: Big Bucks on the Line for Blue Jays' Bash Brothers

Toronto's high-profile impending free agents are betting on themselves to keep mashing at a time when they've begun to lose the benefit of the doubt that their production will always bounce back.
Illustration by Ben Ruby/VICE

In Toronto, much has been made during the offseason about the Blue Jays' unwillingness, or inability, to extend the contracts of their electrifying sluggers, Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, both of whom will reach free agency at the end of the 2016 season. Considerably less has been made about those players' unwillingness to more seriously explore taking whatever money might be on the table for them as this campaign begins.


Perhaps that's understandable, given the incredible consistency the two players have produced with over the last several years—the most striking example of which is Edwin Encarnacion's wRC+ ("weighted runs created plus," a single value, league- and park-neutral indicator of a player's offensive performance relative to league average), which for the four seasons since his 2012 breakout has been 150, 146, 151, and 150.

Not only is it remarkable that those numbers are so similar, it's remarkable that they're so high; only superstars Mike Trout, Miguel Cabrera, Joey Votto, Andrew McCutchen, Giancarlo Stanton, and Paul Goldschmidt have produced a better wRC+ than Edwin's 149 mark over that span. Just behind him—and Jose Abreu and Bryce Harper—is Jose Bautista at 146 (league average is 100).

READ MORE: Osuna Last Line of Defence in New-Look Blue Jays Bullpen

Those numbers are truly elite. Those two deserve to be paid. Hitters like that simply don't hit the market often, and the two should be helped by the fact that next winter's is a particularly weak free-agent class. We all know this.

We're gonna get paid! –Photo by Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

The trouble for them—and the root of half the difficulty the Jays have had in agreeing to new contracts with the pair (the other half being uncertainty over what the 2017 budget will be)—is that they've begun to lose the benefit of the doubt that their production will always bounce back.

Oh, sure, nobody thinks that the oblique injury Encarnacion dealt with for the bulk of the spring is some kind of death knell for his bat speed. But one has no choice but to think about it, and all the other maladies he and Bautista have suffered over the years, when considering that he wants to still be getting a hefty paycheque and a guaranteed spot on the Blue Jays four years from now.


Of course, a team goes into a contract like that with wide-open eyes about what the backend of the deal is going to look like. The objective is to be better in the short term, and deal with the long-term consequences. The trick is to maximize the benefit and mitigate those consequences. Or, put another way, to not become the Phillies.

The Phillies are just now beginning to feel their way toward the light after a dark period of bloated back-ends and dead money that was the sentimental outgrowth of five straight playoff seasons, the last of which was 2011. In 2015, Phillies paid $25 million each to Ryan Howard and Cliff Lee, $23.5 million to Cole Hamels, $15 million to Chase Utley, $13 million to Jonathan Papelbon, and a combined $8.7 million for Marlon Byrd, Miguel Gonzalez, and Jimmy Rollins to play elsewhere. They lost 99 games.

Say what you will about some of those deals, but they seem to have come out of an earnest (if misguided) belief in those players and in keeping that team together. You couldn't blame an Encarnacion or a Bautista for expecting that kind of belief, but you similarly couldn't blame a club for seeing cracks in their foundations and slowly backing away.

Are cracks in those foundations starting to show? That's close to impossible to say until one is ripped wide open in front of us. For example, Gary Sheffield an interesting comparable for Bautista, as he was a right fielder by the end of his career, was fabulously (and similarly) productive and generally pretty healthy in three seasons with the Dodgers, beginning in 1999, then two with the Braves, before signing a lucrative free-agent contract with the New York Yankees ahead of his age-35 season. Sheffield was terrific in the Bronx in that first year, posting 141 wRC+ and finishing second in MVP voting, even though now it's clearer to see that his defence went way south, leading to a WAR of "just" 3.8 (which is still very good, but a big drop from the 7.3 he posted in his final season in Atlanta).


The Dominican duo did work in 2015. Stats via FanGraphs. –Courtesy Ben Ruby/VICE

Sheffield's WAR dipped to 2.4 in the second year of the deal—his age-36 season (which will be Bautista's first under a new pact), and by the third and final season of the deal he was hurt and not productive. He had a bounce-back campaign with the Tigers in 2007, but went into an irreparable decline right around the time he turned 35.

Granted, we're talking about a different era, a different player, a guy with a whole lot more miles on him (Sheffield broke into the majors at 19 and was garnering MVP votes by 23), and one who doesn't have Bautista's reputation as a health nut. But this was a great player who was expected to consistently produce, and it just stopped.

That's just sort of the way it goes, and so obviously a poor season or an unhealthy season would certainly be cause for more alarm for potential future employers of the 35-year-old Bautista and the battle-worn Encarnacion than it would be on a younger player.

Sheffield, it should be noted, was only the 19th highest-paid player in the game when he signed that contract—a far cry from the kinds of numbers Bautista is throwing around. So even without signs of the coming decline, there's a reluctance among clubs to pay what the two Jays sluggers are after.

Victor Martinez of the Tigers is another imperfect comp, but perhaps a terrifying one, if you're the Jays. He signed a four-year, $68-million deal heading into 2015 after having a career year at the plate at age 35. At the time the deal seemed reasonable enough, because despite being one of the best hitters in baseball in 2014, he managed just 0.8 WAR the year previous, and missed all of the 2012 season due to injury. The average annual value was a little light for a guy coming off a season like that, but the Tigers gave a lot of years to a player about to turn 36. Their reward? In the first year of the deal he completely lost the plot, putting up a .245/.301/.366 line and being worth two wins below replacement.


And one doesn't need to be an old free agent for a club to instantly come down with a case of buyer's remorse. Ask the Red Sox, who last winter gave five years and $95 million to Pablo Sandoval (28), and four years and $88 million to Hanley Ramirez (31), both of whom were huge busts in their first seasons at Fenway.

On one hand, then, there's a whole lot of money out there, even for players with red flags. But on the other, there is probably more risk than most have considered in the bets both Bautista and Encarnacion are making on themselves by marching headlong into free agency next winter.

There's also a lot of risk, from the Jays' perspective, in tying too much of their future payroll into not only the potential breakdowns of either slugger, but the other players already set to take home massive portions of the club's payroll: Russell Martin, who will make $20 million per season through 2019; Troy Tulowitzki, who will make the same, but with an extra $18 million for 2020 (including his 2021 buyout); and, to a lesser extent, Josh Donaldson, who will make $17 million in 2017, with an even higher payout due (thanks to the arbitration process) the year after.

It's understandable, in other words, that the Jays might be reluctant to offer the kind of money that's being asked for by the Bautista and Encarnacion camps. What's crucial, then, for those two, is that the two sluggers perform up to their own standards in 2016.

Stats via FanGraphs. –Courtesy Ben Ruby/VICE

That is, of course, crucial to the Jays, too. Bautista and Encarnacion produced a combined nine wins above replacement for the club in 2015, along with the kind of unquantifiable magic—the bat flip or Edwin's hat trick—that helped make going to the Rogers Centre such an electrifying experience for so much of last summer. The club needs more of that—more success, more big ratings and big crowds—if they're going to be given the resources to keep the best offence in baseball intact, or at least some kind of reasonable facsimile in the post-Jose-and-Edwin era.

In a lot of ways, then, the interests of the Jays and these two key players are very much aligned. Nobody wants the ever-present spectre of age-related decline to creep in just yet, even if it means Bautista and Encarnacion remain priced out of the Jays' range next winter. Nobody wants this ride to end. But when you look at the Phillies, and when you look at the trouble that may loom for the Tigers with some of their bloated contracts, and all the bad money sunk into once-great players—then contrast that, for example, with the St. Louis Cardinals and their success after Albert Pujols went to Anaheim—you wonder if maybe it's for the best to just walk away.

Any kind of significant injury or underperformance from Bautista or Encarnacion in 2016 is only going to underscore that point—and cost those players money.