Not hard to imagine a Blue Jays’ future without Jose Bautista

MLB network insider Jon Heyman speculates how much Jose Bautista's season full of injury and under-performance will cost him on the free agent market.

This is how Jose Bautista’s season has gone: his long-term usefulness and cost-effectiveness are no longer the only talking points. These days, you can get a debate on his immediate usefulness, or at least where he needs to be in the order for the Toronto Blue Jays to maximize their lineup.

Never saw that one coming, I bet.

It’s been something of a comeuppance for a player who approached free agency with so much glibness in the spring, who fired the first shot on Feb. 22, standing outside the clubhouse in Dunedin and saying, “I don’t think there should be any negotiations … I’m not going to sit here a try to bargain for a couple of dollars,” and then twiddled his thumbs while reports circulated that he wanted a five-year contract worth $150 million — or more.

The Blue Jays’ new management team held their tongue, making it clear that they liked and wanted Bautista to stay with the team. They let others add the word ‘but…’ to the sentiment. Now? Bautista is a player who will be 36 years old on Opening Day 2017 and no longer possesses a right-field arm that former third base coach Brian Butterfield once referred to as a “game-changing weapon;” whose batting average is 27 points off his career average and who has hit half as many home runs as his 162-game average. His WAR is 0.9, down from 4.5 last season and from 6.4 in 2014. WAR is hardly a definitive measurement, but it is at the very least an indicator. A future without Jose Bautista, frankly, no longer seems all that scary.

If you wanted to get all old-timey, you’d look at this series with the Boston Red Sox and say this is the perfect opportunity for Bautista to put his imprimatur on the 2016 season – after all, it was on Wednesday that his manager, John Gibbons, put him back in the middle of the lineup. Plus, he owns Friday’s Red Sox starter Rick Porcello to the tune of a .412 batting average and three homers in 34 at bats. You’d say: “He’s due.” You’d also have to be a person of inordinate faith, because since his return from the 15-day disabled list on July 25, Bautista has had just five multi-hit games, and has five home runs.

Right now? Bautista’s best tool is his reputation and his ability to draw walks. His best spot appears to be leading off — a position he was shifted into at his suggestion earlier this season. That’s a real problem for Gibbons, because this roster was constructed with Bautista hitting 35-40 homers in the third spot, not standing on first base after a lead-off walk.

And here’s the other elephant in the room: is this team a better defensive club with Bautista as designated hitter and Edwin Encarnacion at first base and somebody else — Melvin Upton, Jr. — in right field? It was apparent last season that Bautista’s skills in right field had diminished; the Kansas City Royals’ advanced scouting report for the American League Championship Series gave the Royals free rein to run on his arm, knowing his right shoulder wasn’t the same since an Apr. 21 game when he tried to throw out the Baltimore Orioles‘s Delmon Young at first base in a fit of pique, after a verbal altercation with Adam Jones that resulted from the Orioles throwing at him.

But what do you do? Bautista deserves respect, considering what he’s done for this franchise. There are plenty of potential free agents who would never contemplate vacating their comfort zone in the lineup the way he did. And the injuries that have beset him this year have been freakish: turf toe, sustained on a natural grass field when he ran into the outfield wall in Philadelphia; a knee sprain, sustained when he stumbled in the outfield. The man’s track record deserves respect — if not five years and $150 million worth of respect.

This winter’s free agent market is, to be polite, depressed. The best available hitters are Encarnacion and Mark Trumbo of the Orioles. Mike Napoli has made himself some money with his season for the Cleveland Indians. Ian Desmond of the Texas Rangers might be playing himself into a Ben Zobrist role while Matt Wieters is a switch-hitting catcher capable of making contact. The market will be affected if the Pittsburgh Pirates elect to trade Andrew McCutchen or if the Cincinnati Reds finally move Joey Votto, but there’s so much money in the system right now that most teams would rather spend cash than prospects, especially pitching prospects.

So the guess here is somebody would pay Bautista, although not likely for a term longer than three years. For some of his fans in this city, that would seem to open the possibility of him accepting the Blue Jays qualifying offer to rebuild his value.

But that would mean swallowing a lot of pride and, to be honest, you wonder if the Blue Jays would take him at the qualifying figure. At any rate, that’s a matter for two months down the road. The simple fact is that Bautista has been a laggard offensively since May 1, there’s 23 games left in the regular season, and the Blue Jays could sure use him now — in the worst way. There’s plenty to think about in the here and now.

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