Two and a half years ago, Jose Bautista cemented his legacy with one swing of his bat. He was already a hero in the minds of many, but his fateful bat flip during the 2015 playoffs elevated him into a whole new stratosphere of Blue Jays legends.
If it were up to the fans, he would’ve been given a key to the city, Bremner would’ve been named “Bautista Boulevard” and for his encore, he would’ve signed a mega-million-dollar contract extension with the Blue Jays.
None of those things happened for Jose Bautista. He concluded his 10-year Blue Jays career last October, walked off into the sunset and is still waiting for his opportunity to get back into the game.
Even though the 2018 season has already begun, the 37-year-old is one of about 40 MLB players who are still unsigned. That list of free agents includes former Blue Jays Jason Grilli, Chris Coghlan, R.A. Dickey, and Drew Storen.
Out of all those names on the free agent list, Bautista’s comes with the most pedigree. He’s a decorated MLB veteran with six All-Star games to his name and four Top 10 MVP finishes. It’s not as though this is some career journeyman we’re talking about; he’s two years removed from one of the best seasons of his career.
So, how is it possible for a player like Bautista – with his clout and impressive body of work – to get left behind? A few years ago, it wasn’t that uncommon to see MLB players in their mid-to-late 30’s sign multi-year contracts. As long as they had a proven track record, teams had no issue giving guaranteed contracts to guys on the other side of 30.
Why did Charlie Blackmon sign a long-term deal, so close to free agency? One reason: He turns 32 in July. This offseason, only one position player signed a deal of 3+ years at age 32 or older: Zack Cozart to the Angels at $38 million over 3 years. @MLB @MLBNetwork
— Jon Morosi (@jonmorosi) April 4, 2018
As Jon Morosi noted, there was exactly one MLB player age 32 or older who signed a three-plus year contract: Zack Cozart. Only five free agents age 35 or older signed a two-year guaranteed contract. The rest of the mid-to-late-30s crowd all signed one-year deals.
Bautista may still have some gas left in the tank, but at his age and considering how poorly he played in 2017, it’s an extremely tough sell for a team with an outfielder vacancy. They’d likely prefer to fill the spot with one of their own minor leaguers at the fraction of the cost it would take to bring in Bautista.
Judging by the minuscule amount many Major Leaguers have signed for already, he’s realistically looking at a $1-3 million deal on a one-year term, and even that might be a generous projection. It’s a far cry from the $18 million he took home in 2017.
It’s unfortunate, but Bautista has become the poster boy for the type of player that MLB front offices don’t covet anymore. Like his fellow unsigned cohorts, Bautista is the player who baseball left behind. Teams desire young, cost-controllable talent, which leaves seasoned veterans like Bautista in the dust.
It’s not as though these players can’t carve out a niche. The Blue Jays signed Curtis Granderson – who’s slightly younger than Bautista – to a one year, $5 million contract for 2018. He posted a decent first half with the New York Mets last year but disappeared in the second half with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
And yet the Blue Jays chose to take a chance on the veteran outfielder, despite his age and despite his sub-par second half of 2017. Granderson is still valuable, even if it’s playing in a part-time capacity for the Blue Jays.
So, why exactly is Bautista still unsigned? Either no prospective team finds him valuable, he’s holding out for one specific team or he has a contract value in mind and he’s not getting it.
If Granderson found a job, in theory, Bautista should be able to find a job. His skill-set has diminished, but it’s not like he can’t play baseball anymore. This leads one to believe that Bautista is waiting for the right offer. That could be from the right team, it could be the right dollar amount, it might be both.
While they didn’t say so much, the Blue Jays organization unofficially moved on from their franchise right fielder when they acquired Randal Grichuk from the St. Louis Cardinals back in January. The chances of a reunion between Bautista and the Blue Jays are slim-to-none.
If he’s still looking for work, the former Blue Jays’ outfielder may need to resort to other methods to get back into the field. Many of his comrades have gone back to the minor leagues, signed with independent baseball leagues or gone overseas in the hopes of reviving their careers.
After 14 years in MLB, countless highlights and one seminal ‘where were you when’ Blue Jays moment, this could be the end of Bautista’s big league career, but he deserves better than to fade away into baseball’s free agent abyss.
He isn’t universally beloved, but over the last decade, he’s been one of the game’s most polarizing and fascinating characters to watch. The man affectionately referred to as Joey Bats is a showman. And if the curtain has closed on his career, at least he put on one hell of a show.