Thursday, February 17, 2011

SPORTS: Jose Leads Way to Pay Window

It looks like a mere 65 million dollars, spread out over 5 years, is enough to make Jose Bautista a Blue Jay for most of the rest of this decade. There's an option for a sixth season at the average stipend of $13M. Which means the then 36 year old Bautista will have banked more $80M in his Blue Jay career. And there might still be some gas in the tank even then. Wouldn't be a shock at all if he then added one more contract on top of that and finished his major league career in the uniform of the locals.

Of course, nothing's been officially signed as of the time of the writing of this post, but the finger to the wind test feels good.

I stumped for a contract in this neighbourhood a while back. I was short by a bit, by about $3M a season, but that was before the Washington Nationals gave Jayson Werth a "Match This, Suckers!" contract and Albert Pujols started the "Contract NOW or I test Free Agency next winter" Movement.  But it seems that Alex Anthopoulos has come to the conclusion that a slight over-pay is worth more than a season of Bautista and the two draft picks he'd bring 16 months from now. Obviously, I agree.

Seems strange for Toronto to chortle with glee at getting out from under $81M of the contract owed Vernon Wells one month and then turn around and spend almost the same amount for another player. One with just about the same number of great seasons as Wells--one. But the inevitable comparisons are going to suffer from number overdrive. There is a world of difference between the two men in a place the stat geeks can't quantify. That is in the role of leadership.

Wells was like many stars in Toronto. A quiet, introspective man with a huge heart who led by example. Think Mats Sundin (although he was hampered by a management who saddled him with retreads and never-weres as linemates and figured he didn't deserve any more shifts than the fourth-line centres. IDIOTS) and, dare I say it after his moronic kiss-off to the Toronto fans last night, Chris Bosh. Sure, there were rare occasions when Mats would step out of HIS own shadow and say something to somebody else, and we all have seen the tape of the one time Bosh blew up at Andrea Bargnani in a team huddle. But, for the most part, Sundin and Bosh played hard and just expected the rest to at least try just as hard, if not to accomplish what they could with their superior talent. There must be something in the water here in Toronto, because all of our best players in various sports tend to shrink from the spotlight, Bosh being the one noticeable exception away from the court. And we all know now, he's just another guy.

I'm not sure Bautista will gravitate to the spotlight because he's always been overshadowed by Wells and other longer-term Jays during his two and a bit years with the club. Until September 2009, there really wasn't any reason to trundle along to his stall in the post-game scrum. Since then ...

EVERY story. EVERY thing I've heard. For public consumption and not. All items lead to one very inescapable conclusion. Bautista is the leader of the team. He's very obviously the leader of the growing Latin contingent. But even the non-Latinos seem happy to have him out front and leading them. You could lay a large-sized bet that Aaron Hill is happy. Otherwise, the story might have been the will they/won't they story of the Blue Jays picking up his option(s) before the end of spring training. Oh, that question still exists, but the focus will be on Bautista. And newly-minted first baseman Adam Lind, like Hill, intent on mounting a comeback of sorts while dealing with other issues (his position change), is a guy perfectly happy to be in the background. For the guys who like the limelight elsewhere (exceptions: Travis Snider and Ricky Romero), Bautista is the perfect screen to hide behind.

Which now brings up the question, is leadership worth $13M a year? No, of course not. But it's the kind of thing that is hard to measure. Does Bautista help in getting the maximum out of players like Yunel Escobar and JP Arencibia? For sure in the first case, probably will in the second case. One's a fellow Dominican, the other is from California. Which Richard Griffin points out is a good measure of the man. Bautista seems equally comfortable with people from the Caribbean and the States. He went to school in Florida. He's well-spoken and seems to have all the charitable inclinations of Wells. And that's saying a lot. On a leadership level, it's hard to describe just how perfect Bautista is for the job, one which he wants badly, to boot.

But fans will only see what goes on, on the field. Yep, he's going to be hard for Bautista to hit 54 homers again in 2011. The question is whether he gets the Barry Bonds treatment or not. Without somebody catching a little fire behind him, the opposition pitchers should throw every pitch at least four feet away from him and hope three induce missing swings or go through the black on the outer edge of the plate. He's a virtual lock to get walked 100 times this coming season. Now, if the Blue Jays can find somebody to make the opposition teams pay for giving Bautista almost free passes at the rate of one a game, then it brings humongous homer totals back into play. Bautista will get 30 because major league pitchers will make at least that number of mistakes this year. I think 44, a nice round number Hank Aaron made famous, is my best guess. And if Lind and/or Hill rediscover their Silver Bat skills, than 50, even 60, are in the discussion. Clarence Gaston's gone, but Bautista's hitting guru Dwayne Murphy is back for one more season of counselling. The best part of all of this is how cerebral Bautista is. His consistency month to month last year was evidence he made re-adjustments as pitchers made adjustments to the fact that this was one dangerous dude at the plate.

Defensively, I was actually surprised Bautista didn't get more mention for a Gold Glove in RF. He didn't make many highlight reel catches, but his arm recorded outs ... important outs. And it kept some other runs from scoring because he induced bases-gluing fear in more runners. It'd be great if he could play the position this year and beyond. But until the team gets a bona fide third-sacker (and no, Edwin Encarnacion doesn't qualify unless the word emergency is in play), Bautista will be a third baseman this year. A leader plays where the team needs him to play. And right now, that's 3B. A year from now? Brett Lawrie or somebody who comes to town next winter will be at the hot corner. And then Bautista can go back to scaring the living bejeebers out of opponents in RF.

I have never talked to the man, just to people who have. They liked Wells. They REALLY, REALLY like Bautista. And in these days of schadenfreude, it's a miracle ANYBODY's happy to hear about anybody else cashing the contract lottery. But in this case, one and all approve.

And so do I.

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