This piece was first published on MLBTR on October 13th, 2010.
Arbitration Expert Breaks Down Bautista’s Value With MLBTR
A glance at the all-time single season home run leaders tells you all you need to know about Jose Bautista’s 2010 campaign. Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Roger Maris, Babe Ruth, Jimmie Foxx, Hank Greenberg, Ryan Howard, Luis Gonzalez, Alex Rodriguez, Ken Griffey Jr. and Hack Wilson are the only players who have ever hit more home runs in a season.
Needless to say, Bautista is due for a raise.
Bautista, who heads to arbitration for the fourth and final time this offseason, earned $2.4MM last year, and will make far more in 2011. It’s a question of how much more and the answer isn’t easy to determine.
The problem is, few careers resemble Bautista’s. He played for four teams in 2004, played five positions in 2006 and seemed destined for a career as a utility man when the Blue Jays acquired him in 2008. And in 2010? He made the All-Star team and led the major leagues in extra base hits and home runs.
If your head is spinning, imagine how arbitrators - the decision-makers responsible for settling salary disagreements between teams and players - would feel after considering Bautista’s case for a few hours. The Blue Jays have a history of avoiding arbitration, so there seems to be a good chance that they don’t go to a hearing this time, but the potential for one will shape the sides’ discussions.
The Blue Jays can argue that Bautista deserves a limited raise, but they have to be careful, according to one longtime arbitration consultant.
“You lose a lot of credibility with an arbitrator if you have a guy who had a monster year and you start pissing all over him,” says Michael Vlessides, who has faced most leading baseball agents on behalf of various MLB teams over the course of the past two decades.
In other words, Bautista has a strong case, and there’s not much the Blue Jays can do about it. But they can keep his salary in check and they could decide to offer him a multi-year deal, even though Bautista is coming off a remarkable season.
Bautista’s Case: The Historic Season
Bautista’s representatives will likely argue that his season was historic, not just productive. He set the Blue Jays record for home runs in a season (54) and also ranks among the organization’s all-time single season leaders in slugging percentage (2nd with .617), total bases (5th with 351), RBI (5th with 124) and walks (7th with 100).
Bautista just hit more home runs than Albert Pujols or Adam Dunn has ever hit in a season. More home runs than Jim Thome or Manny Ramirez ever hit. Among active players, only Alex Rodriguez, Ryan Howard and David Ortiz have matched Bautista’s 54 home runs, so he has joined some select company.
Under different circumstances, players like Jorge Cantu and Adam LaRoche could have been comparables for Bautista. Both entered their final arbitration season with similar career numbers to the ones Bautista now has, but Cantu and LaRoche weren’t coming off of such impressive seasons.
Last offseason, Cantu received a raise from $3.5MM to $6MM. It’s a substantial bump, but Bautista appears to be headed for more.
“Really that’s not the starting point for Bautista,” Vlessides said. “He had 54 home runs and as esoteric as baseball analysis has become over the years, arbitration remains a fairly simplistic process... We don’t talk about win shares or anything along those lines. So 54 home runs and 124 RBI is pretty sexy and this guy is not going at $6MM.”
LaRoche beat $6MM a couple winters ago. He agreed to a $7.05MM salary (up from $5MM) when he headed into his final arbitration year, but he had come off of a 25 homer-85 RBI season. Bautista’s representatives can argue that $7MM wouldn’t be enough for a player who had just had a historically productive season and hit twice as many homers as LaRoche did.
Bautista’s agents can compare him to a player on a much sexier career path than Cantu or LaRoche. Bautista has not produced as much as Mark Teixeira had at this stage of his career, but the Yankee first baseman could be a point of reference for Bautista.
Teixeira’s salary jumped from $9MM to $12.5MM after the 2007 season, a year in which he had fewer homers, doubles, RBI, runs and walks than Bautista had this past season. Vlessides says Bautista’s representatives can use Tex as a comparable to show that Bautista had a better platform year, even if they admit that their client doesn’t deserve the $12.5MM salary Teixeira obtained.
The Blue Jays can gently point to apparent flaws in Bautista’s game such as strikeouts and his low batting average. But it’s hard to take issue with Bautista’s offense and he has more than his bat going for him. He plays right field and third base, is just 30 years old and has been healthy throughout his career. What’s more, he’s a respected clubhouse presence who helped welcome Yunel Escobar when the Blue Jays acquired him last summer.
Bautista’s side can argue that he has adjusted, learned and evolved into a completely different player from the man who had never hit more than 16 home runs before 2010. It’s a subjective argument and arbitrators won’t necessarily buy it, but it’s not unprecedented for players to find themselves during their late twenties. Arbitration panels sometimes listen when players pull at their heartstrings, Vlessides said.
Even if they just stick to the numbers, Bautista’s representatives can argue that he deserves a big raise based on comparable players and his place in history. Assuming Bautista doesn’t win the MVP award and assuming that his representatives don’t ‘reach’ for an unexpectedly high salary, Vlessides predicts a bid of roughly $10-11MM from Bautista’s agency (which declined to comment for this story).
The Blue Jays’ Case: The Pedestrian Career
The Blue Jays cannot and will not ignore Bautista’s massive 2010 season, but the team can point to his earlier mediocre production and argue that he hasn’t earned an eight-figure salary. Unlike Teixeira, LaRoche and Cantu at comparable points in their careers, Bautista has had just one standout season. That would gives the Blue Jays a certain amount of leverage in a hearing.
“What they would do is when they compare him to other players, they’ll say ‘these guys all had good seasons, but their career contributions dwarf that of Mr. Bautista and the only reason we’re talking about them in the same vein is because we recognize that he had a better platform year,” Vlessides said.
The Blue Jays can point to the raises others received and note that Bautista would earn less than $6MM with a comparable jump. However, Bautista’s representatives can argue that he deserves a bigger boost than others.
“A smart agent will look at the raise and say ‘listen, raise is irrelevant here because Mr. Bautista has been a good citizen for his club,“ Vlessides said.
Last winter, Bautista agreed not to take a raise since he hadn’t earned one. His agency can argue that it would be unfair for the Blue Jays to penalize their star for taking no raise last winter.
Bautista put together a fantastic 2010 season, but it wasn’t perfect, something the Blue Jays may remind a panel if the sides go to arbitration. Bautista, whose violent swing has always led to high strikeout totals, whiffed 116 times in 2010 and he batted just .260, though that figure represents a new career-high.
Keep in mind that GM Alex Anthopoulos has never gone to an arbitration hearing, either as GM or when he worked on arbitration cases under J.P. Ricciardi. The Blue Jays have successfully avoided hearings since 1997, but if they do go to arbitration, the team figures to submit an offer of $7.5-8MM, Vlessides said.
The Bottom Line
Bautista’s ‘true value’ in arbitration (not to be confused with what he’d earn as a free agent) is below $10MM and likely sits around $8-9MM, Vlessides said.
Keeping Bautista Long-Term
A long-term deal for Bautista could take on many different shapes, depending on the team's willingness to offer guaranteed money and Bautista's eagerness to capitalize on his big season. Per team policy, the Blue Jays declined to comment on the team’s interest in reaching a multi-year deal.
The first year of the deal would likely be worth $8MM or so and the following seasons could be worth $14-17MM. Beyond that, there are many variables, but Vlessides can imagine the sides agreeing on a two-year deal worth $25MM including buyouts or vesting options.
That depends, of course, on the Blue Jays’ faith in Bautista to approach or replicate his 2010 level of production and their desire to please the fan base with a feel-good move. Don’t forget that Bautista became a fan favorite in Toronto, where crowds greeted him with ‘MVP’ chants and showered him with standing ovations.
So while Bautista hasn’t set himself up for a Ryan Howard or Alex Rodriguez-esque deal, those 54 homers seem to have ensured him an $8MM payday next season. Not bad for a guy who was supposed to be a utility player.