So far this offseason, Jose Bautista's market has been very quiet, to the point of being almost non-existent. For a player who has been one of the premier offensive forces in baseball this decade, even considering a down year in 2016 and pretty advanced age, that's a little surprising. Particularly since he would seem to be a prime candidate to benefit from moving to DH to stay healthy and maximize the value of his bat. His power is not what it was and will likely never be, but he's still an on base machine.
The projection systems are pretty optimistic on Bautista. Steamer is projecting a rebound to 618 plate appearances, a 128 wRC+ and 2.9 WAR despite projecting little defensive value. ZiPS is more conservative on playing time, with just 510 PA, but productive with 134 OPS+ and 3.1 WAR. Splitting the relatively small difference would give about 565 PA at about a 130 wRC+, and around 2.8 WAR.
That's a really good player, especially for a contender looking for offensive output without a long term commitment, thanks to Bautista having just turned 36. With a standard aging curve, Bautista would project as a useful player in 2018 (~2 WAR), and then more of a bit/role player beyond that (another ~ 2 WAR in 2019/20). Valuing that production a for legitimate contender the same way as for Edwin Encarnacion yesterday ($10-million in 2017-18, $9-million beyond), yields a contract of around $55-60 million on a three year deal, or maybe $65-million over four years.
Of course, there's a draft pick attached, but even accounting for that would suggest that $50-million over three years or something near $60-million over four years would be fair value. So beyond a glut of defensively limited players on the market, why has his market been so quiet to the point of seeming non-existent?
While the projection systems are very good, I like to supplement them with the career progression of comparable players. Frequently, this gives a similar average projection, but this also yields information about the distribution of outcomes that can be useful in thinking about risk.
A Set of Comparable Hitters
As I did for Edwin Encarnacion, I built a set of comparable players to Jose Bautista, again focused primarily on offensive value since that at this point it's apparently he doesn't have much defensive value. Bautista is entering his age-36 seasons, so I screened for players within 10 wRC+ over the preceding three years (minimum 1400 PA, Bautista wRC+ 145) or five years (minimum 1400 PA, Bautista wRC+ 142). Subtracting a couple of inapposite comparisons (eg Roberto Clemente) left 54 players.
One additional step was necessary, which was controlling for Bautista's poor platform season in 2016, which came in at roughly the 25th percentile of age-35 expectations. Consequently, I removed the eight players whose age-35 production (wRC+) exceeded their prior performance, and the nine who performed in line with the previous trend. In other words, comparable players had to have declined to at least some extent. That left 37 comparable players, and they compare to Bautista as follow:
It's a pretty strong comparison. As a group, they match Bautista very well over ages 31-35, though they were a little less productive over just the 33-35 time horizon. This is because Bautista had a bit of renaissance in 2014-15, whereas any group of players will show decline over their 30s. But their age-35 seasons match very closely on playing time and production - WAR is not very relevant, since there's no selection for defensive quality.
The future outlook is surprisingly poor. The average is only about two more full-ish seasons of plate appearances, at a further declined wRC+, and an expectation of just 4.4 WAR which again includes quality defenders. So let's take those out, and focus only on players who by age-36 were limited to outfield corners, first base and DH. That takes away another 10 players, leaving a core group of 27 comparables:
Once again, we don't see a big difference filtering out the better defenders - WAR goes down a bit, wRC+ a little bit up. But again, the three year projection just isn't very good, and there's negligible value beyond that (which was expected, and implied by the projections with standard aging. But it sure doesn't look much much of a bounceback can be expected.
Let's break things down year-by-year:
There is a little bounceback in the age-36 season, but only about 5 points of wRC+ rather than the 6-12 points the projections expect. More significantly, the decline thereafter is very precipitous, and the average player is no longer a regular contributor (the median is even worse).
I was surprised by how negative this outlook is implied, and frankly it feels low for Bautista, who despite increasing injuries is not the prototypical hulking slugger whose body suddenly breaks down. It isn't a result of steroid era players: taking out eight players who tested positive,admitted use, or were dogged by mere allegations actually reduces the expectation. The one modest positive is taking out the five hitters with under 100 home runs from age 31-35:
If Bautista ages like similar players, then the production might justify $40-million over three years to a contender, but that's before accounting to the value of the draft pick. Take that out, and it might be more in the $30-35 million range, which is a far cry from the $150-million over five years that was allegedly sought last spring. This may explain why teams are reticent to offer significant dollars, and why Bautista's market is so quiet.