Over the weekend the Blue Jays formally declined their end of the 2018 mutual option in their contract Jose Bautista, making him a free agent and almost assuredly ending his tenure in Toronto. And what a run it’s been: he leaves essentially tied as the franchise leader in position player WAR, second in home runs, and with one of iconic moments in Blue Jays history having been a critical element in reinvigorating the fan base.
Which got me around to thinking about how if things had gone a little differently, almost none of that would have come to pass.
After his breakout 54 home run season in 2010, he had one last season of arbitration eligibility remaining, and thus one year of team control. Then-GM Alex Anthopoulos was able to leverage that into a last minute extension for what amounted to four more seasons (2012-15) at a cost of $56-million, along with a 2016 team option. The rest, as the saying goes, is history.
But what gets overlooked is how close Bautista was to free agency after that season. With 5 years, 165 days of credited service, he was just one week - seven measly days - shy of the 172 days needed to qualify for a full season and hit the magical threshold of 6 years for free agency. What was even more interesting to me was that had a few things gone slightly differently years earlier - the metaphorical butterfly flapping its wings - Bautista could easily been a free agent that winter.
Let’s rewind to December 2003, when Bautista was selected in the Rule 5 draft by Baltimore from Pittsburgh (who, despite adding four players and not having much in the way of talent, had five of of the first six players selected taken from them, Bautista being the last of those).
Famously, Bautista bounced around in 2004, as teams saw the talent but struggled to maintain the required roster spot. In the end, he found his way back to Pittsburgh, and stuck the whole season in the majors. Though largely a lost season developmentally, he accumulated a full season of service time.
No longer bound by Rule 5 restrictions in 2005, Pittsburgh optioned him to AA Altoona in Spring Training. He did receive a call-up when rosters expanded, but at the unusually late date of September 16th. Why? In August he was promoted to AAA Indianapolis, who qualified for the International League playoffs as the wild card. Their playoff run ended September 15th, and he was up the next day.
Had Indianapolis lost a few more games that season, thereby missing the playoffs, Bautista is likely called up 10 days earlier, and ends up a free agent after 2010. Even better, Indianapolis lost the first two games of a best-of-five series to Buffalo at home, before storming back to win three in Buffalo and stun the Herd. Had they lost that third game, that would have given him six of the seven needed service days.
In 2006, the Pirates again optioned Bautista out of Spring Training, recalled him on May 7th. Again, a week earlier, and he’d have eventually qualified for free agency a year earlier (or a couple days and Buffalo not collapsing). After that, he was basically up for good - the Pirates optioned him in August 2008 eight days before trading him to the Jays who brought him back up, but that did make a difference as he still had 172 days to earn a full service year.
So had he got those seven elusive days in 2005/06 and been a free agent after 2010, would he have still been a Blue Jay in 2011 and beyond? Impossible to say definitively of course, but I doubt it.
At the time the Jays were rebuilding, and running fairly restrained payrolls. Importantly, they had upwards of $20-million on the books through 2014 owed to Vernon Wells. That wasn’t moved until late-January 2011, when Bautista would likely have been long off the board as a free agent. That seems to have been an important catalyst in the extension that he actually signed in February 2011.
It would also have likely cost a lot more to keep him. How the market would have treated a guy coming off one huge season after a career is mediocrity is a great unknown. But even then, it was pretty clear there was a real fundamental change, at which some of which would carry over, and it only takes a couple teams to make a market.
And that winter was a market that, for example, gave Jayson Werth $126-million (18 months older). Bautista wouldn’t have necessarily matched that, or even broken $100-million, but I bet the bidding would have been closer to those levels than the extension he signed only able to negotiate with one team to lock down life changing money.
If no Bautista, think about this decade almost has to proceed so differently for the Blue Jays. The 2011 Blue Jays likely end up well below .500, to say nothing of 2012 team. More to the point, without a prime-age Bautista to build around, it’s hard to imagine Anthopolous making the aggressive push he did five winters ago. And from there, it’s simply a radically different franchise timeline.
So the next time you watch a replay of the bat flip, remember that it might have only happened because of the how a few AAA games shook out back in 2005.