This is not a column advocating for the Red Sox to sign Jose Bautista. It’s not that signing him is a good idea or a bad idea, really. It’s an idea, one with both upside and downside, and to pretend otherwise would be silly. But since Bautista is still out there on the free agent market, and since his representatives have been floating the idea of him taking a one-year contract, it’s probably a good time to discuss this.
First, let’s talk about who Jose Bautista is. He’s a right fielder who, as recently as 2014, put up 6.5 wins. That season he hit .286/.403/.524, which you’ll agree is pretty good. However, the last two seasons have seen him drop off both offensively and defensively. That kind of dip in performance is not entirely unexpected given he’ll be 36 next season, but it bears pointing out that last season was easily his worst since becoming a regular with the Blue Jays. He hit .234/.366/.452, which is fine and good (if not great) but he did it in only 116 games due to injuries, which limited his value. Also, his defense fell off a cliff. His once-amazing arm is a shell of itself and his range in the outfield has been described as statuesque. So he’s an older player with limited defensive ability and a recent injury history. He’s also a player who was recently one of the top hitters in the game.
This is actually why he could fit with the Red Sox. There’s been a lot of talk about how now that David Ortiz has retired, the Red Sox aren’t going to use a permanent DH, instead opting to rotate a few different players through the position to keep players fresh. That’s fine in theory, but in practice, given this roster, it’s unnecessary. Of their nine projected starting position players, just four are over 30, and none are over 33. Most are in their 20s and depending on who catches, as many could be under 25 as over 30. This is a very young team. All players need time off, but this team needs time off less than most. What they need more than a spot in the lineup to use for rest is to fill the hole left by Ortiz’s bat as best they can. That could be done in any number of ways, but, and let’s be honest here, Mitch Moreland is not one of them.
There’s been talk of how the Red Sox roster is set now and how there aren’t any places left to upgrade. There could be another spot worth covering beyond the first base/DH spots, however: left field. Andrew Benintendi is slated to start there and he’s a premium talent. We all saw last season what he could do and it was impressive, even if it was only for 34 games because of injury. But here’s the thing: we’ve all seen great talents step into Boston at a young age and fail in their first full seasons on the job. Two prime examples will share the lineup with Benintendi this season in Xander Bogaerts and Jackie Bradley. Optimism for Benintendi is warranted, but the Red Sox can’t pretend he’s a sure thing. Players his age never are. It wouldn’t hurt Boston to have someone who could cover for Benintendi on the roster in the event he wasn’t as ready as we think he is. You could say, well, what about Chris Young? And you’d be sort of right. Young was fantastic when healthy in 2016, crushing lefties and putting up a respectable .766 OPS against righties. But this is a guy with a career OPS against righties of .707, which includes an on-base percentage under .300. Young is a great platoon option, but the less he’s playing regularly the better.
Which leads us back to Bautista. He’s not a right fielder anymore, but he could play some left in Fenway, the park with the smallest outfield corner in baseball. He could play a bit of first base too, but mostly he could DH. This isn’t the sole argument for adding Baustia, but it’s part of it.
The Red Sox are, of all teams perhaps, in the best position to get the most out of signing Jose Bautista.
The Red Sox are, of all teams perhaps, in the best position to get the most out of signing Jose Bautista. They can put him in position to succeed defensively and offensively, and he can help close the hole in the offense left by David Ortiz’s departure.
Part of the reason I’m even writing this is that we’re almost to January and nobody has even sniffed around Bautista on the free agent market. If you search Bautista’s name in MLB Trade Rumors, you get a few pieces on teams who aren’t interested in him, and then the latest piece on how he’s now willing to consider one year deals. That’s it. The market for Bautista is bone dry at the moment. Part of the reason for that is his age, part is his reputation around the game as being loud and brash, but part is something I haven’t addressed yet: he’ll cost the Red Sox their first-round draft pick.
That’s not nothing, especially considering what Dave Dombrowski has done to the farm system over the past two off-seasons. The Red Sox system has gone from being top five in the game to… well, I honestly don’t know, but certainly the back half of farm systems and probably considerably lower than that. Boston needs draft picks and, under the current system, picks come with money that can be spent both on that pick and later on in the draft to improve the quality of players the team can sign. That’s probably the biggest argument against signing Bautista. The Red Sox could really use that draft pick and the money that comes with it.
That’s one side of it. The other is that the Red Sox will be selecting 26th in the upcoming draft. That’s not something you throw away, but it’s not a top of the draft pick either. The Red Sox have put a lot into assembling their 2017 roster. This is win-now time. It’s certainly arguable that adding Bautista, who can give you a prospective premium DH as well as some insurance against Andrew Benintendi having a rougher road as a rookie than the team would like, is worth the loss of a late first round pick, especially if the team gets him on a team-friendly deal.
There is one other reason the Red Sox might not want to sign Bautista and it is money. The Red Sox are up against the luxury cap again, which is almost certainly the reason they dealt away Clay Buchholz for essentially nothing beyond salary relief. They might not want to turn around and spend that money, plus a little more, to add another player. That’s a reasonable position to take. The other side is who cares? Bautista fills a few needs and, given what the team has already spent on the 2017 roster, it makes sense to put what amounts to a little bit more into the pot.
None of this is to argue the Red Sox should sign Jose Bautista. Perhaps they’d be better off keeping the draft pick, the money available, and the roster spot open. But it’s almost January, and Bautista is still out there, and available for much less than had been previously speculated. He’s probably still a very good hitter and he fits on the Red Sox roster probably better than most think he does. It’s something to think about.
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