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Jose Bautista: A Big Bat Bargain?

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A great slugger on the downside of his career is reportedly interested in short-term opportunities. What kind of upgrade might he represent for the Cardinals?

MLB: ALCS-Cleveland Indians at Toronto Blue Jays Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

Morning, all. Did everyone have a nice Christmas? I hope so. Mine was good. Tried out a new pineapple-habanero glaze for the ham, and it was delicious. Got some tools and some fun stuff as presents, ate enough cookies to feed a Dickensian orphanage for a year, and just generally reveled a bit. A good time was had by nearly all. On a related note, the Christmas music all went away immediately after Christmas passed, and this makes me sad. I would prefer it to go through New Year’s, but I suppose I’m probably in the minority on that one. It doesn’t make me quite as sad to see Christmas music go as it does when the last of the Christmas lights disappear, but that’s probably because technically, thanks to the wonders of the modern age, I could realistically listen to Christmas music 365 days a year if I wished. Lights? Not so much.

Anyhow, I’m actually taking a break this morning from writing about prospects to cover a subject I find very intriguing. My colleague Alex Crisafuli already wrote yesterday evening about the sudden stated interest of Jose Bautista, slugger of the frozen wastes (yes, Canada, I know it’s not all frozen up there, and it’s very cute you feel the need to point that out), in perhaps signing a one-year deal for a very large chunk of money. I had an apparently very similar thought to Alex when I read that particular piece of news, and must admit to being rather peeved upon logging in to realise I had been beaten to the punch by one of my fellow authors. So take this as a warning, Alex: you steal my story again, and it’ll be the last story you steal from anyone.

Okay, now that I’ve got the blogging-based threats (which I’m told is how all the cool kids are communicating online nowadays), out of the way, I wanted to take my own look at the subject of Jose Bautista as a potential one-year option for the Cardinals.

On the surface, Bautista would seem to be a poor fit for the Redbirds. And, actually, at least one level down from the surface, he would still seem to be a poor fit. Surface level, he’s a right fielder and occasional DH, and the Cardinals possess no real need for the former and no access to the latter. So not a great fit.

One level down from that, we can look at Bautista’s history, see he has played both third and first base at various points in his career, and while Bautista at 36 probably isn’t a good option to go back to third, the position he primarily played in his early, pre-breakout seasons with the Pirates, first base is certainly an intriguing option. Yes, the Cardinals committed to both playing Matt Carpenter at first next season and improving the defense of the club, but Matt Carpenter is nothing if not a good soldier, and I’m sure would move back to third if informed the situation had changed, and how committed, really, do the Cards seem to you to improving the defense? Sure, there was plenty of lip service paid to the idea early on in the offseason, but as it stands now, you’ve improved left field — and admittedly, probably the outfield as a whole, putting a stronger defender in the mix than the aging (but very missed), Matt Holliday.

Other than left field, though, which positions are going to be better? Maybe second base, if you believe the commitment to Kolten Wong is for real this time, and if Matt Carpenter takes off as a defender at first possibly there. But shortstop you have the same player, who could be better but also just might not be much of a shortstop. At third you’re likely depending on the ghost of Jhonny Peralta, which is not all that inspiring. Catcher is the same but a year older, and will probably still be fine; right field was good last year and should probably be good again.

In other words, you made one fairly decent upgrade in the outfield, and that’s it. The left side of the infield is still likely to be a sieve, and Kolten Wong will only contribute with the glove so long as he doesn’t go into a slump and lose his playing time. Again.

So it’s nice to state your commitment to upgrading the defense, but it doesn’t seem like all that much has been, you know, upgraded this offseason. And really, that’s okay. I’m actually not bashing the organisation for that state of affairs. We see where the market went this year, and making that splashy, defense-altering move was probably prohibitively expensive in terms of trade talent. These things happen sometimes. Still, if you’re looking to improve the defense, Jose Bautista, first baseman, is not much better a fit than Jose Bautista, right fielder, if we’re being honest with ourselves.

But taking what the market gives also means occasional opportunities jumping up out of nowhere, and that brings us around to where Jose Bautista potentially is a fit for the Cardinals: for all his baggage as an aging, defensively limited bat on the decline, Jose Bautista in decline is still a hell of a hitter.

Lately, this new narrative has been cropping up here and there. I haven’t read a ton of it on this site, but a few other message boards have had conversations, and Bernie Miklasz has made it a near-incessant talking point on his radio show the past week and a half, since around the time Edwin Encarnacion’s market really began to coalesce.

(Side note: I listen to Bernie’s radio show in podcast form after the fact, which is super handy, but also potentially gives a poor estimation of the quality of the material. Podcasts always assume you heard what they talked about earlier in the program; radio assumes an audience that rotates and refreshes over the course of the show. Thus, a radio program presented as a continuous podcast recording can occasionally seem more repetitive that it probably actually is, simply due to the difference in format focus.)

The narrative I speak of is the fact the Cardinals lack a Big Bat for the middle of their lineup. Or, if you don’t prefer the double capital B Big Bat, we can go with Cleanup Hitter. In the same way people will refer to a Number Three Hitter, meaning the best hitter on the team — and yes, I’m aware of lineup construction theory; just telling you the way these conversations are traditionally couched — they will refer to a Cleanup Hitter, meaning the guy who is going to hit you a bunch of dingers and drive in a bunch of runs. In other words, they mean a Run Producer, and all the utterly nebulous glory that goes with it.

And the Cardinals, admittedly, at this moment lack a player with the look of a typical Cleanup Hitter. (Okay, enough of the half-sarcastic capitalised titles.) They have three outstanding hitters to stack atop the lineup in Dexter Fowler, Matt Carpenter, and Aledmys Diaz — order them however you like — which gives them an engine to drive the production of runs via men on base. But while Randal Grichuk offers tantalising power, and Stephen Piscotty is a good hitter who might have a little better than just good in the tank (but who also might not, frowny face), the Cardinals really do lack that prototypical monster sitting in the middle of the lineup, terrifying the opposing team as the look at the gauntlet of pain their pitcher will have to navigate.

Of course, how important that is is really open to interpretation, and it would be fairly easy to conclude that is isn’t all that important, and a lineup that puts tons of men on base with strong hitters to drive them in will be completely fine, whether or not there’s one scary stick in the middle.

But then again, it’s also not a bad idea to strengthen your lineup as much as possible, particularly if your early offseason plans to again become a run-prevention titan seem to have fizzled with shuffling Randal Grichuk to left field and replacing him in center with what looks like a very comparable fielder.

Which leads us to what is likely the most important question in this whole situation: how much of an offensive boost would Jose Bautista offer the Cardinals in 2016?

Well, admittedly, not quite the level of boost he would have offered a couple years ago. As Alex mentioned last night, Bautista missed time in 2016 with a couple injuries, and when on the field showed that age is beginning to have some effects on him. His power was somewhat diminished (.217 ISO), and his strikeout rate of 19.9% was the highest he had posted since his 2010 breakout. So 36 year old slugger, seeing a bit of a downturn in power (though still hitting for plenty), and an uptick in strikeouts (though still whiffing far less than many other power-first hitters; I would kill for Randal Grichuk to only strike out 20% of the time). That sounds like a couple of red flags, doesn’t it? And they are.

However, there are still plenty of things to like about Bautista’s offensive profile. His hard hit percentage was actually up in 2016 over 2015, 41.0% to 35.3%. The downside would, weirdly enough, seem to be a higher line drive rate, indicating that while Bautista was hitting balls very hard in 2016, he was hitting said balls at a flatter trajectory. And while that would suggest his 2016 batting average on balls in play of .255 could be due for some positive regression, Bautista has been a notorious low-BABIP guy since getting to Toronto. And it makes sense, really; he’s right-handed, hits the ball very hard, and doesn’t run all that well. With that profile, what you really want are fly balls capable of turning into home runs, and the flatter launch angle he showed in 2016 isn’t necessarily conducive to that.

If we go over and look at the exit velocity leaderboards, we find Bautista checking in with an average exit velocity in 2015 of 93.6 miles an hour, which is in fairly elite territory. Right above him on the leaderboard is Josh Donaldson; just below is Miguel Sano. Again, further proof that Jose Bautista in 2016, somewhat physically compromised, was still capable of smashing the everloving hell out of a baseball. (Interesting side note: Tommy Pham shows up on this list at 93.4 mph, below Sano and just above Christian Yelich. Even swinging and missing far more often in 2016, Pham made things happen in a big way when he connected with the ball. It just gets more and more frustrating to realise what kind of career we haven’t gotten to watch because of Pham’s various health issues.)

Bautista’s ability to pull the ball seems fully intact as well; his pull% in 2016 was right in line with where it has been since his tranformation. So it isn’t as if the bat speed is diminished and he’s no longer hitting the ball hard, or failing to turn pitches around.

Perhaps most intriguing of all, at least for me, is the fact that Jose Bautista, again perhaps physically compromised in 2016, was still one of the most patient, disciplined hitters in all of baseball, and got on base at a clip one would expect from one of the most patient, disciplined hitters in all of baseball.

This past season, Jose Bautista drew a walk in 16.8% of his plate appearances. The Cards’ gold standard for walking, Matt Carpenter, had a 14.3% BB rate in 2016. Dexter Fowler, the club’s newest acquisition, lauded most of all for his patience and on-base acumen, drew that same 14.3%. In other words, the two players the Cardinals are counting on to draw tons of free passes in 2017 and load up the bases? Neither one walked nearly as often as Bautista did last season.

That incredible patience, of course, led to a very good on-base percentage; in spite of a low .234 batting average, Bautista got on base at a .366 clip. Steamer projects him for a .371 OBP and 15.4% walk rate in 2017, for what it’s worth.

We can look closer at Bautista’s batting eye, as well, and what we find is just as impressive. He swung at just over 20% of pitches outside the zone in 2016 (20.2%, to be exact); for context, Fowler chased just 19.4% out of the zone, and Carpenter swung at 22.5% of the balls he saw this past year. We are talking about superbly patient hitters here, one and all.

Steamer projects that .371 OBP for Bautista next season; its projections for Matt Carpenter and Dexter Fowler are .370 and .359, respectively. So, again, even at 36 and having just had a rough season last year, Bautista would project to have the top on-base percentage on the club.

In case anyone is wondering, the batting line Bautista would likely be replacing, that of Jhonny Peralta’s, is pegged by Steamer at .261/.322/.408. That’s good for a 96 wRC+, compared to a 128 for Bautista.

If the Cardinals were to go to Jose Bautista and haul him in with a one-year offer, they would have four hitters to stack at the top of the lineup who all project for at least a .340 OBP. The lower boundary is even higher if you think Aledmys Diaz is closer to the hitter he was last year, but we’ll stick with the projections, which peg him at .282/.342/.453, good for a 112 wRC+, in 2017. You could arrange Fowler, Carpenter, Diaz, and Bautista in any order you preferred (though that wouldn’t be too bad right there, actually), and you’d be rolling out one of the most dangerous gauntlets in the game.

I know many of you out there will argue that Bautista doesn’t do anything to improve the club where it needed to improve, in the area of defense and run prevention. And I admit that’s probably the case. But, again, we saw where the market went this year, and those defensive upgrades just weren’t there to be had. And absent the kinds of big improvements the Cards were hoping to make to the prevention side of the ledger, perhaps the best solution would be to try and again build an elite offense in 2017. And in fact, it’s possible a lineup anchored by that Fowler/Carpenter/Bautista/Diaz group could be even better than the 2016 version, considering the sheer amount of baserunners that top of the lineup would produce.

If Bautista really is interested in a one year deal at a high AAV, I would absolutely jump at that opportunity if I were in the Cardinals’ place. As has been said multiple times this offseason, the Cards have money. Lots and lots and lots of it. And a one year deal, by its very nature, has almost zero chance of really hurting you in the long run. One year and twenty million? I’d do that in a second. Hell, I’d even tack a mutual option onto the end for 2018, if it would help seal the deal. The offense would be markedly improved in 2017 over what it currently projects to be, and it’s unclear to me how much worse the Galveston Grinder at third and Bautista at first would be than Carp at first and Peralta at third.

Again, I know this isn’t the sort of upgrade we were all expecting at the beginning of the offseason, when Kevin Kiermaier was the name being bandied about. But, hey, sometimes the upgrade you want isn’t the upgrade you can get, and you have to be flexible. The Cardinal defense in 2017 is probably not going to be meaningfully better than it was in 2016, particularly on the infield, where we’re basically looking at the same cast of characters. That being the case, wouldn’t you much rather watch an offense capable of putting up six runs a night and outscoring the porous defense?

Bautista is the upgrade available, and even at 36, is likely still a substantial upgrade. He doesn’t hurt your future, beyond the loss of a second-round pick (which, admittedly, would break my heart even slightly more than it already is), and in fact represents an investment in protecting the future while still competing in the short term in the same way Dexter Fowler does. A Bautista signing would kick the can down the road a bit on Matt Carpenter’s move to first base, which I admit I think is what’s best for Carpenter himself, but it would also buy the Cardinals a little more time in which to figure out the future of the third base position here in St. Louis. (Sure, fantasising about signing Manny Machado is really fun, but let’s face it: lots and lots of teams are going to be in on Machado, and some of those teams play in a different financial league.) The Cards currently lack a real long-term solution at the hot corner; Bautista for one year would buy them some more developmental time on that front. It’s a lot of money, admittedly, but that’s the one thing the Cardinals have more of than they seem to really be able to leverage. And big money on a short-term, very limited downside risk with a big potential payoff?

That seems like exactly the sort of upgrade the 2017 Cardinals should be going for.

I’m not going to write on New Year’s morning, so everyone have a safe and enjoyable holiday. Next Wednesday I’ll be back with 26-18 of the prospect list, followed by 17-9 on Sunday the eighth, and then the following Wednesday the final eight prospects. The Sunday after that, I’ll have the full wrapup, with my fellow prospect geeks’ lists and some discussion of the system as a whole. After that I’m hoping to get a shadow draft update post written sometime in January, before we start gearing up for spring training and spring surprises and the like.

So Happy New Year, everyone, and I’ll see you all again in 2017.