Blue Jays Mailbag: What's Struggling Slugger Jose Bautista's Next Act?
Andrew Stoeten wonders what the future holds for franchise legend Jose Bautista, as well as newcomers Teoscar Hernandez and Richard Urena.
Photo by Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports
The Blue Jays season is still going, and the mailbag questions are still coming! In this week's instalment we look to the future—which might be the present!—as well as at the real causes for the miserable season this has been, where Jose Bautista goes from here, and more!
So buckle up! Let's dive in.
If you have a Blue Jays question you'd like me to tackle for next week, be sure to send it to firstname.lastname@example.org. As always, I have not read any of Griff's answers.
Does a future team centered around Urena, Teoscar, Vladdy and Bo make you giddy?
It does not!
Oh, don't get me wrong, I have all the time in the world for tales of Vladimir Guerrero Jr.'s impending greatness. And Bo Bichette certainly looks like a top, top prospect in his own right. Those are two incredible building blocks that are already in place for the next great Blue Jays team.
The other guys? Uh... they're nice and all, I guess. But if your team is "centered" around them, even with Bo and Vladito in tow, your team is probably going to be bad.
Hernandez is a nice player, don't get me wrong. I love the fact that he can play all three outfield positions, and should bring enough pop to offset whatever on-base deficiencies there might be in his game. (It wasn't until his third crack at Double-A that he managed to post an on-base above .300 there, though to his credit he has since been a very good minor league hitter at every subsequent stop). I think that in the short term he'll at least be able to provide positive value, whereas the guy playing right field field for the Jays all year has not (more on this fucking depressing topic (again) in a moment). But do I really think he's a key part of the next great Jays team? Could be an alright complementary piece, but that's about as far as I'd go.
And then we come to Urena, who is the one I really want to talk about. Over the last week or so we've seen his outstanding performance at the plate. We've heard Buck and Pat rave about his professionalism and instincts and footwork in the field—an echo of the things we'd heard John Gibbons say about Urena this spring. What, uh, we haven't heard so much about is that this is a guy who slashed just .247/.286/.359 in Double-A this year.
That's awful. And while his minor league track record is not entirely bereft of successes, and I will grant that, at age 21, he was a little young for the level, I'm unfortunately going to have to put a whole lot more stock in what his minor league numbers are telling us, rather than his first 30 trips to the plate as a big leaguer.
Let's just take a look at his on-base, specifically, as he's moved up the chain. Urena handled rookie ball masterfully, with great numbers in the Gulf Coast League and Dominican Summer League in 2013, and at Bluefield in 2014. That Bluefield stint produced a .363 on-base over 53 games (236 PA). Then things seemed to get quite a bit harder.
Urena moved to Vancouver for the end of the 2014 season, and posted just a .297 OBP in a tiny nine-game split. He started 2015 at Lansing, putting up a .289 on-base over 408 plate appearances, then moving up to Dunedin for 30 games, in which his OBP sunk to .268. In 2016 he looked to have figured out the Florida State League, slashing .305/.351/.447 over 431 plate appearances for Dunedin, but struggled in 30 games for New Hampshire (.282 OBP), where, as noted above, he struggled again this year.
Honestly? The start to Urena's Blue Jays career reminds me a whole lot of when Ryan Goins was first called up.
Goins got a hit in each of his first eight games with the team, totalling 12 over his first 31 plate appearances, and people got excited. They did so despite the fact that he was Ryan Goins, and we could pretty plainly see that this probably wasn't a guy who was going to hit enough to be a serious candidate for everyday play. He'd slashed just .257/.311/.369 over 418 plate appearances for Buffalo that year. And though there were some nicer numbers in his track record before that, he was a little old to hold true prospect status at the levels where he was putting them up (for example, he slashed .308/.380/.417 for Lansing in 2010 at age 22—Guerrero and Bichette were 18 and 19 respectively there this year).
That maybe should give us more hope on Urena, who we might have expected to have been overmatched at Double-A at ages 20 and 21, except... not really. For example, Dalton Pompey crushed at that level at age 21, and Anthony Alford was excellent in his time there this year at 22 (and would likely have been there sooner if not for his college football detour earlier on in his pro career).
Urena is going to be his own hitter and is developing on his own path, so it's not fair to write him off or anything just yet. He's still quite young. But so far there's nothing in his track record to suggest that this is a guy who is going to be a viable everyday player. Maybe there will be one day—maybe he'll have a good year in Buffalo next season and build off the success he's had in his first taste of the big leagues—but right now? Not even close.
Adjust your expectations accordingly.
What do you think the fate of Jose Bautista will be and/or what outcome do you think is most likely? I will use some recent Yankee retirees for examples as the Blue Jays don't have much of history of having their best players retire as a Blue Jay.
(A) Get a sweetheart deal ala Derek Jeter based upon what he meant to the team not what he is currently worth and announce he is retiring at the end of said contract so he can get a fitting sendoff.
(B) Get released at some point as Alex Rodriguez was and be forced into retirement.
(C) Announce he is retiring a few days before the end of a season like Mark Teixeira.
(D) Play out his final season(s) in exile and in front of indifferent fan base(s) like Joe Carter.
My genuine hope, as much as it would pain me, is that it's C. I have a real hard time seeing Jose Bautista hanging 'em up at 36 and not at least trying to get a contract somewhere next year, and there's definitely a part of me that believes he might still have some good seasons left in his bat, but the vast majority of me does not see his post-Blue Jays career going well. And that includes his search for a contract this winter—because the Blue Jays are certainly not going to gift him a roster spot out of pure sentiment.
Actually, that's basically what the Jays did this season. Though it was a much more sensible gamble than it would have been this season. Bautista put up a 122 wRC+ in 2016, and it was entirely plausible that his lack of success stemmed from the leg injuries he suffered that twice landed him on the DL. This year, however, 2016 looks like a completely natural step in an unmistakable decline—from 160 wRC+ in 2014, to 148, to 122, and now, this year, a dismal 85.
[At least you'll always have this, Blue Jays fans^]
If Bautista doesn't retire, he's going to find getting a guaranteed contract difficult. Lots of clubs will come offering minor league deals, I'm sure, wherein they'll get a chance to evaluate him in the spring and make a decision then. But to fully guarantee him even a few million dollars? I just don't see it. Why would a team think he's suddenly going to find it at the plate again? Why would they put him in their outfield? And if he's too much of a defensive liability now to play anywhere but DH, why wouldn't they be able to find someone better?
That's bleak, I know. I hate saying all this, because Bautista has been so great and so much fun to watch over the years. I'd want nothing more for the Blue Jays than to have the old Joey Bats back. But I see his winter going the route that Angel Pagan's took last year—a player who is a year younger than Bautista, was worth two wins in 2016, looked viable at the World Baseball Classic, and yet still couldn't find a guaranteed contract and so decided to take the year off—effectively announcing his retirement.
My dream? If Jose insists on playing again next season, I would absolutely love for it to be in Japan or Korea. Now that could be fun. There would be intrigue over there, I'm sure. He'd have star power. We'd get late night dispatches any time he hit a big home run or did something dramatic. And best of all, if his career simply continued to fizzle, we wouldn't have to watch.
What have you learned about blisters this year?
Had I written this last week I might have said that I've learned little more than I already knew, having watched Al Leiter struggle with blister problems throughout his Blue Jays career (and then suddenly, and maddeningly, get healthy and good just as his contract with the club was up). But on Tuesday morning I did actually learn something about them: that pitching through a blister can lead to a strained finger that derails a young starter's—and maybe even a whole team's—season.
On Sunday evening, John Lott of the Athletic explained that "Aaron Sanchez no longer has a blister problem. But he will not pitch for the Blue Jays again this season because he is suffering from a strain in his right middle finger."
He added that "the injury is called a pulley strain," which started to bother him in his last start on July 19 in Boston," and that "club officials have concluded that rest is the only cure."
Well that sucks! It also... um... is somewhat odd that the club and the player let fans think all summer that the problem was a dumb blister and not something that actually sounds like a real injury.
Which isn't to say that blisters aren't real injuries! Meat heads will scoff about them, but one doesn't need to know a whole hell of a lot about how a pitcher grips a baseball, and what his fingers need to do to send it darting and diving around the strike zone, to understand that a blister in the wrong spot is going to be debilitating.
But a whole lot of dumb whispers—not that they care about them, obviously—could have been snuffed out had the club simply admitted what the injury actually was.
In a warped way, this might even be good news for Sanchez and the club. If the blister situation is resolved, and the finger strain just needs rest, there would seem to be little reason to believe he can't head to Dunedin next spring and pick up where he left off in 2016—when he led the American League in ERA.
And what a huge boon for the Blue Jays that would be! We've spent a lot of time this season talking about players at the margins of the roster and scrutinizing backups and call-ups for not being of sufficient calibre for a big league roster, but the truth is, the difference between the Blue Jays being great and having the year that they're having comes down to four absolutely key names: Aaron Sanchez, Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista, and Troy Tulowitzki.
You could throw more disappointing names into that mix, too, I suppose, but those four are as close to the "core" of this team as it gets. And while Donaldson has turned his season around somewhat, and is now sitting at +3.4 WAR (per FanGraphs), the other three have been almost exactly replacement level in 2017 (Tulo and Sanchez have provided zero wins, Bautista is a tenth of a win below). That's 3.3 wins from four players who last year combined for nearly 16 WAR.
Turn 12 Blue Jays losses into wins and they're ahead of the Yankees right now. Yeesh.
HOW CAN WE GET RID OF....
Aramark is, of course, the giant company that is contracted to provide food and beverage service at the Rogers Centre. They are one of a handful of companies that are contracted by most arenas and stadiums in North America (also prisons!) to do that, and they certainly take a lot of heat from Jays fans for the food options at the park. (I suspect they take heat for the beer situation, too, though I'm not sure that's warranted, as it is my understanding that the club has a separate contract with AB InBev that limits the beer selection almost entirely to their brands—which, fortunately for Jays fans, at least now includes local options like Mill Street or Brickworks Ciderhouse).
Honestly, I'm not sure how much of a problem Aramark's presence at the Rogers Centre is, in terms of the type and quality of concessions offered (though I'd say the company itself is somewhat problematic, regardless of whether they're doing a good job here), but the good news is, we may be about to find out. That's because a 10-year contract between the Jays and the company, signed in the spring of 2008, expires after this season. (It's possible that the deal has been renewed at some point and I've missed it, but as far as I can tell, this is it!).
Where the Jays go from here with food and beverage will be interesting to watch. Perhaps intriguingly, just down the street, the Air Canada Centre is one of the few buildings that handles all food and beverage in-house. Things certainly seem better there for it, so maybe this is a model that the Jays will look to follow.
Why don't the BlueJays play Pearce at second base? He played there before joining the Blue Jays this season and it would open up a playing spot for a guy like Carrera and would fix the problem at second.
Because he's bad.