Jose Bautista, and the price of free agency


Jose Bautista hit 227 home runs for the Blue Jays over the first six years of this decade and won a playoff series with a memorable one, complete with a flip that tossed away his bat as if it were standing in for the first half of a career that struggled through four teams and just as many positions.

Thus the start of spring training 2016 seemed the right time for Bautista to negotiate as he swung the bat — selectively and only on his terms, which he told he Blue Jays were five years and $150 million. “There’s no negotiation, I told them what I wanted,” Bautista said last February. “They either meet it, or it is what it is.”

U.S. Grant, whose initials it was said stood for Unconditional Surrender, was a piker at the bargaining table of the Civil War compared to Bautista.

Then Bautista followed up his ultimatum with a season worthy of a fraction of it, batting .234, hitting 22 homers and losing almost 100 points of OPS at age 35 to .817.

Maybe Bautista should have left some room to haggle. The Blue Jays not only didn’t meet his demands but no one else is, either, or even coming close, and it must seem like every team he talks with this offseason is represented by Rougned Odor.

Is it too late for Bautista to accept the Jays’ $17.2 million qualifying offer? Because that will be competitive with any contract he eventually signs.

It’s a month before spring training and Bautista, who has played for five teams in his career and linked to just as many this offseason, still doesn’t have one for 2017. “We clearly need a corner outfielder and Jose’s probably the most talented one out there,” Blue Jays executive Mark Shapiro told a radio station Friday, and Bautista should take the hint, drop the bravado and get what he can.

Whatever measure of self-respect he loses for the next contract he signs won’t compare to what he lost from Odor’s right hand.

Bautista’s travails are a lesson on the risks of free agency — the $200-plus million contracts Zack Greinke and David Price left with last year aren’t an entitlement.

Eleven months ago, Bautista had been an All-Star for six straight seasons, had four top-10 MVP finishes, led the AL in homers twice, averaged nearly 38 a season from 2010-15 and hit 54 in 2010, when the Blue Jays paid him $2.4 million.

He did all that and never made more than $14 a year, which is pretty good compensation for most of us, but working class for sluggers. “In my eyes, I’ve given this organization a five-year hometown discount already,” Bautista said when he made his take-it-or-leave-it-offer, which the Blue Jays left without asking if it were U.S. or Canadian dollars.

Bautista was right and the Blue Jays got a bargain, but the team is under no obligation to reciprocate now that the contract is up. Bautista signed it just as surely as the Diamondbacks did Greinke’s, and neither party was coerced.

Bautista plays with a seeming resentment, and maybe his inadequate contract fueled it. Who wants to work below the median income level of their profession when they’re worth more? Maybe he’ll rebound from this winter’s snubbing with a last big season or two, complete with homers, bat flips and stares aplenty.

But if Bautista is guilty of nothing else, he is of bad timing, because he became a free agent as his skills markedly depreciated. His .234 average in 2016 was the lowest of his career; his.817 OPS was his lowest since 2009, as were his 22 home runs. After accumulating 33.8 WAR from 2010-15 (5.6 per), he slipped to 1.0 in 2016.

Bautista has lost speed on the bases (his 21 double plays in 2016 were a career high), range in the outfield (his -1.4 defensive WAR was his worst since 2007 and his third straight season of -1.1 or higher), and, if last February’s appraisal is any indication, perspective on his value.

Remember Bautista the next time a player seeks a contract that seems out of whack (you might get that $40 million per, Bryce Harper, if you have more seasons like 2015 than ’16). Players are worth what a team will pay them, and in Bautista’s case, it’s not as much as he thought last February.

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