Jays need to lock up Bautista

(Greg Fiume/Getty Images/AFP)

(Greg Fiume/Getty Images/AFP)

KEN FIDLIN, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 11:31 PM ET

DUNEDIN — Monday is a big day for the Blue Jays and it has nothing to do with the first official day of spring training.

Somewhere in Arizona, an impartial arbitrator is waiting to hear arguments from the Jays and from Jose Bautista to determine what the third baseman/outfielder will earn this year.

Bautista, for one, hopes the hearing isn’t necessary. It is his stated desire to sign a long-term contract with Toronto, but there’s one small problem: The Blue Jays haven’t made an offer.

And if they don’t make one before the hearing starts — or at least initiate a negotiation — the Jays have been told by Bautista’s agent, Bean Stringfellow, that they won’t get another chance to talk until after the season is over.

So, the ball is in the Jays’ court and they’ve given no indication they’re going to do anything but sit on it. If they don’t make a move, it clearly sets the wheels in motion for Bautista to be out of here at season’s end, or even before that.

And that is a mistake.

Having just gotten themselves out from under two monster contracts in the past 18 months, maybe they are wary of signing another. And, yes, the focus of this team is clearly on the future but, last we checked, the American League isn’t going on hold until the Jays are ready to compete. They have an obligation to their fans and their current players right now and signing Jose Bautista should be part of that obligation.

Yes, we know Bautista poses all kinds of unique problems. His credentials consist of a half-dozen seasons spent searching for his baseball identity and one shining year of magnificent discovery. How do you evaluate it?

Knowing Alex Anthopoulos and his baseball people, they have been up and down and around and through every argument, for and against. That said, if they have decided to take a pass, I say they’re making a mistake.

Because of swing changes and regular playing time since late in 2009, Bautista is not even close to the same player he was before that.

Couple his final month of ’09 with his monster 2010 season and you have a player whose confidence is through the roof and is matched only by his intense desire to keep it going.

It is difficult to understand exactly what his doubters expect will happen. Is he going to lose his swing or his plate awareness? Nobody is expecting 54 home runs, but if he hits 30-35, maybe even 40, and drives in 100, batting in the middle of the Jays lineup, he will be taking it all right to the bank.

Just look at what happened to Jayson Werth who, at 31, is a year older than Bautista. Despite a career that has included just one season in which he has hit more than 30 home runs and has never included a 100-RBI year, Werth hit the free agent motherlode this off-season, signing a seven-year, $126-million US contract with Washington. In his past 1,125 at-bats, he has hit 73 home runs, or one every 15.5 at-bats. In Bautista’s past 667 at-bats, he has hit 64 home runs, or one every 10.4 at-bats.

Now, Werth’s contract may be an even more dramatic overpay than the Vernon Wells or Barry Zito deals, given that he will be 38 when it expires.

So, let’s compare Bautista’s potential against that of Adrian Beltre, another 31-year-old who scored big this off-season, signing a more reasonable five-year, $80-million contract with Texas.

Beltre had a nice bounce-back season in 2010 with the Red Sox, hitting .321 with 28 homers and 102 RBIs, his best season since 2004 when he hit 48 homers and drive in 121 for the Dodgers.

Beltre had a nice bounce-back season in 2010, hitting .321 with 28 homers and 102 RBIs, his best season since 2004 when he hit 48 homers and drive in 121 for the Dodgers. In between, he’s been somewhat inconsistent at the plate but a good defender. He’s a career .275 hitter with one homer for every 25 at-bats.

Do you not think that Bautista, with a 30-homer, 100-RBI season, hardly unreasonable to expect, would command at least something the same as Beltre’s deal, especially when you consider his positional versatility? This is a guy who is an average defender at third base and an above-average defender in right field, who possesses of one of the better outfield arms in the game.

So, what it all comes down to is belief. Once again, 54 home runs is off the charts. But, if you believe he can hit 30, with 35 doubles, maintain a high on-base percentage and drive in 100 runs, then where’s the hesitation?

In the past 18 months, Bautista has gone from being an expendable bench player to assuming a role as a clubhouse leader both on and off the field, articulate and unafraid to speak his mind when necessary. This spring, he has already shown, in unofficial workouts, that he is more than willing to share his knowledge with youngster Brett Lawrie who is learning to play third base.

Whether he wins or loses his arbitration case today is irrelevant. Whether he makes $7.6 million, as the club has offered, or $10.5 million, as he has asked for, makes little difference in the long-term picture.

But if the door closes on that hearing room, Bautista will be as good as gone. Until that moment, the Jays still have a chance to lock him up for four or five years.

Risky? Sure it is. But so is letting a stud like Bautista walk.

Anthopoulos is as creative at the art of the contract as they come. I’m sure he could figure out — or maybe he already has — something that would ensure Bautista gets his money, while the club gets a discount for accepting some of the risk. There are also ways of including provisions for additional performance bonuses for extraordinary production, such as another 50-plus homer season.

They need to get it done.


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