Oct. 12, 2010: Bautista’s certain big payday also brings big pressures
As training camps opened for Dominican league baseball teams last week, Santo Domingo newspaper La Nacion Dominicana trumpeted a major development for that island’s equivalent of the New York Yankees.
“Tigres del Licey receive backing,” read the headline on a story that detailed a local businessman’s seven-figure sponsorship deal with the 22-time Dominican league champs.
But whether the squad will receive on-field support from Blue Jays outfielder Jose Bautista isn’t yet clear to the club, the Jays or Bautista himself.
Most times in the off-season, Bautista joins los Tigres for the Dominican league playoffs, which start in mid-January. This winter, however, Bautista will have more on his mind than whether he can squeeze in some game action before reporting to spring training in February.
Bautista heads into his final winter of arbitration eligibility with the leverage only a breakout season can generate, but his sudden transformation from utility man to elite power hitter comes with both a payoff and a price.
His 54 home runs and 351 total bases led the majors while his 124 RBIs ranked him third in the American League, numbers that should add up to a huge boost to Bautista’s $2.4 million (all figures U.S.) salary, whether or not his case reaches an arbitrator.
But his 2010 success also means more people are more invested in whatever Bautista does. The issue surfaces in everything from salary negotiations to steroid speculation, and it’s complicating his decision on winter baseball.
“What I did last (off-season) allowed me to be successful,” says Bautista, who turns 30 next week. “But I don’t know if I’ll be able to play winter ball given that we’ll be in the middle of negotiations. I don’t want to risk anything individually or for the team.”
Technically, Bautista can play with Licey if he chooses. As a native Dominican he’s free to play for his hometown team according to both the Winter League Agreement — a rulebook ratified last winter between MLB and four Caribbean leagues — and the Jays.
“We’ll address all the players the same way,” Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos wrote in an email to the Star. “It’s up to the players if they choose to participate in winter ball.”
But the Winter League Agreement’s “extreme fatigue clause” allows teams to curtail winter league action for players with more than 503 plate appearances. This season Bautista totalled 683 plate appearances and 569 at-bats.
Whether or not the Jays ask him to sit out the Dominican season, Bautista’s top baseball priority is still the team that pays him the most.
In 2009 Bautista totalled 13 homers as an arbitration-eligible part-time player, and the Jays bumped his salary by 33 per cent — from $1.8 million to $2.4 million. This season, Bautista became the first big-leaguer since 2007 to surpass 50 homers, so his salary is set to increase exponentially.
The Jays won’t talk publicly about negotiations, but they haven’t allowed a player to go to arbitration since 1997, when they couldn’t reach an agreement with relief pitcher Bill Risley.
Since 2006, four other players have hit more than 50 homers in a season, but none earns fewer than eight figures. At the bottom of the scale, Milwaukee Brewers slugger Prince Fielder earned $10.5 million in 2010, a figure born of the contract extension that kept him out of arbitration two years ago. At the top is Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez, who earned $32 million this season.
Bautista’s case is different. His 2010 stats weren’t the culmination of a steady improvement but a massive leap forward in several offensive categories. The Jays still aren’t sure whether Bautista is a consistent threat to the 50-home run barrier or simply a much improved batter who will continue to put up impressive but not elite numbers. Those factors will affect the size of the salary the Jays offer him later this winter.
After the season’s final game, Anthopoulos made it clear he wasn’t rushing into a decision on Bautista.
“There’s no sense of urgency,” he said. “When you set the bar that high, I think it’s fair to say you could still be a good, productive player and not perform at the level he did this year and still be a player that helps the team win.”
Bautista, too, says he’s not worried about finalizing his 2011 salary. Yet.
After the Jays’ final game in Minnesota, Bautista flew to Miami to spend time with his brother, Luis, a student at Florida International University. Later he planned to return to Santo Domingo, where his off-season training would unfold in stages.
In December he’ll start throwing and hitting and will begin serious strength training in January, around the same time salary negotiations could become a source of stress.
“I won’t be too worried about it until the last moment,” Bautista says. “That’s really when you’ve got to make a decision. The differences of $50,000 or $100,000 may not seem huge but it’s actually really stressful when you’re about to commit.”
A year ago, a player of Bautista’s credentials and pay grade talking so casually about six-figure sums would have seemed preposterous. An extra $100,000 should seem like a huge bonus to a player who had never hit more than 16 home runs.
But a season in which he outslugged stars like St. Louis’s Albert Pujols and Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera has altered Bautista’s perspective on what big money truly is. And it has also shifted other people’s perception of him.
His all-star season vaulted him from well-known to famous in the Dominican, and with every home run he helped boost the Jays’ popularity on an island where heavy recruiting once made them a local favourite.
“In the past, when we had Tony Fernandez and myself, the talk in the town in the Dominican was the Blue Jays,” says George Bell, the former Blue Jays star and a Dominican Republic native. “Right now Toronto is real hot in the Dominican . . . basically because of Jose.”
Elsewhere, however, Bautista’s success makes him suspect.
It’s not his physical stature, which hasn’t changed much over the past two seasons. At 6 feet and 195 pounds, Bautista is sturdy but not spectacularly jacked. In just about every big-league clubhouse there are players with bigger muscles and smaller numbers than his.
But when you hit 54 home runs, people sometimes proffer theories about how it happened and as Bautista’s home run totals mounted, so did questions from the media on both sides of the border about whether he uses steroids.
Bautista calmly parried those questions over the last six weeks of the season, saying he doesn’t use drugs, and shrugged when the issue was raised again during the Jays’ final homestand.
For him, steroid scrutiny is like every other form of attention that has emerged since he started bashing homers at a league-leading pace. They’re the price of his new success.
And he pays the cost gratefully.
“I’ll deal with it as long as I keep doing good. It’s not a burden,” he says. “More interviews, more autograph signings. It comes with the territory and I know it does. I’d rather do good and have to deal with all this than do bad and not have to deal with it.”
Copyright 2010 the Toronto Star