José Bautista: The real deal or one-year wonder?

On February 17th, Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos held a press conference to announce the signing of one-year slugger José Bautista to a five-year $64 million dollar contract. Public opinion in Toronto over this deal seems to be split. On the one hand, it seems a huge risk to lock up a player who has essentially had only one good – okay, very good – season in his professional career. On the other hand, there are those who believe that the former utility player who cranked 54 homeruns last season is the real José Bautista – the Bautista who had never previously been given a shot to play every day to show what he was capable of doing. Call it an educated gamble on the part of Blue Jays management. Anthopoulos said he believes the contract is worth the risk because he’s betting on the person as well as the player.

The deal breaks down like this: Bautista will get $8 million in 2011, then $14 million in 2012-15. These are interesting numbers, considering Bautista and the Jays were engaged in a salary arbitration squabble as recent as a week ago. Bautista was apparently asking for $10.5 million for the 2011 season, but the Blue Jays said “No way, José” and countered with $7.6 million. In an effort to get a deal done before spring training, the arbitration hearing was postponed and the two sides used that borrowed time to strike this deal. It seems the five-year $62 million dollar deal the Braves gave 2B Dan Uggla was the model.

The big question here is this: will Bautista struggle as he tries to live up to his contract, as a lot of players do? He’s human after all, and the pressure is on. He’ll be on every American League pitcher’s radar this season, and he’ll no longer have the plate protection formerly provided by Vernon Wells, now a member of the Angels. Bautista may not see many decent pitches to hit.

If Bautista produces anything even close to what he accomplished last season – 124 RBIs, 92 extra-base hits, .633 slugging percentage, and 12 outfield assists despite playing 48 games at third base – the Jays and their fans will see the $64 million dollar deal as a bargain. That, however, is one gigantic “if”.

With Vernon Wells no longer in the clubhouse and an increasing number of young players of Latin decent in the Jays system, Toronto will look to Bautista for leadership. Bautista speaks both Spanish and English, and is credited with taking SS Yunel Escobar under his wing after he came over from the Braves last season. Perhaps Anthopoulos felt the risk in signing Bautista long-term would be worth the potential reward of having him set an example for a young, inexperienced, and multicultural Jays club.

Bautista is a confident fellow. He believes in himself and his abilities. And despite some cautious optimism on the part of the Jays and their diehard fans, Bautista will be a big box office draw for a Toronto team that is looking to recapture the interest of the casual baseball fan in a city obsessed with hockey and the beloved Maple Leafs. How’s that for pressure?

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