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New deal for Bautista worth the risk

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Ken Rosenthal

Ken Rosenthal has been the FOXSports.com's Senior MLB Writer since August 2005. He appears weekly on MLB on FOX, FOX Sports Radio and MLB Network. He's a member of the Baseball Writers Association of America. Follow him on Twitter.

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The Rays say it all the time: We can’t be like other teams. We play in the AL East. We need to be creative, take risks.

The Blue Jays, with their signing of right fielder Jose Bautista to a five-year, $65 million contract, are taking a similar approach, albeit in a more lavish manner.

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The Jays will be ripped for this deal, ripped by rival executives, media analysts, even some of their own fans. Bautista, 30, was a career journeyman until hitting 54 home runs last season. His track record obviously does not merit such a lucrative deal, which could grow to $78 million over six years if the Jays exercise a club option.

Clearly, the Jays believe in Bautista. Otherwise, they would not have bought his first four years of free agency just one month after clearing their most burdensome obligation, the four years and $86 million remaining on outfielder Vernon Wells’ deal.

It’s not just the 54 homers; the Jays understand, even expect, that Bautista could drop to 30 or below this season. But to the Jays, Bautista’s strikeout-to-walk ratio last season was testament to his evolution as a hitter.

Bautista struck out 116 times, a stunningly low number for a 21st century slugger, a number that tied him for only 53rd in the majors. Yet he also drew 100 walks, 98 of them unintentional, ranking fourth in the majors in that department.

What also sold the Jays is that Bautista actually improved as the season progressed, producing a .903 OPS before the All-Star Game and a 1.099 OPS – second in the majors only to Jim Thome - after it.

Second baseman Dan Uggla, whom the Braves recently signed to a five-year, $62 million contract, is a reasonable comparison for Bautista. Each entered the offseason one year away from free agency. Uggla, who turns 31 on March 11, is eight months older.

Who would you rather have?

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Uggla is far more proven, the only second baseman in history to hit 30 home runs in four consecutive seasons. Bautista, though, is a better and more versatile defender, capable of playing all three outfield positions as well as first, second and third base. He also has a more athletic frame than Uggla, and figures to age well.

Both players bring strong intangibles – the Braves love Uggla’s grit, and the Jays view Bautista as the leader of their young club going forward, more fiery and intense than Wells. Truth be told, the Jays are betting on the person as much as the player.

Bautista’s work ethic is impeccable. He cares deeply about winning. New Jays manager John Farrell was impressed by how Bautista mentored top prospect Brett Lawrie, a candidate to play third base, at a recent mini-camp.

The Jays could have simply reached a one-year deal with Bautista, determined whether his breakthrough was legitimate and re-evaluated their position at season’s end. But if Bautista went on to produce another strong season, he would have hit the open market in high demand, likely commanding at least a four-year deal.

Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder, the top two hitters in the next free-agent market, are limited to first base. Bautista could have fit for any number of teams in any number of ways – and the Phillies, Red Sox and Cubs are among the clubs with expensive outfielders coming off their payrolls.

Bautista is a gamble, a huge gamble, maybe even a foolish gamble. The Jays aren’t oblivious to the downside. But they view the upside as worth the investment.

Tagged: Blue Jays, Braves, Jose Bautista, Dan Uggla

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