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Jose Bautista is coming home

The Blue Jays re-signed their right fielder for 2017, bringing back a reliable hitter and a Toronto legend.

Division Series - Texas Rangers v Toronto Blue Jays - Game Five
I’m a die-hard Orioles fan, and even I felt goosebumps during this flip.
Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

Back in March of 2016, when players were shaking off the rust in Florida or Arizona, this promo for the Blue Jays came across my Twitter timeline:

Ten-odd months later, I still love this spot. Coming Home is a masterpiece — one of the best songs of this decade, and of Diddy’s career — and in conjunction with the imagery, particularly the selective slow motion, it paints a thrilling picture.

As an Orioles supporter, I’m not accustomed to feeling this way about the Jays, nor am I particularly comfortable with it. Yet something about the sense of community and camaraderie the ad displays draws me in every time. The team came out of nowhere to win the division in 2015, then surged to a Wild Card spot in 2016, and both times, they just seemed to have a blast while doing it.

We already know that one of the core contributors to that Toronto club won’t return. In December, designated hitter Edwin Encarnacion took his beloved parrot south, inking a three-year, $60-million contract with the Indians. But the biggest name, responsible for the biggest moment, will be coming back: Earlier today, right fielder Jose Bautista agreed to a one-year contract extension, reportedly with a mutual option for 2018.

At first glance, this might seem like an irrational move for the Jays. Bautista’s stats fell off in 2016 — he was worth only 1.4 fWAR in 517 plate appearances, after averaging more than five wins per year between 2010 and 2015. Nevertheless, he stands a good chance of rebounding in 2017: Steamer predicts 2.3 fWAR in 523 plate appearances, while ZiPS expects a 510-plate appearance, 3.1-fWAR finish.

Why the optimism? Under this contract, Bautista will play his age-36 and (possibly) 37 seasons with the Jays; as he gets older, he’ll likely lose some speed on his swing. But that hasn’t happened yet. His decline in 2016 — on offense, at least — was because of bad luck, not aging. Per FanGraphs, he put up the highest hard contact rate of his career, at 41.1 percent; that figure placed him seventh among qualified hitters.

The 16.3 percent HR/FB rate Bautista put up in 2016 (a year with a lot more power across the majors) was his lowest since his incredible 2010 breakout. Simultaneously, however, he made hard contact on a career-high 40.0 percent of his fly balls. If he keeps stinging the ball in the air, more of them will find their way over the fence, which will help him improve upon his 2016 ISO of .215.

Likewise, although Bautista’s inflated popup rate will prevent him from running a high BABIP, he could rise above last year’s .255. In 2016, despite a 31.3 percent hard-hit rate on grounders — his highest mark since 2011 — his ground ball BABIP plummeted to .211, the lowest he’s been since 2010. He faced the shift a little more often last season, which cut a bit into his production; still, some of those grounders should start to make it past the infield, and Bautista’s average will increase along with his slugging percentage.

Not everything’s sunny for Bautista — his defense will continue to get worse from here. In 2016, he cost the Blue Jays 8 runs by DRS and 5.6 runs by UZR, over just 787.0 innings in right field. With Kendrys Morales in the fold, the Jays won’t be able to put Bautista at DH very often; he’ll have to remain a liability in the outfield. But that likely won’t be enough to negate his strong performance at the plate. As a two- to three-win player over the next year or two, he should make his contract a worthwhile one for Toronto.

On-field production isn’t everything, though. What Bautista might lack in talent, as a player on the wrong side of 30, he’ll more than make up for in the intangible things. Bautista will admire some home runs, maybe for longer than he should. He’ll partake in whatever TV shows he damn well pleases. He’ll drive old fogies crazy with his antics. He’ll give the haters the Mariah Carey treatment. And, oh yeah, he’ll flip some bats.

The euphoria conveyed in that promo will probably carry over into 2017. FanGraphs thinks the Jays will go 82-80 this year, within spitting distance of a Wild Card spot; that should keep fans coming out to the Rogers Centre, as they did in historic numbers last year. As the man responsible for the single biggest play in recent Blue Jays history, Bautista will surely be one of the main attractions, whether he bounces back or not. For $30-$40 million over two years, a player of his caliber should earn his keep, both at the plate and in the hearts of fans. Ain’t no stoppin’ him now...

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Ryan Romano is the co-managing editor for Beyond the Box Score. He also writes about the Orioles for Camden Depot, and about politics for The Diamondback. Follow him on Twitter if you enjoy angry tweets about Maryland sports.