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2017 Rebound Candidate: Jose Bautista

Tim Heaney

Before RotoWire, Tim spent a decade with and USA TODAY Fantasy. The Boston University alum was a finalist in the FSWA awards and competes in some of fantasy baseball's biggest expert leagues, including Tout Wars and LABR. He squeezes in fantasy advice between rants about television, music and craft beer. Tweet him @Tim_Heaney.

It probably hurt Jose Bautista to flip his bat in 2016.

Maybe this shook him up. Or perhaps it was the message he sent to his fantasy baseball owners.

That sums up what many thought of his performance last year. After all, Bautista dealt with several dings and dents since 2015 and couldn't show the jaw-dropping power he's owned since his 2010 breakout, when the Blue Jays tweaked his swing and created a star.

Physical limitations like many of the 2017 rebound candidates all but surely contributed to his lowest home run total (22), batting average (.234), slugging percentage (.452) and OPS (.817), plus his highest strikeout rate (19.9 percent) since breaking out as a fantasy stud in 2010.

Awesome timing for a contract year, right? His market dried up, but the Blue Jays brought him back on a one-year deal.

Will the 36-year-old stay in shape to fight the aging curve and prove he belongs among fantasy elites again?

What went wrong

Bautista entered 2016 with lingering effects from a shoulder injury suffered the previous year. In June, he slammed his foot into an outfield wall and absorbed a toe injury that cost him 30 games. He then hurt his knee only two weeks after returning from that. After finally returning from that, he was limited in ability and playing time.

A bad shoulder and two lower-body issues will sap the power of any player, even one with Bautista's pedigree. As SportsNet's Arden Zwelling noted:

"Bautista posted an average exit velocity of 93.6 mph and hit the ball an average of 235 feet in 2015. In 2016? He averaged 92.6 mph and 222 feet."

Indeed, many of Joey Bats' batted balls drove his owners batty. His rate of barreled balls per plate appearance came in at a meager 4.8 percent, which ranked 151st among all registered barrelers. He lofted a career-high 17.8 infield fly-ball percentage, which tied for the second-highest pace among qualified hitters.

Those two major issues continue to limit his batting average upside. Since his anomalous .302 clip in 2011, he's topped .259 just once.

At his age, he'll likely have more trouble overcoming small dings, and he's more susceptible to more severe setbacks. Sure, he launched 40 homers in 2015 and 35 the year before, but each passing year lowers his rational power baseline.

Plus, how will opposing pitchers attack him now that Edwin Encarnacion won't be protecting him? If he hits cleanup behind Josh Donaldson and ahead of Kendrys Morales, Bautista may not see as many pitches to hammer. Morales is a fine hitter, but he's no EE, and pitchers likely will wait to challenge him if Bautista regains health.

Morales also may hinder Bautista because he'll clog up the designated hitter role most of the time. Although Bautista probably will get time there, it won't be so easy to slot him there if Toronto wants maximum offensive firepower.

Positive signs

Statcast spotlighted the awful parts of Bautista's performance, but it also hides one big positive. When he got hold of a fly ball or line drive, his average exit velocity ranked 15th among batters with at least 190 batted-ball events.

Fangraphs'hard-contact ratings also marked his career high in the category (41.0 percent). Of course, his soft percentage was his second highest, so there may be some metrics labeling issues. Still, while his ability to load and guess his pitch recognition may erode a bit as he ages, these stats prove he can still punish mistakes.

Despite his issues with punchouts, his contact rates have topped 80 percent in each of the last five years, so even with his struggles, his bat speed remains at least near its past levels.

What tips the scales for many fantasy players to buy him, despite his flaws, is his ability to reach base. In each of the last eight seasons, his walk rate hasn't dipped below 13.1 percent, and his OBP hasn't fallen below .349.

One big negative from 2016 was that he hit only 10 home runs at Rogers Centre, a typically hitter-friendly park. But it played as merely neutral for long balls last year, and the fact he still mustered double-digit bombs at other locales gives him hope if he can get healthy. And that drop in at-bats (from 543 to 423 last year) was just as responsible for his final power line than the physical ailments.

After all, it's difficult to disregard the guy who led the majors in home runs from 2010 to 2016 (249), especially since the Jays' rigorous physical returned positive results, which prompted them to re-sign him.

Although he ranked 124th in average fly-ball distance (per 2016 two-time FSWA award winner Jeff Zimmerman's Baseball Heat Maps leaderboard), he still clubbed for a better average than many boppers, including Encarnacion, Todd Frazier, Joc Pederson, Anthony Rizzo, Evan Gattis, Ian Desmond, Jedd Gyorko, Nomar Mazara, Justin Upton and someone named Bryce Harper.

A physically fit season would do wonders for Bautista's launch angle, which would in turn allow him to do more with those long distances and cut down on many of those infield cans of corn.

His 2017 value

Few fantasy players will dismiss Bautista's abilities, but they're going to wait longer to test him. His Average Draft Position in NFBC formats was 117.04 as of Feb. 9. I would be ecstatic to add him at that cost.

Although what he offered last year wasn't befitting a third-rounder, fantasy owners can hold much lower expectations in 2017 often near the eighth round of mixed drafts. While many bemoan his power drop, opportunistic drafters should consider how realistically he can regain 30-homer pop and snatch him up as he falls down draft boards.

If he shows vintage thump during the spring, his price may creep up toward levels that make drafters less comfortable with taking on someone his age. Be careful.

Of course, many might avoid him because of the exaggerated negative tone surrounding his name. For owners willing to plan carefully and pick their spots, the league's home run king the last seven seasons could wind up one of fantasy's biggest bargains for 2017.