Bautista's big year to means tough decision for Jays
Published Monday, September 20, 2010 3:42PM EDT
Toronto Blue Jays' Jose Bautista, left, rounds the bases after his two-run home run as Boston Red Sox relief pitcher Michael Bowden, right, stands on the mound during the sixth inning of a baseball game at Fenway Park in Boston, Friday, Sept. 17, 2010. (AP / Winslow Townson)
TORONTO - As the numbers have grown, so has the quandary.
Jose Bautista, one swing away from becoming just the 26th major-leaguer to reach the 50-homer plateau, is nearing the end of one of the best offensive seasons by a member of the Toronto Blue Jays. Yet the bigger his year gets, the more complicated it has made one of the biggest questions facing the club this winter.
Exactly how much stock should be placed in Bautista's record-breaking breakout?
His track record says not much. Baseball history tends to agree. And the safe bet is to dismiss the more than three-fold increase in home runs as a fluke.
But then it's also possible that his performance isn't an anomaly. Maybe the Blue Jays stumbled into one of game's elite sluggers through a waiver-wire claim from a team eager to discard him. And maybe all he needed was the right instruction, the right opportunity and the right environment.
Franchises, particularly ones on a budget, can be made or broken by such calls. The US$126-million, seven-year contract handed out to Vernon Wells in the winter of 2006 looked like a great move at the time, but no team would do that deal now. The $86 million he's due over the next four years ties up a significant portion of the team's payroll.
And Wells had a strong track record of success. The same can't be said of Bautista, who went into the 2010 season with a career high of 16 homers, established in 400 at-bats back in 2006, a benchmark he hadn't matched again until this year.
So the Blue Jays have some deep thinking to do with regards to Bautista, whose $2.4-million salary this season will likely rise to the $6-$8 million range in his final year of arbitration eligibility. He can then become a free agent after the 2011 season.
This is what we know so far.
Bautista, a dapper and articulate 29-year-old whose laid back demeanour belies an intense competitiveness beneath the surface, was raised in a middle class neighbourhood in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.
He grew up watching American TV shows like "Saved By The Bell" and playing baseball, seeing himself as a centre-field, leadoff-hitter type. Unsigned as a teenager, he ended up attending Chipola Junior College in the Florida panhandle.
"Where I came from, most people follow their family's footsteps, go to school, stay in the family business, live a regular life," he said in a recent interview. "It's not part of that class in society to have their kids play baseball with the goal of becoming a professional.
"I was doing it with a dual purpose. I loved the game, so I wanted to play, and even though I was from the middle class, a college education was very expensive. So I knew I could find a way to pay my way through college if I became good enough."
Blessed with tremendous raw power and athleticism, he eventually became good enough to go pro and was chosen in the 20th round of the 2000 draft by the Pittsburgh Pirates. He had what scouts like to call projectability, but he struggled to fully capitalize on his natural talents.
In the winter of 2003, after Bautista missed most of the season with a broken hand suffered swiping at a dugout garbage can while with single-A Lynchburg, he was left unprotected for the Rule 5 draft and was taken by Baltimore.
He played in 16 games with the Orioles before he was placed on waivers and claimed by Tampa Bay on June 3. He got into 12 games with the Devil Rays before he was sold to Kansas City on June 28. He played in 13 games with the Royals before he was traded July 30 to the Mets for Justin Huber, and was promptly flipped back to the Pirates with Ty Wigginton and Matt Peterson for Kris Benson and Jeff Keppinger. He played 23 more games with Pittsburgh but finished the season with just 88 at-bats and more organizations (five) than extra-base hits (three doubles).
Bautista returned to the minors in 2005, stuck with the big team in 2006 when he batted .235 with 16 homers and 51 RBIs in 117 games but proceeded to stagnate at that level for the next few seasons. His ability to play multiple positions, third base and right field being his best spots, left many convinced he was a utilityman with occasional pop, nothing more.
Then, everything changed when the Pirates gave up on him a second time and he was claimed on waivers Aug. 21, 2008 by the Blue Jays when general manager Alex Anthopoulos, then assistant GM, pushed for the move. Catcher Robinzon Diaz was sent to the Pirates in return four days later.
It was the next summer that he had an epiphany in the mechanics of his swing, through the tutelage of hitting coach Dwayne Murphy and manager Cito Gaston, that turned his career around.
Essentially, by adjusting the timing of his swing to start once the pitcher begins his motion, he developed a more consistent route to the ball. Rather than flailing wildly at pitches, he had more time to identify each offering and chart a better path, eliminating the need to rush his hands through the zone to make up for lost time.
To make Bautista understand, Murphy put him before a mirror last summer and ordered his charge to swing until the message got through. Bautista later sat with Gaston in the dugout and listened to his manager break down various swings, explaining why they did or didn't work.
"The way I used to hit before, the ball was on top of me so my swing looked out of control and reckless at times, just because I was trying to catch up to the baseball," Bautista said in a May interview. "By getting ready earlier, it allows me to have my normal swing, aggressive still, but not out of control.
"It never was explained to me in the way these guys did it. It didn't make sense in my head when they'd say you're getting ready too late, I didn't know how to fix it. They didn't pinpoint and explain it to me in a way that I would understand it the way Cito and Murph did."
A sign of what lay ahead came last September.
Playing every day in the spot vacated when Alex Rios went to the Chicago White Sox on waivers, he ripped 10 home runs in 30 games, one every 10.9 at-bats. Much like spring training, the final month of the season is often fool's gold, but the barrage simply kept coming this season.
Four homers in April, 12 in May, four in June, 11 in July, 12 in August and six so far in September, moving him past George Bell's club record of 47 set in 1987, and to the cusp of the elusive 50 club. He has 114 RBIs, 100 runs scored, 95 walks, a .262 batting average and a .382 on-base percentage to go with his 49 homers, and will receive some consideration for American League MVP.
But the off-the-charts jump in production inevitably led last month to questions -- after a Toronto columnist raised them in a blog -- on whether performance-enhancing drugs were behind his power surge. Bautista responded by saying the accusations have no basis, pointing out that he is subject to drug testing like everyone else.
His teammates and coaches also rallied around him, pointing to improved technique.
"I think everyone always saw the raw power," said Blue Jays catcher John Buck, who first met Bautista with the Royals in 2004. "When I first saw him he never really got to play enough where he could figure out how to use it. You can use it in the minor leagues, you can show it in glimpses, but unless you get extended time to try and work things out and get beat down the way this league does to you, it just never really comes through.
"(But) his eagerness to want to learn to get better is probably why he is the way he is now."
Still, none of that offers enough reason to confidently believe Bautista will be able to it again.
For comparisons, one can look at Tampa Bay Rays first baseman Carlos Pena, who launched a career-high 46 homers in 2007 at age 29 and has followed that up with totals of 31, 39 and 27 home runs so far this season.
Or one can look at Carlos Quentin, the Chicago White Sox outfielder who broke out with 36 homers in 2008 at age 25 but has declined to 21 and 25 homers since with a drop in all his other numbers, too.
And then there's Brady Anderson, the former Orioles outfielder who launched 50 homers in 1996 but never had more than 24 in any of his other 15 big-league seasons.
The Blue Jays will be taking all that into account when they make their call on Bautista.
Even if he reverts to a player who bats .250 with a .340 on-base percentage and 25 homers and 90 RBIs, he's of tremendous value given his plus defence in right field and at third base, and clubhouse status as an intermediary between the American and Latino quarters.
But it's unclear if Bautista will accept the corresponding salary, or look to get paid like the best boppers in the game.
A long-term deal this winter is only likely to happen if it mitigates risk for the Blue Jays. Otherwise, they may very well let Bautista's play in 2011 answer the question before making their decision. But by then, the price may have gone up dramatically, with the possibility of other bidders in the room.
Two weeks remain before the cheering ends. Then the challenge looms.