Jose Bautista Toronto Blue Jays: MLB Home Run Leader, The Inside Report

Tuesday May 17, 2011

MLB reports:  Today’s article is as much about admission of guilt as it is about profiling Toronto Blue Jay’s home run king and the greatest slugger in the game going, Jose Bautista.  Yes, in order to fully analyze Bautista, it is time for this writer to come clean.  When you talk and review as much baseball as I do, the one thing that you never like to do is admit is that you are wrong.  There are times where circumstances happen beyond one’s control and predicted results can change and take different forms.  That’s fine.  In the case of Jose Bautista, I am finally prepared today to admit that I was wrong.  Not once.  Not twice.  But three or more times.  For all the “experts” that say they saw the Jose Bautista of today emerging, my hat is off to them.  If they are being truthful, which in most cases I would have a hard time believing.  For in my estimation, Jose Bautista was the one player that literally appeared out of nowhere.  From the abyss of the unknown to bona fide superstar overnight.  Let’s trail the story of Jose Bautista and how the slugger has managed to shape a doubter into a baseball believer.  It took time, but I am finally prepared to state that Jose Bautista here is to stay.

I recall clearly being in Pittsburgh during the 2007 season.  I had visited the city the year before to attend the home run derby and all-star game.  Loving the park, the city and Fatheads (which if you haven’t been is one of the best American restaurants/pubs ever), I decided another trip to watch weekend baseball was in order.  Being a fan of baseball merchandise and memorabilia, I made sure to go through the souvenir shops at the park before each game.  I left with a Ryan Doumit jersey t-shirt (which I still own and wear proudly) but did not pick up any memorabilia on that trip.  One piece of merchandise that I saw that weekend does stick out in my brain though.  In the game used bat barrel, I recall going through the lumber that there were a couple of Jose Bautista un-cracked game used bats.  To make matters worse, the bats were a whopping $30 each.  I distinctly recall laughing at the sight of the bats and indicating something along the lines of that “…the store would need to pay me to take these away.”  Clearly I did not see a value to the Bautista bats that day or attach any future value to them.  A sign of things to come.

Fast forward a year later and the Blue Jays and Pittsburgh Pirates consummated a swap.  A good old fashioned baseball trade.  August of 2008, Jose Bautista gets traded to my hometown Toronto Blue Jays for a player to be named later, turning out to be Robinson Diaz.  My thoughts at the time on the trade went along the lines of, “…I can’t believe the Jays gave up Diaz, a young catching prospect for a non-hitting utility guy.  Wow, the Pirates won this deal hands-down.”  For the balance of 2008 and the majority 2009, Bautista did nothing to change my opinion.  Bautista hit few home runs and his average was barely above the Mendoza-line.  It was actually unbearable at points watching him in his first full season as a Jay, as Bautista did receive 336 at bats in 2009 but mostly due to injuries.  A very late season surge barely made up for a season worth of failures.  To say that I was not sold on the player at this point would be an understatement.  Expecting little to nothing of him going into the 2010 season, Bautista was about to change the baseball landscape and his image in the game forever.  The player that I once considered inferior as a prospect to Robinson Diaz was about to become the “Bautista Bomb.”

Jose Bautista’s 2010 season is in the record books and truly one for the ages.  A relative unknown quantity going into the year, all Bautista did was finish as the MLB home run leader and champion in 2010, with 54 home runs playing in all but one of the Blue Jays games that year.  Add to the total 109 runs scored, 124 runs driven in, 100 walks, .260 average and .995 OPS and Jose Bautista, once a 20th round pick in 2000 for the Pirates was all of a sudden a star.  It’s not like the Pirates were alone in their assessment of the player.  Bautista along the way also had cups of coffees with the Rays, Orioles and Royals.  Despite the many scouts and executives in baseball that analyze the game and review its players, in the age of video and statistics none were able to predict the slugging beast that Bautista would become.  J.P. Ricciardi, the general manager of the Blue Jays who acquired Jose Bautista, will have the Bautista/Diaz swap on his resume as the greatest baseball transaction of his career.  Ricciardi himself, now a New York Mets executive, admits that he never expected Bautista to develop the way he did.  While Ricciardi knew that Bautista had power in his bat having watched him on many occasions at spring training as the Jays and Pirates faced-off, the Bautista of 2010 was never on his radar.

Listening to industry insiders, Bautista in late 2009 made an adjustment to his approach at the plate and instead of being late going after the ball, Bautista was moving his hands quicker and starting his swing earlier.  Apparently the slight adjustment in his batting approach created all the difference in the world.  Credit then manager Cito Gaston, a former hitting coach, with one of his last and greatest teachings.  The big question going into 2011 was whether Jose Bautista was for real and could continue his success at the plate.  The next related issue was to determine Bautista’s value and future salary going into the offseason.  Bautista was arbitration eligible and due for a huge raise.

Going into the offseason that year, the Jays and Bautista were set to face-off in arbitration.  The 2010/2011 offseason saw a vast amount of speculation surrounding Jose Bautista’s contract and what the Jays were going to pay him.  As Bautista was eligible for free agency the next year, fans and commentators debated the winter months whether the Jays should sign Bautista to a long-term contract, let an arbitrator decide or use a one-year contract as a determination whether the production would continue and sign a long-term deal the next year.  As memories tend to get hazy over time, I will help remind everyone the thoughts that were prevalent at the time.  It was clear that if the Jays were to sign Bautista to a one-year contract, they would risk losing him to free agency the next year as another monster season was likely to bring the potential of multiple bidders and exorbitant contract offers.  Considering that Jayson Werth had signed that offseason with the Washington Nationals for seven years and $126 million, anything was possible.  Although unlikely, there was always the risk.  Arbitration was also seen as a risky proposition as feelings and relationships tend to get strained in such a process whereby teams do everything they can to devalue a player when going before an arbitrator.  Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos made it clear in the offseason that he was breaking rank in Toronto and adopting a Rays type policy of not negotiating with players once arbitration amounts were submitted both the team and player in the arbitration process.  The Blue Jays, who had not gone to arbitration with a player since 1997, appeared to be headed to a showdown with Jose Bautista as both team and player had submitted their numbers by the deadline without an agreement.  However further events were about to unfold to change the dynamic of the team that few saw coming with the likely effect of stabilizing the Jays for the next few seasons as a result.

On January 22, 2011, I remember vividly at 6:30p.m. driving in my car and listening to sports radio as the announcer broke the news that Mike Napoli had been traded to the Toronto Blue Jays.  Long being a Napoli supporter, to say that I was overjoyed at the news was an understatement.  Power hitting catchers do not grow on trees and with the Jays need for an additional power bat in the lineup, Napoli was a welcome addition.  The only question was the price the Jays had paid.  The news at the time was that the Jays were trading an outfielder but his identity was not known at the time.  I was sure that Bautista was the outfielder in question.  Going into arbitration, I determined that Bautista was worth at most three years and $24 million.  Given that Bautista was unproven and coming off only one strong campaign, there was too much risk in investing any additional dollars in the player.  It made sense to me that the Jays would trade Bautista while his value was at his highest for a known commodity in Napoli.   The next news update literally made me fall out of my chair.  The outfielder traded to the Angels was not Bautista but rather Vernon Wells.  Somehow Anthopoulos was able to unload Wells and his albatross of a contract onto the Angels and spin a productive player in Napoli in return, along with spare part outfielder Juan Rivera.  Hailed as a genius, Anthopoulos created payroll flexibility for the young and up-and-coming Jays while removing a player seen as declining, both in the field and at the plate.  The Wells contract, signed by the aforementioned Ricciardi which was blasted for years by critics as one of the worst ever was now gone.  It did not even occur to me when I first heard that Napoli was coming to Toronto that Wells was headed the other way.  The Wells contract was probably the most unmovable contract in sports and to hear those words simply astounded me, Jays analysts and the baseball community at large.  While the Angels were criticized for overspending and taking on a weak asset in Wells, hope was abound in Toronto and the future appeared to be bright after so many dismal and hopeless seasons before.  I predicted that Rivera, a free agent the next year would have a campaign that would likely mirror the numbers that Wells would put up in Anaheim.  With the outfielders numbers a wash and Napoli on board, the trade was overwhelmingly hailed as a victory for the Jays.

The Jays ended up a couple of days later flipping Mike Napoli to the Texas Rangers for reliever Frank Francisco.  The move was questioned and debated throughout baseball circles, in attempting to determine flipping a power bat for a power arm.  The jury is still out on the move and we will learn in the future whether Anthopoulos over-played his cards.  Jose Bautista on the other hand, had his arbitration hearing postponed at the last-minute in February as the team and player attempted to hammer out a new contract.  The numbers that I was hearing were a one year contract in the $10-$12 million dollar range.  That was the expectation as spring training approached.  On February 17, 2011, the Blue Jays announced that they had signed Jose Bautista to a five-year, $64 million contract.  At an average of almost $13 million per season for five seasons, the prevailing though in baseball was that the Jays had overpaid and taken on a significant risk.  Considering that they were fortunate enough to move Wells and his monster deal, the discussion was that the Jays had made a mistake by committing too much money and too many years to a player that could end up blowing up their face.  I will admit that when I heard the Bautista signing announcement, I hated it.  I saw the Bautista deal as the second coming off the Wells signing and commented that the lustre certainly was removed from Anthopoulos as GM fairly quickly.  One of the biggest questions going into the 2011 season was whether Bautista could repeat anything close to his numbers and be able to justify his large new salary.  While I read predictions of 20-30 home runs at most, the baseball community saw a decline and correction of Bautista’s numbers as he was to fall back to reality.  I cannot recall reading in February and March of any “expert” that predicted Bautista could approach anything close to his 2010 numbers.  I will admit that I was firmly in this camp and predicted a season of 30 home runs and .250 average at best.  Boy was I going to be wrong yet again on this one, as Jose Bautista going to teach the baseball world what he was really made of.

One report from spring training really stuck out to me.  Listening to news from around the Blue Jays camp, it was evident that there was no talk of Vernon Wells.  Management was not discussing the former Jays gold glove outfielder and team leader and none of the players were indicating that a void existed based on his departure.  That said to me a lot about the lack of value that Wells would have brought to the Jays had he remained.  The attitude around the Jays was positive.  A young squad, the team and its fans saw hope and optimism about with its young pitching and core developing hitters emerging.  Names like Drabek, Arencenbia, Lind, Lawrie, Snider and Romero were being tossed around as the Jays were going back to basics and having fun again.  At the center of it all as was the Jays developing leader and main power bat, Jose Bautista.  For the Jays to contend, Bautista would need to anchor the lineup and produce at a level close to his 2010 numbers.  While few saw that happening, it was clear that the ghost of Vernon Wells was gone from the team and the Toronto Blue Jays had a fresh new attitude.  But to say that anyone predicted that Jose Bautista was going to be the second coming of Albert Pujols or Babe Ruth in Toronto would be foolish.  Questions continued to circle around the Jays and Bautista going into the season that were only going to be answered once opening day was under way.

Throughout spring training, Bautista was playing third base as the team discussed playing an outfield of Rivera, Lind and newly acquired speedster Rajai Davis.  I was not a big fan of the move as I enjoyed watching Bautista play the outfield and with a cannon for an arm, I felt that he would best serve his team defensively in the outfield.  Despite being an adaptable fielder, it was my opinion that to have Bautista play at his peak, he needed to stay at one position and preferably at his most natural spot.  With the future of Brett Lawrie almost upon Toronto, I did not see the value of keeping Bautista at third.  Encarnacion, the incumbent third baseman was seen as somewhat defensively challenged to say the least.  Thus with few options in-house, the defensive alignment of the Jays was unknown as March was drawing to an end.  At the end of the month, the team out of nowhere announced that Bautista would indeed be the team’s right fielder on opening day, with Encarnacion moving to third.  Some how, some way, the team did listen to me and I was actually right about something when it came to Jose Bautista.  With his rightful position in place, now all Bautista had to do was hit.

Hit he did.  Over and over and over again.  Despite missing some games this season due to a personal leave (birth of baby daughter) and a sore neck, Jose Bautista in 2011 has become the talk of baseball.  Going into today’s action, Bautista has a .370 average with a major league leading 16 home runs (3 of which were hit on Sunday against the Twins in Minnesota), 35 runs scored, 27 runs batted in, 35/19 BB/SO ratio, .516 OBP and .849 SLG.  Imagine that Bautista has produced this season with little or no protection in the lineup.  Adam Lind was hot for a stretch of games but has since been out for some time with back issues.  I heard one baseball commentator compare what Jose Bautista is currently doing to Barry Bonds in his Giants peak years.  Bonds, like Bautista, had little protection in the lineup.  Without an all-star lineup like the Yankees around him, Bautista is vulnerable to be pitched around in the Jays lineup as their main and in some nights only true offensive threat.  Currently Bautista is getting maybe one or two good pitches to hit a game, which somehow Bautista is able to take advantage of and still hit them for home runs.  With a good eye at the plate and discipline, Bautista takes his fair share of walks and is not a Vladimir Guerrero  type hitter who takes balls out of the dirt and knock them out of the park for home runs.  The pace that Jose Bautista is currently on is rare and not often seen in the game.  We are witnessing what I can describe as “baseball magic” and people are finally taking notice.  No longer an afterthought or question mark, Jose Bautista is being recognized as the real deal and perhaps the greatest slugger currently in the game.

It is time to give the man his respect and due for his hard work and accomplishments.  While I will admit that I did not see Jose Bautista emerging, I can admit that I have been wrong almost every step of the way when it has come to this man’s career.  Baseball evaluations and predictions have never been an exact science.  For every Dan Uggla and Joakim Soria that I saw emerging, I have been left disappointed by the Phil Nevins and Todd Zeiles of this world.  I am happy to have been wrong on Jose Bautista and have been amazed at the player that he has become.  I was probably one of his biggest critics in the early part of his career and after some convincing, I have finally emerged as a believer.  I do not know Jose Bautista the person, although from all accounts and what I have seen he appears to be very personable and an extremely hard work on and off the field.  My feelings on the player have always centered on his hard numbers, statistics that he produced which to me always told the story.  Well if numbers never lie, then clearly the next big thing has emerged in baseball and his name is Jose Bautista.  As the Bautista bombs continue to launch throughout baseball, expect the player to get fewer and fewer pitches to hit as the season progresses.  Incredibly Bautista has only been walked intentionally twice this year and twice all of last year.  Barry Bonds in comparison, walked 232 times in his peak year of 2004, with 120 of the walks being intentional.  While not coming close to those figures, Bautista might exceed 150 walks this year and approach 175 by seasons end.  That is the sign of a great batting eye and a respected batter around the league.  Pitchers and teams are taking notice and despite doing all they can to limit him, Bautista continues to show a combination of power and patience at league leading levels.  I am finally ready to state that Jose Bautista is the real deal and is here to stay.  I think the rest of baseball finally agrees as well.

Thank you for reading my feature on the top home run hitter in baseball, Jose Bautista.  Please contact me if you have any questions and suggestions for future topics.  The E-mailbag will be posted Wednesday so please be sure to get all your MLB and fantasy baseball questions in by e-mailing me at: mlbreports@gmail.com.

 

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Posted on May 17, 2011, in MLB Player Profiles, Players: Fantasy Baseball Articles and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. I have to say, that this is one of the best written articles I have ever seen. I am also one who was not sure about this guy when he first went to the Blue Jays. When he was sent there, I was like “WHAT!!”…But now having watched him the last year and a half, I have become a big fan. I look forward to seeing the highlights on ESPN, Fox Sports or MLB Network. He will go down as one of the best sluggers in the game. Thanks so much for sharing this with all us baseball fans.

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