Non-Hype Prospect – Jose Bautista

Jose Bautista, or Joey Bats, as he is known on Twitter, has been one of the most dominant players in baseball during the past two years and, if you looked at him just 24 months ago, you would have seen a career replacement-level player with a poor batting average and a sudden spike in home runs.  Bautista might be the best example of why you should not give up on a minor leaguer with potential, and why the Rule V draft can be incredibly disruptive to the development of a prospect.  But how did Bautista get there?

After not being signed as an international free agent out of the Dominican Republic, Bautista enrolled at Chipola Junior College in Florida, and performed well enough to be drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates with the 19th pick of the 20th round (#599 overall) of the 2000 Rule IV draft as a draft and follow.  Signed prior to the 2001 draft, Bautista was assigned to the Williamsport Crosscutters of the Short Season A New York Penn League, where he showed promise, putting up a 286/364/427 line while primarily playing third base.  After the season, Baseball America ranked Bautista the #14 prospect in the Pirates’ system.

For 2002, Bautista played for the awesomely-named Hickory Crawdads of the A-level South Atlantic League, where he put up a 301/402/470 line with 26 doubles and 14 homers (tied for 8th with Robinson Cano and Shelley Duncan) while almost exclusively playing third base.  Bautista’s prospect status remained on the rise, as he was ranked the #7 prospect in the Pirates’ system by Baseball America.

Bautista’s 2003 season was a lost season due to a right hand injury (caused by pulling a Kevin Brown and punching a garbage can out of frustration), putting up a 242/359/424 line for the Lynchburg Hillcats of the High-A Carolina League and 348/429/522 in seven rehab games for the Rookie Level GCL Pirates.

After the 2003 season, Bautista’s career trajectory took an abrupt jolt due to a massive mistake by the Pirates’ GM, Dave Littlefield.  Despite having three open spots on the 40-man roster, the Pirates chose not to protect a number of prospects, including Pirates’ Minor League Player of the Year, Chris Shelton and Bautista.  Even before the draft, a number of people within baseball were wondering what Littlefield was thinking, leaving so many players unprotected.  In the Major League Phase of the Rule V Draft, the Detroit Tigers selected Shelton #1 overall, with Bautista going #6 overall to the Baltimore Orioles.  Bautista was lauded for his high ceiling and athleticism, along with his solid play in winter ball in his native Dominican Republic.  Now with the Orioles, Bautista was ranked their #12 prospect despite only appearing in 58 games in 2003.

The Major League Phase of the Rule V draft requires draftees to be kept on the Major League roster for the entire season, or they must be offered back to their original team for half of the initial $50,000 used to select the paper (AKA $25,000).  If the original team declines, the new team may send the player down to the minors.

As a result, Bautista opened the 2004 season with the Baltimore Orioles, primarily acting as a pinch hitter and pinch runner, picking up spot starts while putting up a 273/333/273 line over 16 games (with only 12 plate appearances) before being put on waivers in early June.  The Tampa Bay Devil Rays selected Bautista off of waivers on June 3.  Bautista appeared in just 12 games with the Devil Rays over the course of the next three weeks before having his contract being purchased from the Devil Rays by the Kansas City Royals.  With the Royals, Bautista appeared in 13 games before being dealt to the New York Mets for Justin Huber.  Mets GM Jim Duquette, in his infinite wisdom, immediately turned around and packaged Bautista with Ty Wiggington and Matt Peterson for Kris Benson and Jeff Keppinger, errantly believing the Mets were still in playoff contention.  Duquette also dealt top prospect Scott Kazmir with Jose Diaz to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays for Bartolome Fortunado and Victor Zambrano, giving a generation of Mets fans a source of woe.  Bautista remained with the Pirates for the rest of the season, appearing in 23 games and putting up a woeful 200/238/250 line.

Bautista’s final line for the 2004 season was 205/263/239 for four teams, though he was part of a fifth team for a hot minute.  Despite all of this, Bautista was still viewed as a decent prospect, as Baseball America ranked him #12 in the Pirates system.  The Pirates assigned Bautista to the AA Altoona Curve of the Eastern League, where Bautista absolutely crushed the ball, putting up a 283/364/503 line with 23 home runs across 117 games.  Promoted to the AAA Indianapolis Indians of the International League on August 24, Bautista put up a 255/309/373 in 13 games.  Given a September call up, Bautista put up a 143/226/179 line over 31 plate appearances during 11 games.  After the season, Baseball America ranked Bautista the #5 prospect in the Pirates’ organization and the Pirates named him their minor league player of the year.

Bautista began 2006 in Indianapolis, but was called up to be the Pirates’ utility man in early May when Joe Randa was hurt.  With Chris Duffy and Nate McLouth, the Pirates center field platoon, struggling, Bautista played a significant amount of center field en route to putting up a 235/335/420 line across 117 games.  Bautista appeared in 57 games in center field, 33 games at third base, 25 games in right field, 6 in left field, and two at second base (the totals will not add up, as Bautista appeared in multiple positions during a game on more than one occasion).

In 2007, Bautista was the Pirates primary third baseman, putting up a 254/339/414 line across 142 games; 126 games at third base, 16 in right field, 5 in center field, and 2 in left field (totals will not add up again due to in-game positional changes).  Bautista missed significant time in July 2007 after Chipper Jones spike lacerated his hand, forcing Bautista onto the DL.

In 2008, Bautista helped the Tigres del Lincy win the Caribbean Series, putting up a robust 250.385/600 line while playing center field, left field, and third base, tying Miguel Tejada and Roberto Saucedo for the Caribbean Series lead in home runs.   Bautista opened the 2008 season as the starting third baseman for the Pirates, but failed to show much improvement, and was supplanted by Andy LaRoche in late July.  Having put up a 242/325/404 line with the Pirates, Bautista was traded to the Toronto Blue Jays for a player to be named later, which turned out to be Robinzon Diaz.   Bautista closed out the year with 61 plate appearances for the Blue Jays, hitting a putrid 214/237/411.

Bautista opened the 2009 season platooning in left field with rookie Travis Snider and occasionally backing up Scott Rolen at third base.  Bautista held a 234/356/355 line when the Blue Jays let the Chicago White Sox claim Alex Rios off waivers.  Bautista played nearly every day for the rest of the season, putting up a 236/341/500 line with ten home runs.  As the story goes, Vernon Wells told Bautista:

“You know what you should do.  Think about starting as early as you can possibly imagine, so early that it seems ridiculous. And then start even earlier than that. What do you have to lose? If you look like a fool, you look like a fool. It’s just one game.”

That sudden power surge, with Bautista hitting six home runs in the final eight games of the season signaled that Bautista may have finally putting it all together.

Bautista opened the 2010 season as the Blue Jays’ right fielder and leadoff man, but when Fred Lewis was acquired, Bautista was moved back in the lineup.  After a poor April (213/314/427), Bautista came alive in May and put up a 287/422/766 line with 12 home runs.  Bautista had a poor June (179/324/369) and then came alive for the rest of the season, hitting 11 home runs in July, 12 in August, and 11 in September to lead the Major Leagues in home runs with 54 en route to a 260/378/617 season where he would also lead the majors in total bases with 351 (tied with Colorado’s Carlos Gonzalez) while coming in fourth in MVP voting.  Bautista was also elected to the All Star Game and was awarded the Silver Slugger.

After the season, Bautista signed a new contract with the Blue Jays for five years and $65 million guaranteed, with a club option worth $14 million for a sixth year (and a $1 million buyout).  There was a lot of speculation in the off season if Bautista was the next big slugger who finally figured it out, or if Bautista was a player who had one nice season but would never be able to replicate the results.  The Blue Jays clearly thought Bautista finally figured it out, but there were skeptics.  Additionally, there were skeptics who felt that Bautista’s numbers were assisted by unnatural sources, such as steroids.  As the debate raged between the 2010 and 2011 seasons, Bautista remained steadfast in his denial: he had not used performance enhancing drugs.

Bautista used 2011 to silence his critics: he hit a robust 302/447/608 with 43 home runs (and 24 intentional walks), coming in third place in the MVP vote, making his second consecutive All Star Game, and being awarded his second Silver Slugger.  But Bautista struggled with minor injuries in the second half of the season, as he only hit 257/419/477 after putting up a video game-like 334/468/702 in the first half.

In the 2011-2012 off season, the steroid rumors swirled again, with Bautista stating:

“I don’t mind it; it’s something that is not going to affect my focus and I’m not going to allow it to affect how I play my game.  They are entitled to do whatever they want and test you as many times as they want.  If I get picked to be tested a million times, that’s fine with me.”

So what happens from here?  I think Bautista has a nice next few seasons, but I think we have seen the peak of Jose Bautista.  Bautista is 31, an age when athletic performance declines, and has gotten off to a slow start so far in 2012, with a 181/320/313 line in the season’s first month.  Even baseball writers have noted Bautista’s slow start with an implied belief that (a) Bautista is for real and (b) it’s merely a slump, such as Baseball ProspectusBen Lindberg:

and the Vice President of Statistics for MLB Advanced Media, Corey Schwartz:

and FOX Sports’ Jon Morosi:

and Baseball Prospectus’  Kevin Goldstein:

I think Bautista will bounce back with a solid season with 35+ home runs, a level he will maintain for the next few seasons.  If Bautista hits 25 per year for each of the next four years – a very attainable level for someone who has his talent and #want, he could easily end up one of the top 200 home run hitters of all time (250 total would be 200th all time).

While Jose Bautista will never be elected to the Hall of Fame (unless he goes all Barry Bonds on us), it’s great to see him get a chance and succeed at the highest level after all he’s gone through – especially his horrific 2004.

Until next time, follow me @HypeProspect.


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