When Jose Bautista was traded to the Toronto Blue Jays in August 2008, it was the fifth different franchise the then-27-year-old had played for. The bulk of his major league career up to that point was spent mostly coming off the bench, so no one expected much out of the deal.
It took another year before the Blue Jays would give Bautista consistent playing time, but then in 2010 everything changed.
Bautista belted a major-league high 54 home runs in 161 games played in 2010, en route to finishing fourth in the American League MVP voting.
Naturally, there were some skeptics who wondered whether he was capable of duplicating his performance the following season. Not only did Bautista duplicate it, he improved upon it. He “only” managed to hit 43 homers in 2011, but had a career-high .302 batting average, .447 on-base percentage, while leading the American League in slugging percentage (.608) and OPS (1.056).
After such a drastic jump in performance—prior to 2010, Bautista’s career high in home runs and slugging percentage was 16 and .420 with Pittsburgh in 2006—it might be easy to think that there was some major mechanical adjustment that the Blue Jays worked on to help him increase his offensive output.
I had the chance to talk to the Blue Jays All-Star during an event for Reebok, which included a Crossfit Challenge and workout with David Ortiz and Bautista on opposing teams, where we discussed his career trajectory, and where he sees this franchise now and in the future.
“The difference was (Toronto) gave me a chance to play every single day without worrying about results, and they put me in a good position to succeed,” Bautista said. “I started the season as the leadoff hitter, then they moved me to the three hole. That’s much different than hitting at the bottom of the lineup; a heck of a lot more different than hitting eighth in the National League.”
With newfound success comes reward, as the Blue Jays locked Bautista up with a five-year, $65 million contract extension in the spring of 2011. This was a franchise that has been looking towards the future since winning the 1993 World Series, and after dealing Roy Halladay in 2010, it had found the new face that would hopefully lead the turnaround.
Bautista was able to enjoy his third straight trip to the All-Star Game this season, starting in right field for the American League.
Despite Bautista becoming a veteran of these games, he looks forward to the experience of it every time.
You get to enjoy them all. They’re all a great event to attend, obviously. You get to meet a lot of the players that you’re always seeing on the field, more of a personal level get to know them as human beings. You get to play with the best players in the world. You get to do things like the Home Run Derby.
Bautista’s presence notwithstanding, the Blue Jays’ best record since winning back-to-back championships in 1992 and 1993 is 86-76, in 2003 and 2008. During Bautista’s reign of terror, the team has posted 85 and 81 victories.
Those are solid, respectable records considering where everyone expected them to be after trading Halladay, but not close to good enough in the American League East.
Everyone who follows baseball knows that winning in the American League East is more difficult than figuring the ending of Lost.
To make matters worse, the Blue Jays have been trying to get through this season without pitchers Brandon Morrow, Kyle Drabek, Drew Hutchison and Sergio Santos for at least a portion of the year due to injuries. First baseman Adam Lind also had to be sent down to Triple-A to figure out his swing.
Even with all their problems, the Blue Jays find themselves just 2.5 games behind Baltimore for the second wild-card spot.
Bautista understands the situation the team is in now, but remains hopeful that they will be able to do what is necessary to keep the Blue Jays in the race.
"We need more bodies to fill the rotation and pitching holes that we have,” said Bautista. “We have a lot of depth in the minor leagues, and they have done an adequate job of coming in and filling in for those guys, sometimes out of their roles. We have some guys from the bullpen in the starting rotation. They’ve done a marvelous job right now, but it’d be silly to think that’s going to be sustainable.”
“I’m sure (general manager) Alex (Anthopoulos) is doing his due diligence. He plays his cards pretty close to his chest. He doesn’t really reveal much. You never know when he is on the verge of pulling a move, so hopefully he has a surprise soon.”
As Bautista hints at, the cupboard is hardly bare for the Blue Jays. Anthopoulos has done a remarkable job of building up the farm system with a strong collection of high-ceiling arms and athletes. The results have not paid off at the big league level quite yet, though he is only in his third year as GM.
Being a veteran on a team mixing in young stars can be a daunting task, and Bautista understands that the key to the Blue Jays’ success depends on the key players already in Toronto.
“I think the most important thing for us is that the core we have in place right now already in the big leagues performing is pretty good,” Bautista said. “You have guys like Brett Lawrie, Colby Rasmus, J.P. Arencibia, Yunel Escobar, myself, Ricky Romero, Brandon Morrow already tied up with the organization for the next three or four years.”
With so many players having to come in and take on roles that they may not be ready for or used to, the Blue Jays are doing all they can just to keep their head above water. Bautista understands his role as a leader on this team, and will do whatever it takes to make the new guys feel comfortable.
You try to ease the transition and adjust to the different level of play and different lifestyle . Kind of give your pointers when it comes to dealing with the media, and a lot of the stuff that’s off the field that might derail you or get you out of what’s more important, which is performing on the field.
In a lot of ways, Bautista’s career arc mirrors what the Blue Jays are going through right now. He was a player trying to find himself and have someone give him a real chance to play every day. When he got it, he took full advantage of it.
The Blue Jays essentially started over after trading Halladay before the 2010 season. They were fortunate to have good talent already in place at the big league level, but their minor league system has really taken off.
They are in the thick of the playoff race right now because of Bautista and their offense. They are on the rise in the American League. There is still a lot of work to be done, but Bautista will be right in the middle of everything.
That is quite a change for a player who was traded four different times in one season. But all Bautista needed was someone to believe in him. Maybe all the Blue Jays need is someone to notice them and believe in what they are doing.
For those Blue Jays fans that have waited 20 years to see their team make it back to the postseason, the future is coming sooner rather than later. Bautista is doing all he can to make sure of that.