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July 11, 2011

On the Beat

Digging the Long Ball

by John Perrotto

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Sadly, Toronto has become one of baseball's hinterlands over the last two decades.

The Blue Jays haven't been to the postseason since winning the second of back-to-back World Series in 1993. It has been a generation since the Blue Jays were drawing four million a fans a season at SkyDome, the facility now called Rogers Centre.

While the Blue Jays have truly been Canada's team since the Expos bolted Montreal for Washington and became the Nationals following the 2004 season, they are mostly anonymous in the United States. They rarely make national television appearances and usually serve as easy pickings for the powerhouse Red Sox and Yankees in the American League East.

The Blue Jays almost certainly won't be in the postseason again this season, as they enter the All-Star break with a 45-47 record that leaves them in fourth place in the AL East, 11 games behind the first-place Red Sox. However, they are beginning to shed their cloak of anonymity, thanks to a late-blooming superstar who has been the best player in the major leagues this season with a 7.1 WARP, 2.2 points better than the player ranking second in that category, Dodgers center fielder Matt Kemp.

Third baseman Jose Bautista has put the Blue Jays in the spotlight by following up his out-of-nowhere 54-homer season of 2010 with a major-league-leading 31 home runs, a .403 True Average, and a .334/.468/.702 slash line in 376 plate appearances.

"I'd hate to think where we'd be without him," Blue Jays manager John Farrell said.

Bautista will be front and center during the All-Star festivities at Chase Field in Phoenix. He will be on the American League team in tonight's Home Run Derby, then start in the outfield for the AL on Tuesday night in the 83rd All-Star Game, an affair that will lack many of the game's top players, who are either skipping it because of injury or didn't make the respective league rosters because of subpar seasons.

Thus, Bautista will get plenty of attention, especially after breaking a 17-year-old major-league record by receiving more than 7.5 million votes in Major League Baseball's fan balloting. Ken Griffey Jr. set the mark in 1994.

It's all pretty mind-boggling to the 30-year-old Bautista, who was happy just to be holding down a regular spot in the Blue Jays’ lineup two years ago, after the team acquired the Dominican Republic native in a trade with the Pirates late in the 2008 season.

"It was hard for me to believe the vote count when it came out," said Bautista, who had never hit more than 16 homers in a season until last year. "It takes time to sit down in front of the computer and vote. A whole lot of people took the time to do that in support of me. I knew the fans in Canada and the Dominican would support me, but obviously a lot of people in the United States had to vote for me, too. It's a good feeling to know so many fans appreciate the way I play. It's amazing. It really is. I can't thank the fans enough."

Bautista's unexpected surge to stardom has been well-documented. Blue Jays hitting coach Dwayne Murphy was able to change Bautista's swing mechanics and allow him to add bat speed and get to the ball quicker. Bautista's 1.5 WARP with the Blue Jays in 2009 was his highest in five full major-league seasons until his tally jumped to 5.7 last year, when he led the majors in home runs.

Before this season began, there was a sense that Bautista's 2010 was an outlier. However, Bautista has shown himself to be a legitimate star this season and proven that Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos made the right decision to sign him to a five-year, $65 million contract last winter despite his ordinary pre-2010 track record.

"I always felt I could be a good big-league player, but I honestly never imagined this, especially the home runs," Bautista said. "A lot of factors came into play. When I got here from Pittsburgh, the Blue Jays told me I needed to make changes in my swing, my game plan, and my approach. They gave me everyday at-bats and hit me in the No. 3 hole, and it's a lot different hitting in the No. 8 hole in the National League than it is the No. 3 hole in the American League. Obviously, you're going to get more chances to produce when you're in the situation I'm in now."

Farrell had watched Bautista evolve as a hitter from the opposing dugout, as he was Boston’s pitching coach before the Blue Jays hired him to replace the retiring Cito Gaston last winter. Farrell is quite impressed with Bautista's approach at the plate.

"The thing that really stands out to me is his ability to adjust from at-bat to at-bat," Farrell said. "We've seen games where teams have tried three or four ways to get him out, and in some of those games it's resulted in multiple home runs for him. I can describe that in two words: game awareness. It's remarkable."

Bautista has also impressed Farrell in ways that go beyond hitting. When the Blue Jays wanted to attempt to upgrade their lineup two weeks ago by giving rookie outfielder Eric Thames a chance to play regularly and moving Bautista back to third base, the primary position he played with the Pirates, Bautista acquiesced.

"People point to the numbers with Jose," Farrell said. "They point to the home runs, the RBIs, the total votes he received, but we're privileged to see the person. To me, the type of person he is makes him truly special. He has a lot of momentum going this season. He has Gold Glove ability in right field. Yet he unselfishly went back to third base to fill a need for us. Things like that are what set him apart."

Ego has never been a problem for Bautista. The Pirates selected him in the 20th round of the 2000 first-year player draft following his freshman season at Chipola Junior College in Marianna, Florida. The Pirates planned to give him a $100,000 signing bonus, but they exceeded their draft budget and couldn't make an offer. Instead of being angry about not getting a chance to turn pro, Bautista went back to school and had a better sophomore year. He drove up his value to the point that the Pirates signed him for $560,000 in order to keep him from going back into the draft.

Bautista also became the king of the transactions wire during the 2004 season after the Orioles selected him from the Pirates in the Rule 5 Draft at the winter meetings. He wound up bouncing from the Orioles to the Devil Rays to the Royals to the Mets to the Pirates, as each team opted not to keep him on its 25-man roster.

Add all of those experiences to Bautista not reaching stardom until his late 20s, and it's easy to see why he doesn't get too carried away with his newfound celebrity.

"He hasn't forgotten his path," Farrell said. "It keeps him humble, keeps him grounded. He doesn't take shortcuts. He puts forth the time and dedication it takes to be a successful player. He watches video of the opposing pitchers. He does his pre-game work in the (batting) cage. He's always prepared, both physically and mentally. You feel very fortunate to have a player and a person of this caliber on your club. He's not only a great player, but he's become a great ambassador of the city of Toronto. He's a very special person."


Rumors & Rumblings

The Cubs are willing to trade right-hander Carlos Zambrano, third baseman Aramis Ramirez, right fielder Kosuke Fukudome, infielders Jeff Baker and Blake DeWitt, and outfielder Reed Johnson, but they plan to hang on to starters Ryan Dempster and Matt Garza and relievers Carlos Marmol and Sean Marshall. The Cubs also have no plans to rebuild and are instead looking to trade for veterans who are signed beyond this season… The Pirates have interest in Orioles first baseman Derrek Lee, Cubs first baseman Carlos Pena, and Twins right fielder Michael Cuddyer, but they would rather absorb salary than give up a top prospect… The Mariners have $30.5 million of their season-opening $86.5 million payroll as dead money, with infielders Chone Figgins ($9 million) and Jack Wilson ($5 million) being reduced to bench players, closer David Aardsma ($4.5 million) having been on the disabled list all season, and outfielder Milton Bradley ($12 million) getting released in May… The Cardinals are close to signing left-hander Jaime Garcia to a four-year, $27.5 million contract extension that would buy out his first year of free agency.

White Sox bench coach Joey Cora called top outfield prospect Dayan Viciedo, who is biding his time tearing up the International League at Triple-A Charlotte, to tell him not to get caught up in not being promoted. Manager Ozzie Guillen does not want to bench outfielders Juan Pierre or Carlos Quentin or designated hitter Adam Dunn in order to give Viciedo regular playing time… Right-handed set-up reliever Aaron Crow has made the AL All-Star team in his rookie season, but the Royals plan to look at him as a starter in spring training next year… Right-hander Kevin Millwood's chances of pitching in the major leagues appear to be getting slimmer, as the Red Sox do not feel his stuff has been good enough at Triple-A Pawtucket to get major-league hitters out. That comes after the Yankees also released Millwood from their farm system… The Indians are considering taking right-hander Mitch Talbot out of their rotation and replacing him with either left-hander David Huff or right-hander Jeanmar Gomez, both of whom are pitching well at Triple-A Columbus.


Scouts' views

Rockies right-hander Aaron Cook: "He looks like he's on his last legs. He's not throwing his sinker as hard as he used to, as he rarely hits 90 and it has lost its bite. He's throwing his slider more, but that's not enough to compensate for not having a good sinker. He's had a heckuva lot of injuries, and eventually they all add up."

Red Sox center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury: "He looks like someone who is playing like he has something to prove after missing most of last season and having his toughness questioned inside his own clubhouse. He's become a force at leadoff. He's improved his plate discipline, he's learned how to handle off-speed pitches, and he's starting to turn on pitches. He's also playing a very good center field. He's been one of the 10 best players in the major leagues this year."

Blue Jays left fielder Travis Snider: "He's looked a lot better since getting called back up from Triple-A. He's really driving the ball a lot more than he was at the start of the season. He's shortened his swing considerably, and now he's able to get around on the fastball. And he might have the best porn moustache in baseball right now."

Pirates right fielder Garrett Jones: "He looks like a case of ‘hitter who has gotten away from his strength.’ Pitchers started throwing him so many breaking balls and off-speed pitches last year after he had the good rookie year in '09 that he's no longer geared up to hit the fastball. He needs to find a way to speed his bat back up, because crushing fastballs is how he makes his living."

Phillies third baseman Placido Polanco: "It's becoming more and more obvious that his back is bothering him. He's not getting full extension on his swings, and he's slow getting down on ground balls. You wonder, at some point, if they need to put him on the DL for a couple of weeks to let him heal up."

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

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