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Prospect Retro: Jose Bautista

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Jose Bautista of the Toronto Blue Jays hits against the Tampa Bay Rays during an MLB game at the Rogers Centre May 31, 2010 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Abelimages/Getty Images)
Jose Bautista of the Toronto Blue Jays hits against the Tampa Bay Rays during an MLB game at the Rogers Centre May 31, 2010 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Abelimages/Getty Images)
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Prospect Retro: Jose Bautista

Jose Bautista of the Toronto Blue Jays is currently tied for the major league lead with 16 homers. No one expected a season like this from a guy who's looked like a journeyman for some time. Per reader request, let's take a look at Bautista's development as a prospect.

 Jose Bautista was born in the Dominican Republic, but came to the US to play college baseball at Chipola Junior College in Florida. Drafted in the 20th round in 2000, he signed as a draft-and-follow  in the spring of '01 and hit .286/.364/.427 for Williamsport in the New York-Penn League. Bautista was considered a solid defensive third baseman with a chance to be a very good hitter, making contact and showing power potential but somewhat spotty plate discipline. I did not write about many short-season players back then, but would give a similar player a Grade C or C+ nowadays, pending higher-level data.

Promoted to Hickory in the Sally League in '02, Bautista had a fine season, hitting .301/.402/.470 with 14 homers, 67 walks, and 104 strikeouts in 438 at-bats. Although his error rate was high, scouting reports remained positive about his glove, and he showed enough athleticism to spend some time in center field, where he had played in college. His offensive numbers were quite strong for context, with a +27 percent OPS. Impressed with the offensive development, I gave him a Grade B- in the 2003 book.

Bautista got off to a slow start in 2003, struggling at High-A Lynchburg. During a rough game in late May, he got frustrated and punched a garbage can, breaking his hand and costing him two months of games. He finished with uninspiring .242/.359/.424 numbers on the season, although he did show an increased walk rate despite his troubles. The Pirates didn't think anyone would be interested in him because of the injury, so they left him unprotected from the Rule 5 draft. The Orioles pounced.

He showed enough in spring training to earn a spot on the Baltimore bench, but after just 16 games and 11 at-bats over two months, he was put on waivers. The Devil Rays claimed him, but he got into just 12 games there before being sold to Kansas City. After 13 contests for the Royals, he was traded to the Mets for Justin Huber, and then went back to the Pirates on the same day (July 30th) as part of the Kris Benson deal. All told, he hit .205/.263/.239 in 64 games, 88 at-bats, a lost season.

After limited playing time in '03 and '04, Bautista needed regular work in '05 and got it at Double-A Altoona, hitting .283/.364/.503 with 23 homers and a 48/101 BB/K ratio. He hit just .143 in an 11-game trial with the Pirates, but his career looked back on track, granted he still needed some work with the strike zone. His OPS was +20 percent in the Eastern League, and I gave him a Grade C+, writing that he still had a chance to be an interesting player if he kept the zone under control and cut back on careless errors at third base.

Bautista needed a good dose of Triple-A, but got just 29 games for Indianapolis in '06 and spent most of the season with the Pirates, hitting .235/.335/.420 in 117 games, playing a lot of center field. He did hit 16 homers and drew 46 walks, but overall his production was just so-so with a .755 OPS. He put up very similar numbers in '07 (.753 OPS), then was traded to the Blue Jays in '08. Last year he hit .235/.349/.408, .757 OPS, although he was hot in September and showed an improved walk rate all season, drawing 56 in just 336 at-bats.

 Dave Cameron posted an article about Bautista at Fangraphs last month, pointing out Bautista's power surge that began late last year, possibly be related to adjustments he made to his swing.

He is currently hitting .247/.370/.584 with 16 homers. His batting average is within career norms, but his 2010 Isolated Power of .337 is much higher than the rest of his career, and his walk rate is considerably higher (15.2% this year, 13.9% last year, career 11.2%). Looking at just the numbers within the context of the rest of his career, it looks like Bautista has gained better command of the strike zone and is having a late 20s power surge. Such surges are not unusual, although his seems stronger than most, granted we need to see how things pan out the rest of the year.

My take: he'll cool down eventually and won't be leading the league in home runs in September, but will remain productive overall....good power, more walks than in the past, mediocre batting average. His defensive reliability has improved, and his ability to play multiple positions is a roster asset.

I do wonder what Bautista's career might have looked like, if not for the injuries, the season lost to Rule 5, and the lack of a full Triple-A season. Many similar players have failed to develop. Scouts always liked his potential, but he never put it together completely until late last year, and the odd development path was probably one culprit.