Everyone knows that Jose Bautista is currently proving himself as one of baseball’s elite power hitters, but it’s likely far fewer people know specifics about the winding and less-than-spectacular road “Joey Bats” took to wind up as a dinger masher in the centre of Toronto’s lineup.
Curious to find out exactly how he was perceived before becoming the major league homerun king, I set off to the world of Pittsburgh Pirate fandom (they exist!) to ask some Bucs bloggers more about JoBau’s early career.
Bautista was drafted by the Pirates in 20th round of the 2000 draft and as we check in with Pat Lackey of the cleverly-titled blog Where Have You Gone Andy Van Slyke? (WHYGAVS), we find out our bearded hero wasn’t altogether too prized of a possession early in his career.
“Bautista did sign with the Pirates after he was drafted in 2000 and came up through their system until he was lost in the Rule 5 Draft debacle of December 2003 (the Pirates went into the draft with several open roster spots and some dead weight on their 40-man roster and proceeded to lose five players in the first six picks of the draft). He bounced around from team to team in several trades, then came back to the Pirates as part of the Kris Benson trade,” he said. “As a result, Pirate fans weren’t terribly happy when he was reacquired. He was one of the main pieces of the Benson deal (along with Ty Wigginton), so the Pirates were basically paying to get someone back that they should’ve never lost in the first place. Bautista was a decent but unspectacular prospect at that point that had shown flashes of power in the low minors, so it was nice to have him back but it wasn’t like anyone threw him a parade, either.”
Lackey (the Pirates blogger, not to be confused with our new top-douche pitcher with the Red Sox), explained that throughout his tenure with the Buccos, Bautista didn’t really have a defined role – “he got on base at a decent clip and showed a little bit of pop, but didn’t really do either all that well,” he said, noting he played a bunch of positions, mainly centre and third, “and he played most of them poorly,” he adds, which is likely to be of surprise to those now accustomed to Bautista’s cannon arm in RF.
“Generally he batted leadoff or second or in the bottom third of the order if he’d been slumping, which he was prone to do from time to time. It’s not that he was bad, it’s just that he didn’t really excel at anything, either in the plate or in the field. He more or less looked like a useful utility player at that point in his career,” Lackey said.
Of course, the Pirates would bid Jose adieu on August 21, 2008, when J.P. Ricciardi swung a deal with Pittsburgh to acquire Bautista for a player to be named later (that would four days later be Robinzon Diaz. Diaz, a former Toronto catching prospect, would go on to play 43 games over two years for Pittsburgh, OPS-ing .659 in 545 plate appearances. He hasn’t played in the majors since 2009 and is currently signed to a minor league contract with Texas.)
In hindsight it’s one of the best trades in Jays history and if I were a Pirates fan I would be bitter to this day about (apparent) power potential like Bautista’s getting away. Of course, I’m not a Pirates fan and haven’t sat through multiple losing seasons in a row, so perhaps they are much more accustomed to huge let downs, as Lackey delivers a much more rationale reaction to the trade and what led to it.
“Primarily, the Pirates had used Bautista as a third baseman and by the time he was traded, they’d added Andy LaRoche and Pedro Alvarez to the system. Bautista had indicated that he wasn’t happy when he was demoted to Triple-A after the LaRoche trade and so the deal didn’t come as a huge surprise a few days later. It was one of those situations where it was just hard to see where Bautista fit at the time; the club had committed to giving LaRoche at bats at third and with Nate McLouth in center and Andrew McCutchen right behind him (he was promoted in early June of 2009), his options in the outfield were limited, too,” he said. “Bautista seemed to pretty much everyone to be a known quantity at the time and while no one thought that Diaz was as good as Bautista, they were pretty clearly just trying to get rid of an unhappy player without much trade value at the time. Obviously it looks awful in hindsight, but I don’t remember anyone thinking that at the time the deal went down.”
Fair enough, but doesn’t it sting, just a little, Mr. Lackey?
“My own personal feelings are that the Pirates didn’t do much wrong in their handling of Bautista. They maybe could’ve shopped harder and gotten a slightly better return on him than they did, but as I said above he was mostly a known quantity at the time. There will always be fans who blame the front office for everything, but I think there’s a general consensus that this sort of breakout was impossible for anyone to see coming and that the general consensus is more ‘Woe is me! These things only happen to the Pirates!’ than it is, ‘I can’t believe we let that guy go!’”
Moving on, we catch up with Thomas Smith at Rum Bunter, who seems much more impacted by the void left by Bautista’s trade to Toronto.
“Cole, I don’t know you and bringing up one of my favorite Pirates stings a little bit. Joey Bautista was rather well respected among fans. Some fans had some big hopes for him, I mean it’s hard not to get pumped in Pittsburgh about a player such as Bautista at that time,” he said. “Joey Bats was loved by some of the hardcore fans, but there was nothing that ever showed he would become a ML homerun king. I wasn’t a fan of the trade because I truly enjoyed watching his success and more often it seemed his struggles as a player. But of course, this is coming from a fan of Ronny Cedeno.”
Smith goes on to describe that it’s not so easy to look back and recollect on the era in which Bautista donned the black and yellow.
“As far as to what role Bautista had on the 2005 and 2006 teams, uh, those teams were painful. Robinson Diaz is dead to me. And it appears that this trade could go down as one of the five worst in Pirates history. Many of us were going to wait and see just how long JB can continue mashing, but it is starting to appear that’s a done deal,” he said. “Of course, we can’t speak for everyone, but sure some people are pissed. I think it was the coaching and development more than a change of scenery that Bautista needed, it was a persistent problem back then. It’s hard to fathom Bautista doing what he is doing in Toronto should he have remained in Pittsburgh. We just don’t think that would have happened.”
Of course, while it would be the understatement of the century to say the Pirates could use a 54 homerun bat in their lineup, apparently the grass has been exceedingly browner on the other side.
“All of this typing makes me miss Bautista. Especially as Pedro Alvarez hovers near .200 and Matt Diaz, the right fielder that was supposed to hit left handers…oh, sorry, just back to being a Pirates fan. Enjoy JoeyBats. The Blue Jays suck,” Smith added in good fun.
Fair enough, good sir.
Our final stop in Pirates Nation is to speak with Charlie Wilmoth at Bucs Dugout, who said Bautista had a bit of buzz around him after a good season in 2002, but he also echoed Lackey’s sentiments that early on in his career, he ultimately became a utility man who “wasn’t very good defensively at any position.”
Wilmoth said he went through a variety of emotions following Bautista’s trade to Toronto.
“My initial reaction was to be offended, because I felt like the Pirates were giving him away for essentially nothing, and that wasn’t necessary. However, he was about to get more expensive in arbitration, and really bad teams like the Pirates just don’t really need players like the kind Bautista was then. So I eventually came around to being fine with the trade, although there was hardly any reason to actively like it. It never occurred to me that he would have this ridiculous power breakout.”
Toronto fans have had to deal with players who have been less-than-spectacular while with the Jays, but have gone on to bigger and better things – Chris Carpenter, Esteban Loiza and Jeff Kent as examples.
Obviously fans of the Buccos have had to put themselves through the “what could have been” scenarios as they’ve watched Bautista make many an American League pitcher soil themselves due to the discomfort of having to face him. However, surprisingly, for a fanbase that has endured 18 consecutive losing seasons * (see note at bottom), Wilmoth says Pittsburgh fans have taken it all in stride.
“There has been some tooth-gnashing, sure, but I think most of the smarter fans just see what happened to Bautista as something that couldn’t have been foreseen. If I recall correctly, the Bucs’ coaches tried to suggest the mechanical changes that eventually made Bautista successful in Toronto, but he didn’t understand them or know how to implement them,” he said. “It’s a shame that the Pirates didn’t harness Bautista’s power, but beyond that, I’m not sure what the Bucs can learn from that situation. He lost his job so that the Pirates could play Andy LaRoche. That didn’t work out for the Pirates, but it was clearly the right move at the time.”
All together, Bautista spent parts of five years with the Buccos, compiling 1520 plate appearances, 43 homeruns, 159 RBIs, a .241/.329/.403 slash line and an OPS+ of 91. By comparison, through 1282 plate appearances over four seasons with Toronto, he has 81 homeruns, 194 RBI and a .258/.377/.553 slash line.
How would Bautista be received if he were to return to PNC Park in Pittsburgh? Unfortunately, we won’t get to find out this season, as the Jays host the Pirates for three games June 28-30, but that’s the only times the two baseball juggernauts will meet in 2011, pending a potential World Series matchup (Hey, we can both dream!)
However, talking with those who have seen players come and go in Pittsburgh over the years, it seems the reception would be less than warm.
“Honestly? He’d probably get booed because that’s what Pittsburgh does to ex-players who do well elsewhere when they come back no matter what,” Lackey says. “He wasn’t exceptionally well-liked or disliked when he was a Pirate. He was just a below-average baseball player on some below-average baseball teams.”
Fair enough, and that sentiment is shared by Wilmoth, who says he watches most games from home, but his perception is that “fans at PNC boo even former players who there’s no way they should have problems with. They booed Matt Stairs when I was there a couple weeks ago; that made no sense.”
I can back him up on that, as there is absolutely, unequivocally no way that anyone should boo Matt Stairs, unless of course you are a friend or close relative of Jonathan Broxton’s. (Side note, I miss Matt Stairs).
Finally, Thomas Smith at Rum Bunter throws our boy some much due respect and takes a more optimistic approach as to what Joey Bats’ reception might sound like.
“Obviously Bautista has discovered what alluded him in Pittsburgh and good for him. I would like to think Pittsburgh would give Bautista a nice round of applause, it’s pretty cool he has been able to become such a force for the Blue Jays,” he said. “And if he went 0-12 in the three game series and the Bucs swept the Jays, a standing ovation would be in order.”
0-for-12? Good luck with that. I think the last time Bautista at least didn’t work out a walk or two throughout a series was …. Well, when he was in Pittsburgh.
At any rate, thanks to the Pirates fans for answering my curious questions and good luck to them in acquiring a winning season this year. Let’s hope that in 2012 the Blue Jays youth movement all comes together to propel our club to the postseason and that whatever the hell the building strategy is in Pittsburgh finally pays off, so we can have that “dream” World Series and see Joey Bats back in Pittsburgh.
*** The last time the Pirates had a winning club was in 1992, when they lost in the NLCS to Atlanta. You might remember that as the year Toronto won their first World Series. Considering I’ve watched the VHS of the story of the 1992 World Series about 200 times, the way the Pirates last winning season crushingly came to an end is still emblazoned in my brain. The Buccos blew a 2-0 lead in the bottom of the 9th of Game 7 as pinch hitter Francisco Cabrera supplied the heroics. The call from the CBS broadcast still sticks with me: “Line drive and a base hit! Justice has scored the tying run, Bream to the plate and he is … SAFE! Safe at the plate! The Braves go to the World Series!”
Also of note was that Doug Drabek, father of the apple of our eye Kyle, was the starting (and eventual losing) pitcher of that Game 7. And now, because everyone needs a little early 90s baseball once in a while (and needs to check out Drabek’s pimp ‘stache), here’s a cool (but low quality) video I found on Youtube of the rally. This would make me cry if I were a Pirates fan, so probably best to avert your eyes if you are reading this from Pittsburgh.