Bob Elliott's Baseball: I wouldn't bet against Jose Bautista
Former Jays slugger gambling on himself with minor-league deal
Growing up in the Dominican Republic capital of Santo Domingo, Jose Bautista wanted to be just like his favourite player, George Bell, the Toronto Blue Jays left-fielder and 1987 American League MVP.
But Bell could be hot-headed, and after finding himself without a job in the winter of 1993 — after a dust-up with his Chicago White Sox manager over playing time — proclaimed from his home in Santo de Pedro Marcoris, "I ain't leaving the island for less than $1 million."
Bell's friends told him, "George, sometimes you have to take one step backward to take two steps forward."
Bell never took that step, turning down a handful of minor-league offers before eventually retiring.
Bautista never won an AL MVP award like Bell, but he won consecutive major-league home run titles (2010-11).
And unlike Bell, he has decided to take a step backward after signing a minor-league deal with the Atlanta Braves, reuniting with Braves GM and former Jays GM, Alex Anthopoulos.
If Bautista, back at third base where he started his career, makes the 25-man major-league roster he will earn a pro-rated $1 million US. It's a far cry from the $88 million he'd made the previous six seasons with the Jays.
So much for the theory Bautista is "too stubborn" to accept a minor-league deal.
Anthopoulos, as then-assistant Jays GM, and Jays scout Tony La Cava, orchestrated a trade on Aug. 21, 2008, acquiring Bautista from the Pittsburgh Pirates for another "Jays catcher of the future," Robinzon Diaz, who played just 44 games in the majors.
Bautista is 37, which means he is the same age as Curtis Granderson, the Jays' current platoon lead-off man who hit a grand slam in Wednesday's 15-5 win over the Kansas City Royals.
Bautista is three months younger than Seattle Mariners outfielder Nelson Cruz, who hit 39 homers and drove in 119 runs while batting .288 with a .946 OPS in 2017.
He is younger than 38-year-old Albert Pujols, who hit 23 homers and drove in 101 runs last season while batting .286 with a .672 OPS.
And he is three years younger and in better shape than his good friend David Ortiz, who retired from the Boston Red Sox after a 2016 season in which he batted .315, crushed 38 homers and drove in 127 runs with a 1.021 OPS.
'He plays to win'
Reporting to the Braves' spring facility in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., Bautista is expected to work under instructor Adam Everett for a week and then possibly play for the class-A Florida Fire Frogs in Kissimmee. The Braves hope he will steadily move up through the chain all the way to Atlanta.
"There are certain things you know you're going to get with Jose," Anthopoulos told MLB.com. "He's going to be in tremendous shape. He's going to work hard and study hard. He comes to win, and he plays to win.
"I learned long ago, you don't bet against this guy. He's very proud and very determined. He's somebody I've always said would play into his 40s. I can't speak to what happened last year with him. He'll be the first to tell you he didn't play well."
Bautista hit at least 20 homers each of the past eight seasons, including last season with 23, but that was also a year he batted .203 with a .674 OPS.
Bautista was the Pirates' primary third baseman in 2007, and played in 119 games at third for the Jays (102 starts) from 2008-17. Now the question for the six-time all-star and two-time AL Hank Aaron Award winner: is there room at Atlanta's inn for Bautista at third?
Current Braves third baseman Ryan Flaherty hit a three-run homer on Wednesday, ending a 131-homerless at-bat streak, helping Atlanta to a 7-3 win over the Philadelphia Phillies in his 14th start at third in the Braves' first 17 games. And Johan Camargo, who played 82 games — 43 at third — last season with the Braves as a rookie, was activated from the disabled list the same day. The Braves signed Flaherty in the spring after Camargo was injured.
On a day of comings and goings, first baseman Freddie Freeman departed after he was hit by Phillies reliever Hoby Milner — son of ex-Jay Brian Milner — on the left wrist. That would be the same wrist fractured when Aaron Loup hit Freeman a year ago. The Braves did not announce Freeman's X-ray results.
When the franchise history of the Blue Jays is written, the most important homers off the top will probably look like this:
- 1. Joe Carter off Mitch Williams to win the 1993 World Series at the SkyDome.
- 2. Robbie Alomar's "take-that" two-run shot to right field in the 1992 ALCS after the A's Dennis Eckersley had ended the previous inning striking out Ed Sprague and firing an imaginary six-gun into the Jays' dugout in Oakland.
- 3. Sprague's two-run pinch-hit homer in Game 2 of the 1992 World Series in Atlanta. If Sprague does not go deep, the Jays come home down 0-2 rather than 1-1.
Yet how many of those homers were hit while the riot squad was marshalling at Queen's Park? None.
Or how many of those homers were hit with Jays fans firing beer cans from the 500 level — most only reaching the 100 level? (John Gibbons remembers one whizzing past his head. "For a second I thought Paul Beeston threw it ... but then I saw it was full, so I know it was not his.")
Everyone remembers that 2015 AL Division Series against Texas. Bautista hit a three-run homer off Texas Rangers reliever Sam Dyson to move the Jays into the AL Championship Series against Kansas City.
Perhaps you have seen a clip of it.
Anthopoulos said Bautista made the decision to bet on himself by accepting the minor-league assignment almost a month into the season.
I would not bet against Bautista.
Not a guy who survived the Rule V year from hell in 2003: claimed by the Baltimore Orioles from the Pirates at the winter meetings; claimed on waivers June 3 by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays; contract purchased June 28 by the Kansas City Royals; and on July 30 traded not once but twice: first from the Royals to the New York Mets and then from the Mets to the Pirates. In 228 days he was a part of five different organizations, appeared in 41 games, collected 10 hits and zero homers.
I'm not betting against a guy who did not become an everyday player until the White Sox claimed Alex Rios after the 2009 trade deadline. Bautista then hit 10 homers in the final two months.
Not against a guy who compares, according to the good folks at baseball-reference.com, to Jeromy Burnitz, Troy Glaus, Pat (The Bat) Burrell, Darryl Strawberry, Greg Vaughn, Eric Davis and Edwin Encarnacion. (Hey, I remember that last guy. He could hit a dramatic homer come wild-card time too.)
George Bell's name is on the Level of Excellence at the Rogers Centre. I expect Bautista's to be there one day as well.
The Canuck Bomber: The St. Louis Cardinals promoted Tyler O'Neill from triple-A Memphis, where he knocked down fences under reining International League manager of the year Stubby Clapp.
O'Neill joined the Cards at Wrigley where they will play the Chicago Cubs and could play centre field if the Cards' Tommy Pham isn't 100 per cent recovered from a groin injury.
In 12 games in triple-A O'Neill was hitting .388 with six homers, 18 RBI and a 1.221 OPS. Since opening day 2015, he has 93 homers in 378 games — missing three weeks to help Canada win gold in Ajax, Ont., at the 2015 Pan Am Games — at class-A Bakersfield, double-A Jackson, triple-A Tacoma and Memphis.
He texted his former Langley Blaze coach Doug Mathieson in Aldergrove, B.C., that he wanted a red Blaze t-shirt to wear under his jersey.
At the 2012 Canada Cup, we spoke to Mathieson, now a scout for the Arizona Diamondbacks, before the gold-medal final. He introduced me to O'Neill. When coaches go out of their way to introduce you to someone it has been my experience it's either because he's a stud with a future or he's a favourite. O'Neill was both.
As O'Neill headed back toward the dugout. Mathieson said to him, "Hey, didn't you forget something?" I looked around thinking O'Neill had dropped a batting glove. Instead he came back, shook my hand and said, "Pleasure to meet you sir." O'Neill is from Maple Ridge, B.C. and played at Larry Walker Field.
Email of the week: "The torch has been passed: from Munenori Kawasaki to Jason Grilli to Yangervis Solarte. The Jays have the spirit back." Umm, Kawasaki had 22 extra bases for the Jays, hitting .242 in 201 games with a .617 OPS. Grilli had two saves, blew two and had 21 holds after coming over in a June 1 deal from the Braves in 2016 to stabilize the bullpen. He pitched with emotion. Solarte plays the same way, but has played less than 20 games.
Unanswered questions: How much money is each day in Florida on the disabled list costing Josh Donaldson on the free-agent market or in re-signing with the Jays? ... Ryan Goins was a nice player, but why do some people insist on calling him young Ryan Goins? He's 30 ... How much will the cost of repairing the ice falling through the roof affect plans to make the Rogers Centre less like a dungeon? Even if they remove some concrete it will still be impossible to see the lake because of the condos.