Commentary

Jose Bautista is ready for face time

A 54-homer season and $65 million deal have made slugger the Jays' marquee player

Updated: February 22, 2011, 1:30 PM ET
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- Ordinarily in baseball, there's only so much insight you can glean from a spring training ritual as momentous as Photo Day.

But in the case of those 2011 Toronto Blue Jays, we'll make an exception.

For just about everybody else on this "Who are these guys?" kind of roster -- for Travis Snider, for Octavio Dotel, for even the manager, John Farrell -- the Photo Day duties consisted of a pose here, a snap there and see ya later.

But not for Jose Bautista.

He stood. He kneeled. He swung the bat. He waggled the bat. He smiled. He glared. He did everything but pose for the Sports Illustrated swimsuit cover.

[+] EnlargeJose Bautista
Nick Laham/Getty ImagesJose Bautista is the face of the franchise, and as the face of the franchise you get your picture taken -- a lot.

He stared into the camera for 15 minutes. And there's a good reason for that:

Jose Bautista is now the face of this franchise.

Think about it. Roy Halladay now trains up Route 19 in Clearwater. Vernon Wells is an Angel now. Even Lyle Overbay and Kevin Gregg have moved onward.

So who's left standing? That would be a 30-year-old utility guy turned right fielder turned third baseman who is now the highest-paid player on this roster, thanks to the eyeball-popping five-year, $65 million contract he signed just last week.

A year ago at this time, Bautista owned the same career OPS (.729) as Tony Graffanino. You could look it up. Then this man went out and thumped 54 homers, became the first American Leaguer to hit 50 since A-Rod (in 2007), won the Hank Aaron Award, even got a first-place MVP vote.

Turned out to be a life-changing event -- "in a million ways," Bautista said.

"It was definitely magical. And it was definitely something that's going to be hard to repeat. But I welcome the challenge. "

He knows, and his team knows, that there are millions of skeptics roaming the streets of North America who would replace that word, "magical," with "fluky." Or possibly some other catchy words we won't repeat here.

But now, Bautista doesn't just have to prove that his metamorphosis as a player is real. He also has to prove that his new contract was dollars well spent -- both Canadian and U.S. mint editions.

Not everyone in this sport is so sure of that, of course. If you listen closely, you probably can hear them muttering: FIVE guaranteed seasons, at an average of $13 million a year?

For a player who has hit more than 16 home runs ONCE?

For a player whose most similar career path through age 29, according to baseball-reference.com, is Mack Jones?

For a player who is getting paid to mash but still has a lower career slugging percentage (.453) than Olmedo Saenz (.466)?

So the second-guessers have been practically having a volcanic eruption over this contract. And the general manager who handed it out, Alex Anthopoulos, knows they're out there … because he sounds tempted to second-guess himself.

"If I was 100 percent sure," he said, frankly, "maybe it wouldn't have taken this long."

In fact, the negotiations with Bautista and his agent, Bean Stringfellow, dragged on for weeks. And why was that? Because the Blue Jays pounded the pros and cons back and forth relentlessly, until finally, the pros beat those cons into the dust.

"If I was only worried about covering my own butt," Anthopoulos said, "the easy thing to do would have been to just say, 'Look, he's only done it a year. We need to see it again.' And that's very fair. And then, if we see it again … I could say, 'You know what? I can't blame myself for deciding to wait because that was the prudent thing to do.'

"And now, potentially, it's more years and more dollars than we want to spend … so we're going to let the player walk, and … everybody would completely understand. So if I was more worried about me, and the perception of me, and taking criticism, that would be the direction."

But that, obviously, was NOT the direction the Blue Jays chose. Instead, they took virtually all the dollars they saved by trading Wells and invested them in a player they admit is a "gamble."

There are insane gambles, however, and there are reasoned, educated gambles. And no matter how this one might look from the outside, this was a gamble that an extremely thoughtful and creative front office reasoned out to the nth degree. So what WAS the thinking behind this contract? Let's take a look:

They believe his lightbulb went on

When the Blue Jays look at Jose Bautista, they don't see the same player who changed teams six times in 4½ years from 2003 to '08 and had never once, before last season, compiled an adjusted OPS+ equal to that of even an average player (i.e., 100). They see a player who has completely rebuilt his swing and figured it out. And they're remarkably confident that's the player they're going to get -- this year and beyond.

"He knows he can go up there and hit," Blue Jays hitting coach Dwayne Murphy said. "He knows what he can do. The swing that he worked on so long and so much, it's just second nature to him. But the biggest thing is confidence. He's full of confidence. So do I think he can do it again? I do. He's ready to carry the load."

No one, including Bautista, is defining "carrying the load" as "he'll hit 54 homers again." But the Blue Jays are NOT alone in projecting he can hit 30-plus again.

"The Bill James Handbook 2011" forecasts 34 homers, a .509 slugging percentage and an .864 OPS. And in a story accompanying this column, the Baseball Think Factory's Dan Szymborski projects 32 home runs, a .564 SLG and an .886 OPS this year, then 30/.518/.880 next year.

And remember, Bautista's reawakening actually started before last year. Since Sept. 1, 2009, he has hit 64 home runs (16 more than any other player in baseball) and slugged .615 (second only to Josh Hamilton). So after a while, it's hard to sustain disbelief.

"We saw it that year in September and we said, 'Well, it's only September,'" Anthopoulos said. "Then he got to spring training, and he really took to those adjustments and we said, 'Well, it's only spring training.' Then he had a great first month of the season and a great May, and it was, 'Well, it's only May.' But then his season kept going, and you know what? We tried to be skeptical for a pretty long time. But at some point, you stop doubting it and start believing it."

He actually got better as last season wore in

If last season had really been a fluke for Jose Bautista, would he really have kept driving those baseballs deep into the night right through September? Really? We remind you, this is the information age. So if a hitter has holes, somebody finds them. If the scouts don't, those holes show up on the video or the computer screens. But they always show up. Always.

[+] EnlargeAlex Anthopoulos
Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesAlex Anthopoulos' decision to give Jose Bautista $65 million certainly turned some heads.

So how amazing, when you put it into that perspective, is this? Bautista was better in the second half last year (30 homers) than in the first half (24).

It was only the eighth time in the past half-century that any player hit 30 or more homers after the break while hitting more in the second half than in the first half. The others: Harmon Killebrew, Albert Belle (twice), Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, A-Rod and Ryan Howard.

Remember, by the time that second half rolled around, those teams Bautista was facing had done their homework. They were ready for him. But as they adjusted, so did he. And nobody is more aware of that than John Farrell -- his manager now, the pitching coach of a Red Sox team that was searching for ways to get him out a year ago.

"The holes in his swing -- he was showing the ability to close them up as pitchers were attacking a certain area," Farrell said. "From the first third of the season toward the second half of the season, where you could look to attack him down and away, that hole started to close up as he started to look out over the plate and seemingly made the outer third of the plate [like] the middle for him. So we tried to play the cat-and-mouse game, and he adjusted."

He commands the strike zone

As the Blue Jays tried to profile the kind of hitters who sustain success better than others, one big common theme was a feel for the strike zone. That's a talent that Bautista displayed from start to finish last year, winding up with almost as many walks (100) as strikeouts (116).

"It was unbelievable the pitches he laid off, especially those sliders out of the zone," Murphy said. "That's why I think he can do it again. All good hitters command the strike zone. … And that's what he did. He hit the pitches HE wanted to hit."

The Blue Jays stacked Bautista up against other late bloomers -- David Ortiz and Raul Ibanez, for instance. They looked at Bobby Abreu, whose "great eye" has allowed him to "age well," Anthopoulos said. And they concluded that Bautista was a player whose "peripheral numbers" separate him from previous players who rode one flukish-looking season to big contracts.

"He's got unbelievable power," his GM said. "It's not like these were wall scrapers. And he's got a tremendous eye at the plate. And he's an athlete. He's defensively skilled. He can play multiple positions. He's a leader. He's got a great work ethic. So I mean, if we can't commit to a guy like this, I don't know who we're going to commit to."

He could be the next Jayson Werth

In a sport in which right-handed power hitters are turning into an endangered species, all it took was two very good seasons in Philadelphia for Jayson Werth to go from a guy who got non-tendered in Los Angeles to a fellow with a $126 million contract in Washington.

So as the Blue Jays tried to project where Bautista's earning power might land if he had another big season, they could clearly see the similarities.

"I think the only guy he compares to a little bit is Jayson Werth," Farrell said. "A guy who fought injuries, changed scenery a couple of times and all of sudden became a right-handed middle-of-the-order bat."

Although Bautista also dealt with injuries and address changes, his career otherwise followed a very different path. Werth was a high-profile first-round pick, and the whole sport had long drooled over his tools. Bautista, on the other hand, was only a 20th-round pick who started bouncing around early once the Pirates left him unprotected and lost him in the Rule 5 draft after he'd barely gotten more than 1,000 minor league at-bats.

Then again, Anthopoulos said, "There's a reason he was Rule 5'd. There's a reason he was picked up [by so many different teams]. There's a reason we saw something. He's got tools. He's got ability. He always has. There's a reason teams kept taking a chance on him."

And if Bautista had spent the summer of 2011 exhibiting those tools, he'd have been a major attraction in a market in which it's possible the only other established right-handed power bat would have been Albert Pujols, a first baseman. So for teams looking for offense elsewhere, it's not hard to envision where Bautista's earning power might have headed, especially because he would have offered the ability to fit clubs' needs at multiple positions.

Could it have been headed to Werth's neighborhood? Probably not. But could it have exploded beyond this deal, or Dan Uggla's (five years, $62 million), to a place beyond where the Blue Jays would have been comfortable? Absolutely. So if they were going to keep Bautista around, there was only one time to do it: now.

He's not just a pretty face

Finally, when the Blue Jays studied other long-term contracts that had gone wrong, they noticed one more common theme.

[+] EnlargeJose Bautista
Brace Hemmelgarn/US PresswireJose Bautista has 113 homers in seven seasons. Oh, by the way, 54 of them came last year.

"Sometimes, mistakes are made when you're betting on the character," Anthopoulos said. "And that's the hardest one to peg."

That's the side of free agency -- evaluating the character of the man getting the money -- that scares the Blue Jays the most. But it was the side of Bautista that scared them the least.

"He's so mentally tough," the GM said. "He's been through so much already in his career. I think that's why he's so popular in our clubhouse. He's been everything. He's been the 25th guy. He's been an everyday guy. He's been the guy who bounced up and down, superutility, sent down to the minors. He's experienced everything you can experience in the game. So if there's a player who can't relate to this guy, I don't know who it is.

"He's experienced all of it. And that's why I don't think there is any pressure on him, because he's already been through the worst. He's performed in big spots. He's very intense, very driven, very competitive. He wants to be great. He's all about winning. He connects to the Latin players and the American players to really unify a clubhouse. … And he wants to be here. I mean, you're looking for that type of guy."

So maybe the Blue Jays never set out to have Bautista be the face of their franchise. But the man who has taken on that role, against all odds, has zero fear of it.

"To me, being the face of the franchise doesn't mean that I have to hit 50 home runs every year," Bautista said. "You have to reflect what the organization wants its players to be like, when it comes to type of person, personality, work ethic, leadership skills and other stuff. The production is like an added bonus."

Well, not exactly. If he doesn't produce, the second-guessers won't be listening when the Blue Jays argue, "Yeah, but at least he's a great dude." But clearly, this team is betting on the whole package -- "because we know this guy better than anybody," Anthopoulos said.

Someday, the GM says, he hopes people have a tough time deciding the identity of the face of the Blue Jays -- because there are so many players who fit that definition.

"But you have to start somewhere," he said.

And if we learned anything from those clicking cameras on Photo Day, it's that in this case, a picture of the face of this franchise is worth 65 million bucks.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com