Toronto Blue Jays slugger Jose Bautista certainly has had one of the more remarkable career paths among current players. The Pirates gave up on him when he was 27 years old. Through his age-28 season, Bautista had 59 career home runs and a .238 batting average and compiled 0.0 wins above replacement, and that included a 2.9-WAR season for the Blue Jays in 2009. In 2010, at age 29, he exploded with 54 home runs. He has made the All-Star team every season since and has averaged 38 home runs and 5.6 WAR per season.
From 2010 to 2015, Bautista ranks seventh among position players in WAR. How did he go from a replacement-level player to one of the best players in the game? It's a story unlike any other.
Bautista grew up in the Dominican Republic and attended a private high school. After graduating, he turned down $5,000 and $42,000 offers, respectively, from the Yankees and the Diamondbacks and had the Reds back out of a $300,000 offer. He then played for two years at Chipola Junior College in Florida, a school that would produce current Blue Jays teammate Russell Martin. The Pirates drafted Bautista in the 20th round in 2000 as a draft-and-follow, signing him in 2001 for $500,000 after he was named the Florida junior college player of the year.
One thing that's fun to do is look back at some of the scouting reports on star players who weren't regarded as top prospects. While Bautista was never a heralded minor leaguer, if you read between the lines, you can see the tools. But his minor league career had a couple of interruptions, including a roller-coaster ride in 2004.
Here's what the Baseball America Prospect Handbook wrote in 2003, when it named Bautista the No. 7 Pirates prospect after he hit .301/.402/.470 at Class A Hickory of the South Atlantic League:
He has a good eye for a young hitter and should develop into a high on-base percentage guy with experience. Bautista is a good defensive third baseman with above-average arm strength and athleticism. To add versatility, he played center field in the Dominican League. Bautista hasn't been able to translate his bat speed into power yet, though that should come as his body fills out.
Bautista did hit 14 home runs for Hickory, and also outhit Robinson Cano and David Wright in the Sally League that year (although they were 2 years younger). Anyway, note the key phrases: good eye, athleticism, power potential.
In 2003, Bautista broke his hand punching a garbage can in May and missed more than two months. The Pirates left him unprotected in the Rule 5 draft, hoping to sneak him through. The Orioles selected him, and here's what Baseball America wrote before the 2004 season when it listed Bautista as the No. 12 prospect for Baltimore:
Bautista has a quick bat and can catch up to the best fastballs. His power potential is his best tool.
Once again, the report mentioned his overall athleticism and his strong arm at third base and said he had the highest ceiling of any of the 2003 Rule 5 picks.
The Orioles had to keep him on the major league roster all season or offer him back to the Pirates. Bautista would endure one of the strangest odysseys a player has gone through. In June, the Orioles placed him on waivers (the Pirates were apparently unwilling to buy him back for $25,000), and the Rays claimed him. Twenty-five days later, the Royals purchased him from the Rays. A month after that, the Royals traded him to the Mets for Justin Huber, and the Mets then traded him back to the Pirates.
So to recap: Pirates, Orioles, Rays, Royals, Mets and back to the Pirates. A record five organizations in one season. It was a lost year, however, as Bautista batted just 96 times. On top of the broken hand in 2003, he hadn't played much over two seasons.
The Pirates sent him to Double-A in 2005. He hit .283/.364/.503 with 23 home runs, ranking fourth in the Eastern League in home runs. He received another cup of coffee with the Pirates. Heading into 2006, Baseball America named Bautista the No. 5 Pirates prospect, writing:
Bautista has a quick bat and began to show plus power in 2005. He has the tools to be an above-average defensive third baseman with good range and a strong arm. An average runner, he's versatile with the ability to play second base and all three outfield positions. He needs to smooth out some rough edges. Bautista lacks plate discipline and can be made to chase bad pitches. His hands are also a little stiff and he makes too many errors on routine plays.
The interesting note there is about his plate discipline. Earlier in his career, he had been praised for his good eye. At Altoona, he walked 48 times in 445 plate appearances: not great, but above the 10 percent threshold you like to see in a minor leaguer.
Anyway, Bautista was now ready for the majors at age 25. In 2006, he hit .235/.335/.420 with 16 home runs in 117 games, splitting time between center field, third base and right field. In 2007, he started 122 of his 142 games at third base and hit .254/.339/.414 with 15 home runs and 36 doubles. His defense at third base wasn't good.
At this point, Bautista was now 27 years old. He had the tools, but nobody was expecting much. Baseball Prospectus suggested he'd make a nice utility player. The Pirates, of course, were a joke back then, so you can hardly be surprised that they weren't able to get the most out of him or understand that maybe he needed to move off third base. They sent him to the minors in August 2008 and placed him on trade waivers.
"No one thought Bautista was even an everyday player," Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos told the Toronto Star in 2013 in recalling how the Jays acquired Bautista, "let alone a front-line player." Scott Rolen was hurt. The Jays needed a third baseman. Anthopoulos, then the assistant GM, recommended Bautista to GM J.P. Ricciardi. Toronto got him for a catcher named Robinzon Diaz.
"I was fortunate enough to come to an organization that decided to give me a chance and an opportunity to play every day without having to worry about results," Bautista said in 2013. Still, the Jays weren't exactly sure what they had. They considered letting him walk after 2008 due to a salary increase in arbitration. After he hit .235/.349/.408 in 2009, starting 70 games in the outfield and 22 at third base, they again considered non-tendering him. They kept him. Good decision.
In 2010, he broke out. Bautista had always let slumps affect him. Manager Cito Gaston and new Blue Jays hitting coach Dwayne Murphy urged him to relax. Remember, the scouting reports always raved about Bautista's bat speed and power potential. From a 2011 piece, Jeff Passan wrote how about Gaston and Murphy overhauled Bautista's swing:
Scouts admired Bautista's hips as much as Shakira's. The torque he generated allowed him to wait for the ball to travel deeper into the strike zone before he started his swing. Bautista knew this but never took advantage of it. The late start on Bautista's swing negated his hips' quickness. Gaston and Murphy urged Bautista to trigger his swing by moving his top hand in a small semicircle almost a second earlier than before and allow his wrists to drive the bat through the zone.
"I used to start when the pitcher would let go of the ball," Bautista says. "His position would be like this" -- he freezes his arm at a 90-degree angle, his wrist next to his ear -- "and the ball would come out of his hand and I'd just be late. When the pitcher takes the ball out of his glove [now], I'm moving. I've got all this time to load. My top hand moves at the same rate as the pitcher is cocking his arm."
Bautista would also add that signature leg kick but would hit just .213 with four home runs in April. Then everything clicked: He blasted 12 homers in May and hasn't stopped since. He always had the talent; he developed the technique to exploit that ability. His great eye at the plate helps -- since 2010, he has the fourth-highest walk rate (he was fourth in 2015 behind Joey Votto, Bryce Harper and Paul Goldschmidt) -- and in 2015 his chase rate on pitches outside the strike zone was sixth-lowest.
Bautista, of course, also plays with an edge, something that hasn't made him the most popular player among other major leaguers. Whether his bat flip against the Rangers in Game 5 of the ALDS was solely an emotional reaction to a big home run in a big moment or something beyond that is open to interpretation. But similar to Barry Bonds, Bautista has sort of channeled a self-created chip on his shoulder into an intensity at the plate that creates supreme focus. He'll argue with umpires, and his feuds with the Orioles are well documented, but it all works for him.
Maybe that enmity is left over from his Rule 5 days when nobody wanted to keep him. Or the Pirates giving up on him. Maybe, in the end, that all helped him become Jose Bautista, monster masher.