It’s hard to ignore the season Jose Bautista is having. A 52 home run season for any player is special, regardless of whether the season is reflective of the player’s talent level. One thing that isn’t hard to do is to look back and say “what if”. It’s been easy to wonder how the Pittsburgh Pirates would fare with a guy who currently has 52 homers, especially since that guy was traded for Robinzon Diaz in August 2008. But don’t think that the move was a mistake because of Bautista’s homers.
There have been many mistakes made with Jose Bautista. In 2003, he hit for a .242/.359/.424 line in 165 at-bats, and in his frustrating season he punched a garbage can and broke his hand, putting him out for two months. The Pirates made a mistake of leaving him unprotected in the Rule 5 draft that off-season, causing him to be drafted by the Baltimore Orioles. Bautista also spent time with Tampa Bay, and then Kansas City. That’s where the second mistake came in to play.
The Pirates were shopping Kris Benson during the 2004 trade deadline, and the New York Mets were looking for pitching. The Mets made two trades for pitchers. They acquired Benson and Victor Zambrano. The Pirates got Ty Wigginton, Matt Peterson, and Jose Bautista back for Benson. The Tampa Bay Rays got Scott Kazmir for Zambrano.
Now it’s only an assumption that the Pirates could have had Kazmir, but it’s not a big assumption. At the time, Benson was regarded as the better pitcher compared to Zambrano. If Kazmir could have been had for Zambrano, he could have been had for Benson. It’s also unknown whether Bautista could have been involved in a Kazmir trade. The Mets had to trade a prospect to get Bautista, just to include him in the deal. The Mets also traded a prospect with Kazmir, so it can’t exactly be assumed that Kazmir/Bautista was out of the question.
The biggest mistake came in 2006. After spending all season in the majors in 2004, Bautista returned to the minors in 2005, hitting for a .283/.364/.503 line with 23 homers in 445 at-bats in AA. He moved up to AAA for 51 at-bats at the end of the season, hitting for a .255/.309/.373 line with one homer. He then got a September call-up, where he hit for a .143/.226/.179 line in 28 at-bats. Bautista returned to AAA for the 2006 season, but only spent a month at the level, with a .277/.370/.426 line in 101 at-bats, and two homers.
The mistake was a two part error. First, Bautista was rushed. That might be due to the lost season in 2004, but Bautista probably should have spent more time in AAA. The bigger part was the way Bautista’s service time was mis-managed. Bautista lost a year due to the Rule 5 draft. He also added some service time with the 2005 September call-up. Finally, he was called up in early May of 2006. The result? He was arbitration eligible after the 2007 season.
Take out the September call-up, and push Bautista’s 2006 call-up back a bit, and Bautista isn’t eligible for arbitration until the 2009 season, rather than getting $1.8 M in 2008. Maybe he doesn’t get traded in 2008 if he’s only due a raise over his league minimum numbers, rather than a raise over his $1.8 M figure. I’m not sure if that would have made much of a difference though. Bautista had a .755 OPS in 2006, and a .753 OPS in 2007. His OPS dropped to .729 in 2008 with the Pirates before the trade.
That’s why I can’t fault the Pirates for trading Bautista. Even if he’s a league minimum guy in 2008, he’s arbitration eligible in 2009, and he only put up a .757 OPS with Toronto in 2009. After the 2009 season, it looked like Bautista was only a .750 OPS hitter, who wasn’t strong defensively at third. Bautista is now a corner outfielder, and a .750 OPS from a corner outfielder doesn’t really cut it as a starter. That’s worth $2.4 M, but probably not more, and it’s easy to see how a team wouldn’t want to pay for that upside.
Obviously Bautista has gone beyond that .750 OPS this year. The big question is whether this season was somewhat legit, or whether Bautista will be the next Brady Anderson. Bautista doesn’t have to hit 50 homers again next year. He could hit 30 and it would show that his production was legit. However, if he returns to hitting 15 homers a year with a .750 OPS, it will show his season was a fluke.
It’s a tough break for the Pirates, but what can they learn from that? One thing might be to change their approach with their bench. In 2009, the Pirates spent $1.5 M on Eric Hinske for the bench. This year the Pirates spent $1.5 M on Ryan Church for the bench. The Pirates have also spent $4 M combined on Ramon Vazquez for the 2009 and 2010 seasons, and $1 M on Bobby Crosby this year. Rather than spending money on these types of bench players, who have little to no upside, and are only here for one year, the Pirates should keep their own guys.
Heading in to the 2011 season, the Pirates have Lastings Milledge and Andy LaRoche eligible for arbitration for the first time. Neither player has performed well enough to be a starter, but they wouldn’t be bad off the bench. Milledge is great against left handers, and has a career .723 OPS. He’s also just 25 years old. LaRoche is having a horrible year, but had a .731 OPS last year, and might be able to back up third and second base. LaRoche just turned 27.
I’m not saying either player will have a 50 home run season like Bautista any time soon, but they’re both relatively young, and could have a breakout season in them. It took Bautista four full seasons before he broke out, assuming his production is legit (and again, I don’t think his 50+ homers are legit, but I’m not ruling out that he could be more than a .750 OPS guy). Why shut the door on Milledge and LaRoche after a smaller amount of experience?
I’d rather keep these two players for the 2011 bench, rather than going out and spending the same amount on the next Ryan Church or Ramon Vazquez. If the Church/Vazquez players have a surprise year, they are most likely free agents following the 2011 season. If Milledge or LaRoche have a surprise year, they’re under control for two more seasons after the 2011 season. Both routes will probably cost the same amount, and I’m sure Milledge/LaRoche can provide the same production as the Church/Vazquez types off the bench.
If there’s one thing the Pirates can learn from this Jose Bautista situation, it’s that they should use their bench spots on guys like Milledge and LaRoche, who might still be capable of breaking out to become a major league player. Maybe they won’t have the amazing season that Bautista is having, but you don’t need 50+ homers to have a surprising breakout season.