Bautista not taking role for granted
Leadoff man seizes chance to play every day for Jays
ARLINGTON -- On Monday afternoon, Blue Jays right fielder Jose Bautista will step into the batter's box at Rangers Ballpark, settle into his stance and prepare to receive the first pitch of the 2010 season for Toronto.
"I'm really excited," said Bautista, sitting at his locker shortly before a workout on Sunday in Arlington. "I've been excited since the day I got the news that I was going to get a chance to go back to an everyday role."
Given the path his career has taken, it is an opportunity that Bautista does not want to waste. The Blue Jays have handed him the regular job in right and the leadoff spot in the lineup, hoping that he can emerge into a solid table-setter for the heart of the order. A strong spring showed that Bautista may be up for the challenge.
Bautista said the success he had during the preseason dates back to last July, when he teamed with hitting coach Dwayne Murphy to break down the outfielder's swing. Bautista was getting started too late and sporadic playing time did nothing to help his timing at the plate. By September, circumstances led to regular starts and Bautista began to take off.
"I was getting ready so late," Bautista said. "Now, I feel like I can attack the ball in any count, and I'm on the offensive at all times and I'm not going up there to the plate trying to fight for my life."
For the Blue Jays, Bautista might represent a temporary solution. He landed the job in right after Toronto parted ways with Alex Rios in August, allowing the White Sox to claim him and his lucrative contract off waivers. The leadoff role fell Bautista's way after shortstop Marco Scutaro -- the Jays' No. 1 hitter a year ago -- signed as a free agent with the Red Sox over the winter.
For Bautista, this season represents a chance to finally show what he can do with regular playing time. Much like Scutaro last season, Bautista is ready to shed the label of "utility man" and eager to prove he can be counted on as an everyday player. Scutaro pieced together a career year and wound up with a multiyear contract to be Boston's shortstop.
Bautista will be eligible for free agency next offseason.
"I'm pulling for him," Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston said. "I'm happy for him. I hope he can put up some numbers so he can go out and ask for some money."
If Bautista is in a position to seek a multiyear contract on the open market next year, that will mean he turned in a strong season for the Blue Jays this season. That is Toronto's hope, especially considering the club believes its offense could go a long way in helping ease the growing pains of a relatively young and inexperienced pitching staff.
In 18 games this spring, the 29-year-old Bautista hit .439 with five home runs, nine doubles, 11 RBIs, 16 runs scored and a .448 on-base percentage over a team-high 57 at-bats. That showing was a continuation of the strong finish Bautista enjoyed last season, when he took over in right, filled in late in the year as the leadoff man and launched 10 of his 13 homers in September and October.
Bautista said pitchers kept coming right after him, and he thinks that is because of the two hitters that follow him in the lineup. Second baseman Aaron Hill and designated hitter Adam Lind return as Toronto's second and third hitters, respectively, one year after the pair of budding sluggers combined for 71 homers and 222 RBIs in 2009.
With Hill and Lind behind him, Bautista has not altered his approach much at the plate.
"If anything, maybe I'm a little more aggressive," Bautista said. "I just saw a lot of pitches to hit. They kept throwing balls over the plate and hopefully they continue to do so. I think that trend should continue, because I've got two great hitters behind me. I don't think any pitcher wants to face them with runners on base."
Bautista feels blessed to finally be discussing the ins and outs of an everyday role, too.
His career has not been spectacular -- a .238 career average provides evidence of that -- and Bautista has bounced between part-time roles in the infield and outfield over the years with different organizations. With the exception of the 2007 campaign with the Pirates, Bautista typically worked as a utility player, accepting any playing time he was offered in the big leagues.
That remained true after Toronto acquired Bautista in a trade with Pittsburgh in August 2008.
"He's a good person on the team -- no problems," Gaston said. "When he wasn't playing, he never raised hell about not playing. He was always ready."
Bautista rolls his eyes and smiles at the mention of his 2004 season. It began with him being selected in the Rule 5 Draft by the Orioles in December and ended with him being traded to Pittsburgh that July. In between, Bautista was claimed off waivers by Tampa Bay and involved in separate trades with the Royals and Mets.
A lot has changed for Bautista since then.
"That seems really far away," Bautista said. "It was like, 'A lot of people want me, but a lot of people don't want me.' I've always been really confident in my abilities and knowing that I can play at this level. It was just a matter of getting a chance to do it. I've only had one real chance to do it before.
"I have another chance this year. I just have to seize it."
Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.