7/21/2014 12:15 P.M. ET
Bautista battles adversity in hopes of postseason
With a little help, veteran slugger could have shot at compelling second-half surge
By Anthony Castrovince / MLB.com
The .525 winning percentage the Blue Jays carried at the end of 2010, the year of Jose Bautista's 54-homer breakout, might be enough for a Wild Card spot, the way this strange 2014 season is unfolding. But at the time, it was good only for fourth place in the loaded American League East.
What followed for Toronto, in succession, were records of .500 in 2011, 16 under in 2012 and, famously, 14 under in a 2013 season that had begun with high hopes.
All of which is to say that Bautista's emergence as one of the most productive players of his generation has been all for naught, lost in the wilderness of frustrating finishes.
"I've been on plenty of teams in September where you're just waiting for the season to be over," Bautista said. "It sucks to have to say that, but it's true."
That's one reason why the Blue Jays' relevance here in the second half is so consequential.
Frankly, we don't know how many of these opportunities Bautista will have, and there has to be some school of thought that a Blue Jays team in many ways centered around the 33-year-old slugger must be opportunistic in its efforts to improve at the upcoming Trade Deadline.
A Blue Jays team that, just a short time ago, looked capable of slugging its way into October hit an offensive rut in early June -- a rut compounded by the current absences of Edwin Encarnacion (right quadriceps strain), Brett Lawrie (fractured right index finger) and Adam Lind (right foot fracture). Surely, the Blue Jays could use a bat, given their current condition.
But at what cost?
The Blue Jays have had a bounceback season in their farm system after raiding the bin for their November 2012 splurge on the Hot Stove. Furthermore, they already have a top-10 payroll, and there have been reports that they're not in position to take on more salary. Toronto general manager Alex Anthopoulos did his part to douse that speculation with a splash of financial optimism over the weekend.
"I don't see any reason why we won't be able to add players," Anthopoulos told reporters Sunday, "and obviously, players make money; no one plays for free."
So that's encouraging, but it's countered by the reality that the trade market offers little in the way of big bats.
Chase Headley might fit a positional need, as he'd allow Lawrie to shift to second full-time upon his return. But Headley is a shell of his former offensive self, with a .651 OPS this season that is disappointing, even if you account for the Petco Park factor. Ben Zobrist, a valuable second-base option, might be the better fit, but there's the distinct possibility that the Rays package him with David Price, and intra-division trades of that magnitude are inherently tough to pull off.
This could be where Bautista's ever-evolving leadership is a valuable asset. He's already playing through some hamstring soreness that cost him seven games just before the All-Star break, but over the weekend, he took groundballs at third base. Even if Bautista is an option at the hot corner on only a limited basis, the added flexibility would help manager John Gibbons, should the Blue Jays bring aboard an outfield bat before the Deadline.
As it stands, Juan Francisco has been seeing the bulk of time at third, and he's carrying a .188 average dating back to June 1. And generally speaking, a Blue Jays team with a .691 OPS against left-handers is in need of some right-handed thump. That explains why an unheralded outfielder such as the Padres' Chris Denorfia, who has posted an .809 OPS in his career against lefties, could be a worthwhile target for them.
The Blue Jays' other option, of course, is to simply stand pat on the offensive end and hope that an eventual return to full health brings back that sensational offense we saw in May, when Encarnacion, in particular, went on a tear, and the Blue Jays averaged more runs per game (5.5) than any other team in the Majors.
"If we have the offense the way it was going the first two months," Bautista said, "we can win the division."
Some evaluators still insist that the Blue Jays' most pressing need is a front-line arm. Mark Buehrle's 4.50 ERA over the past month-plus -- after a sensational start to the season -- lends particular credence to that line of thought. The Blue Jays will surely be among the many teams paying close attention to Cliff Lee's return to the Philly rotation Monday night and beyond.
Whatever direction Toronto takes at the Trade Deadline, the big-picture point here is that their second-place status, three games back of the Orioles entering Monday, gives Bautista his first earnest opportunity to play meaningful second-half baseball. That's why he fights through the hamstring issue, why he takes those groundballs at a position he hasn't played anything resembling regularly since 2010, why he takes particular frustration with a recent string of hard-hit outs.
One way or another -- whether it's a Deadline acquisition or an emptied disabled list or a second-half spark from Colby Rasmus similar to what we saw last year -- Bautista needs a little more help. If he gets it, we'll have a particularly compelling second-half storyline.
Because, to put it simply, one of the greatest hitters of his era deserves a real shot at October.
"It gives me a jolt of energy," Bautista said. "It gives me extra motivation to give 110 percent and do whatever it takes for my team to win."