A match made in Canada

You probably already know the story of Jose Bautista, but it’s a good one.

The Pirates drafted Bautista with a 20th-round pick in the 2000 amateur draft as a 20-year-old third baseman out of the Dominican Republic. He hit reasonably well through his minor-league career, but was never considered anything close to a top prospect. Even in lackluster systems in Pittsburgh and later Baltimore, he struggled to crack the top ten of any prospect list.

Bautista was a journeyman throughout his twenties. He never hit more than 16 home runs in a season and never posted a batting average higher than .254 prior to his 29th birthday. In 2004 he was literally a member of five different organizations in a time span of less than two months. Seriously, here’s his transaction log from that summer, courtesy of Baseball Reference:

  • June 3, 2004: Selected off waivers by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays from the Baltimore Orioles.

  • June 28, 2004: Purchased by the Kansas City Royals from the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

  • July 30, 2004: Traded by the Kansas City Royals to the New York Mets for Justin Huber.

  • July 30, 2004: Traded by the New York Mets with Matt Peterson (minors) and Ty Wigginton to the Pittsburgh Pirates for Kris Benson and Jeff Keppinger.

Back in Pittsburgh, he toiled away as a spare part for the next four seasons before being traded to Toronto for a player to be named later. Two years after that, he broke baseball.

Sportswriters love to talk about the unexpected. Teams, players, plays that come out of nowhere are such an integral part of what makes sports so compelling. As is often the case though, the parameters of such tropes are often stretched. A profession and world-at-large that are so frequently driven by narrative will shamelessly apply the unexpected tag to all sorts of things, whether it belongs or not. There is no definition of unexpected that excludes Jose Bautista.

Bautista played in 113 games between Pittsburgh and Toronto in 2008. He hit 13 home runs, posting a .235 average and .757 OPS. He was what he had always been. He was Jose Bautista. Entering spring training the next season, he had carved out a major league role for himself but not much else. He was a career .239 hitter. He had 46 career home runs in 462 games. By Wins Above Replacement he was an active drag on his team, worth a total of negative-three wins through his first five seasons.

That year he hit 54 home runs. The next he hit 43. Then 27, 28, 35, 40. He made six consecutive all-star teams, had two top-five finishes in the MVP vote and two more in the top-eight. It was a transformation quite unlike anything baseball had seen before. At a point in his a career when most players might simply aim to hang on with a Major League roster in a part-time or bench capacity, Bautista instead flipped a switch and became the most dynamic slugger in all of baseball. He grew a fearsome beard and started carrying the air of the superstar he had suddenly become. He helped usher in the era of devastating bat flips, inspiring adoration in the Rogers Centre and ire throughout the rest of the American League. Jose Bautista was gone. Joey Bats had come to destroy all memory of him.

Sometimes washed away in his incredible story is just how much Bautista has meant to the Blue Jays organization itself. For the past seven years, he’s established himself as the face of a franchise that has found such talents surprisingly hard to come by. In the entire 40-year history of the franchise for instance, just one player has been inducted into the Hall of Fame as a Jay: Roberto Alomar. One could argue that even that was simply a product of Alomar having bounced around so often in his career; he played just five seasons north of the border, but that happened to be more than he played in San Diego, Baltimore or Cleveland (three each). If you sort Toronto’s career WAR leaderboard you’ll find names like Vernon Wells, Jesse Barfield and Tony Fernandez near the top…solid players all but none that would impress as the greatest Blue Jay in history.

Bautista changed all that. He passed Fernandez last season as the Jays’ all-time leader in WAR. His 265 team home runs is second only to Carlos Delgado’s 336, though he’s played nearly 400 fewer games in Toronto. He also gave Canada its most famous baseball moment since Joe Carter touched ‘em all more than two decades ago.

Bautista returned to the Blue Jays this week, signing a one-year, $18.5 million contract that includes a pair of options for 2018 and 2019. It’s a far cry from what he was rumored to have sought…it was reported last spring he was seeking an extension in the five-year, $150 million range…but based on the market that presented itself to him, it was likely the best outcome for both parties. Having already lost Edwin Encarnacion this offseason, Toronto couldn’t afford to lose Bautista’s firepower as well.

As for Bautista himself, the ex-journeyman had good reason to return north as well: his legacy as the most important baseball figure in Toronto’s history. Strange as it sounds for a man who once donned five different hats in a single summer, it just wouldn’t feel right to see him play anywhere else.

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