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05/31/11 10:00 AM ET

Better late than never, Bautista now the best

After years, Blue Jays slugger grows into Major Leagues' top hitter

TORONTO -- The best hitter in baseball today sits at his locker in the Blue Jays clubhouse, and with an impeccable memory, an acute attention to detail and, yes, the slightest trace of bitterness in his voice, recounts the many yesterdays that got him to this place.

Jose Bautista talks about the year the Orioles took him in the Rule 5 Draft from the Pirates, only to ship him to the Rays, who shipped him to the Royals, who gave him back to the Pirates, with the Mets as an intermediary.

That was Bautista's first year in the big leagues, and all he had to show for it was 88 at-bats, with half of them, it seemed, coming against the likes of Johan Santana, CC Sabathia and Randy Johnson on the days a left-handed hitter wanted a night off.

"To say I struggled," he says, "is an understatement."

Bautista, now 30, remembers it all. Each struggle, each snub, each slight.

There was the year the Pirates optioned him out in spring camp -- not to Triple-A but Double-A -- then called him up in September and gave him just seven starts in a month.

There was the year the Bucs had him back up a retirement-ready Joe Randa, and another year they had him platoon with an equally retirement-ready Doug Mientkiewicz.

You listen to Bautista tell his tale, and two realities strike you:

1. The Pirates haven't posted 18 consecutive losing seasons by accident.

2. With the right coaching, the right evaluation and the right breaks, the best hitter in baseball today might have been the best a long time ago.

Alas, that's not the way Bautista's story was meant to be written. His out-of-nowhere ascent from Rule 5 reject to potent power producer adds a layer of legend to his tale of triumph. And it certainly adds a glimmer of hope to every wayward or overlooked young player looking for that chance to shine.

Because when Jose Bautista finally figured it out and was finally given a real opportunity to showcase his skills, the best hitter in baseball was born.

Where Bautista comes from, you're never too young to get started. Baseball welcomes you with open arms.

"In Little League in the Dominican Republic," says the native of Santo Domingo, "as long as you can say you need to go to the bathroom, they'll take you in. It's not like in the States, where you have to wait until you're a little older."

And thankfully for Bautista, there were no size requirements, either. Then, like now, he was not an imposing physical figure.

"I was born in October," he says, "which put me at the youngest in my class, always. I was a late bloomer physically, and I was behind physically, to begin with, because I was the youngest."

Bautista would never catch up in size. But it didn't take him long to match or exceed the competitive level of his peers. He was in middle school when he began to hit the ball with authority, and his speed and arm strength (which was evident both in the field and on the mound) also began to stand out.

Given his size, it would have been easy to typecast him as a leadoff type who uses his legs as a weapon. Bautista, though, wanted more for himself.

"It's not like I wanted to be a home-run hitter," he says, "but I did want to be good. I didn't see myself as a guy who would just bunt all the time."

Bautista wasn't happy with any of the professional offers coming his way when he finished high school, so he opted instead to attend Chipola Junior College in Marianna, Fla. There, he would pitch and play third base while growing in both game and body.

"I was 5-foot-10, 155 pounds when I got to college," he says. "My freshman year, I grew two inches to six foot, which is what I am now. I gained 20 pounds. My sophomore year, I gained another 10 pounds. Physically, I was hitting better, throwing harder. I was the team's closer and could get it up to 93 or 94 mph."

But Bautista's future was not as a closer. He knew it, and the Pirates knew it when they took him in the 20th round of the 2000 First-Year Player Draft.

The Bucs, though, weren't sold on Bautista the third baseman enough to offer him more than just a token signing bonus at the time. They instead went the draft-and-follow route that is no longer available today. It wasn't until a PNC Park workout the following spring that he really won them over.

"Apparently, I showed them something," he says, "because I had an offer of $50,000 when I got drafted in 2000, and I signed for close to $600,000 in 2001."

It was second-round money. But that would be the last time the Pirates would get it right with Bautista.

By the time the Blue Jays came calling for Bautista in August 2008, he had been passed around as frequently as a holiday fruitcake.

Worse yet, none of his previous employers seemed to know what to do with him.

The Rule 5 process is designed to create opportunities for players who would otherwise be blocked in the systems of their current club, but it also has the unintended effect of exposing some youngsters to situations they are not necessarily ready for.

Bautista had fewer than 1,000 Minor League at-bats under his belt -- none above the Class A level -- when the O's scooped him up as a Rule 5 pick in 2004. And though he was happy to be riding airplanes in lieu of buses and ecstatic to be cashing $15,000 checks every two weeks instead of $450 checks, this was an opportunity in theory only. Bautista was wasting away on the bench in Baltimore, then in Tampa and then in Kansas City. These were all losing and/or injury-riddled teams, but none of them could get him consistent at-bats.

When the Pirates reacquired him that July as part of the three-team swap that sent Kris Benson to the Mets, Bautista thought he was on the fast track.

"I figured, 'This team is losing anyway, they're like 40 games out,'" Bautista says. "It was the organization that originally drafted me, and they gave up something to get me back. I thought they'd give me a chance."

Bautista got just 40 at-bats.

He would spend the next 3 1/2 seasons stagnating in the Pittsburgh system before finally asking for a trade in '08, after the Bucs traded for Andy LaRoche.

"The one lesson it teaches all of us is that you never know when somebody's going to get it. The fortunate thing was Jose was talented enough to keep getting chances and hang around."
-- Former Blue Jays GM
J.P. Ricciardi

"I asked what my situation was," Bautista says, "and they said they didn't view me as somebody who was going to contribute toward their future."

That's when Toronto swooped in. They landed Bautista on Aug. 21 of that year for a player to be named. (The answer to that trivia question, for the record, is Robinzon Diaz.)

"We were looking for a super utility guy," says then-Jays GM J.P. Ricciardi. "A guy who could play second, third, outfield. And maybe a little pop. The trade was made under that premise. We thought if we played him more, he could hit 15-20 home runs. He had hit in an Interleague game against us, and that confirmed everything we thought about him."

But nobody thought then what we know now.

Playing time and preparation led to Bautista's ascension. In 2009, it was then-manager Cito Gaston who finally gave him the former and hitting coach Dwayne Murphy who helped hammer home the finer points of the latter. Working with Murphy, Bautista initiated a timing mechanism that starts his leg kick sooner and helps him explode on the ball.

"It's created a night-and-day difference," Bautista says, "because I can get myself into that good hitting position consistently, see the ball better and attack the ball before it gets too deep in the strike zone. Those good hitting counts, it's no joke. You can look up historically, when people are hitting in 2-0, 3-0 counts, the batting average and power production is way better than when you're 0-2 or behind in the count."

Bautista hit 10 homers in the last month of 2009. He hit a league-leading 54 last year. People around baseball wondered if it was a fluke in the vein of Brady Anderson, but the Jays put their money where their faith was and gave him a five-year, $65 million contract. It was an investment not just in Bautista the player but Bautista the person -- the hard worker who used the slights of his early professional career as motivation to get better.

A permanent move to right field this season has helped his comfort level all the more. And for all the understandable talk about his bat, he's sharp in the field, too.

"Everybody likes to talk about his offense, but he's just a fantastic defender," says first-base and outfield coach Torey Lovullo. "A fantastic human being. He never fails to back up a base, never fails to get behind a fly ball and get every throw to the cutoff man."

But back to that bat.

Now that Bautista has 20 homers through just 46 games this season, we definitively know there's nothing fluky to him. We also know he's more than just a home run hitter. His .260 average of a year ago has given way to a .356 average thus far this season -- fourth among players with at least 100 at-bats. He has the best on-base and slugging percentages in the game.

The key might be more luck, or even simple fairness. Bautista's batting average on balls in play last season was .233, well below average. This year, it's .321, or a bit better than average.

But there's another number that's rising as Bautista continues to prove himself as the game's hottest hitter, and that's his walk percentage. Last year, it was 14.6. This year, it's at 21.7, thanks in part to seven intentional walks and many unintentional intentional walks. Pitchers are feeding Bautista a steady diet of changeups and breaking pitches and trying to get him to either expand his zone or take his base.

"If that's the way they're going to pitch to me, what can I do?" Bautista says. "Should I get a 70-inch bat? There's not much I can do. There's not much anybody can do in those situations."

Chalk the walks up to respect on the part of the opposing pitchers, a kind of respect Bautista never got in the pros before he arrived in Toronto.

"The one lesson it teaches all of us," says Ricciardi, now a special assistant to the Mets' front office, "is that you never know when somebody's going to get it. The fortunate thing was Jose was talented enough to keep getting chances and hang around."

For Bautista to do what he's doing in an era of increased pitching prominence only adds to his accomplishment. He has become one of the true must-see at-bats in the big leagues.

Of course, because Bautista not just rose but exploded from obscurity to hit 54 homers in a season in which only one other guy -- Albert Pujols -- hit 40, the inevitable PED questions arise. It's a reflex reaction borne out of baseball's tainted era. Still, it's inherently unfair speculation, given baseball's emphasis on testing and the simple fact that Bautista never blew up physically.

"The Commissioner has done an unbelievable job of cleaning the game up," Ricciardi says. "There's no way this guy's on something. I'm not buying it. I was around the guy a lot. And with where the game is at with all the testing, and how thorough they are, especially a guy like this that comes out of nowhere, I would assume he's being tested all the more. Obviously, he's passing every test they give him.

"When you're around him, he's not built like a middle linebacker. He's put together really well, don't get me wrong, but in a well-positioned way. I could see where people would raise that and that's the way society is, but I think the Commissioner has done a good job changing that image."

Bautista, meanwhile, has changed his own image. No longer ignored, no longer benched, no longer miscast and finally in a position where he feels comfortable to swing away, he has thrived in his first legit opportunity at the Major League level.

"The situations that I was in before," he says, "I think allowed that particular team I was on to cut me some slack and let me go out and relax and just get everyday at-bats and see what happened."

In the Blue Jays, he finally found that slack. And look at what's happened. Bautista has become the best hitter in baseball.

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.