As usual, you have to start this with the old baseball caveat that “there is no such thing as a bad minor league deal.” When it comes to these deals, it’s all being done with an idea of figuring out just how much upside there is with the player in question and the Braves have decided to see just how much power Jose Bautista has left in that bat of his.
It should be abundantly clear why Bautista ended up having to wait until mid-April to latch on with a team and on a minor league deal, at that. He had a down year in 2016 when his slash line took a considerable dip from what the Blue Jays were used to seeing from him and then in 2017, those same numbers dipped down to levels that we haven’t seen from him since he was flailing away with the Pirates in the mid-2000s. Despite still managing to hit 23 home runs, he was a below-average hitter and it seemed like his time was finally up in the bigs.
That’s clearly what this signing is all about, though — it’s his bat (and his connection to current Braves GM Alex Anthopoulos) that has the Braves not only willing to bring him in, but willing to bring him in as a third baseman. Bautista has never really been a plus defender in his career and it would be hard to imagine that he’ll magically develop into one, especially at a position that he hasn’t played consistently since 2007. It’s an especially weird decision when you consider how much of a focus that AA has put on defense since his his arrival.
With that being said, the front office must figure that the potential power that Jose Bautista could bring to the lineup (if all goes well) would be enough to override what would surely be some shoddy defense from the 37-year-old over at third base. Even though Ryan Flaherty has gotten off to a great start offensively, that bubble is very likely going to burst at some point and the Braves are clearly getting ready for it. There’s no way that you can sustain a BABIP in the .400 range (unless you’re 2013 Chris Johnson) and when that number eventually comes down, an Isolated Power number below .100 will start to stick out like a sore thumb. Flaherty’s contributions have been lovely but it’s clear that this is not going to last.
Meanwhile, this also explains why the Braves have been so patient with Johan Camargo. The presumptive starter at third base this season has been healthy for a while now, but the Braves have elected to keep him in Gwinnett wearing that super-bright shade of green. If they aren’t going to rush Ronald Acuña Jr. to the bigs (though he appears to be gearing up for a call-up soon) then they surely aren’t going to rush to give Camargo his return stint as well. Plus, while Camargo isn’t nearly as light of a hitter as Flaherty is, Camargo still doesn’t profile as a type of guy who would be a major threat to clear the bases in the middle of the lineup.
If Jose Bautista can find some of the production that Blue Jays fans got used to during the early stages of this decade, then he would end up being worth every penny of the $1 million that he will make should he make it to the bigs. Even with the good offensive start that the Braves have gotten off to, this is a team that has resorted to batting Nick Markakis as a cleanup hitter. Granted, if Bautista can no longer hit major league pitching then he may not be that much of an upgrade over Markakis in that spot but if he stilll has something left then I would absolutely prefer to see Joey Bats in the four-spot over Markakis.
Still, there are a whole lot of “if’s” surrounding Jose Bautista at this point in his career. If he can still hit, he’ll be net-positive to the team. If he can manage to not be a complete horror show at third base, then he’ll serve as a bridge to the eventual call-up of Austin Riley.
The most important “if” here is that if he doesn’t have it and ended up flaming out in the minors, then this doesn’t hurt the Braves at all since it’s a minor league deal. They can just continue on with Camargo and/or Flaherty playing third base and make do with that until Riley comes up.
The second-most important “if” is that if Bautista does indeed make it and he flips the bat in a manner that is anywhere near what he did on that fateful night in Toronto against the Rangers, then I will ascend into the Beyond Realm while riding the wave of anger from people who are opposed to flipping the bat for some strange reason. I need this in my life and even though there’s a small chance of it happening, I still need it.
Plus, we already have a preview of that experience — I’d imagine that the Braves won’t mind a bat flip or two this time around.
So basically, like Scott said in this post, it’s a no-risk deal that could be really fun if it works out. If it doesn’t, then it won’t hurt too much and we’ll just have memories of Ryan Howard and James Loney to look back on. It’s definitely a move that has plenty of intrigue surrounding it and it continues to add to what has already been an exciting start to the 2018 season for the Braves.