Since Jose Bautista wrapped up his 2017 season, it looked like his career could be ending on a note entirely unbefitting of what he brought to the game.
Like him or hate him, Bautista has been one of the most dynamic figures in baseball. He’s consistently made people feel something with his combination of raw emotion, power, and dominance of the mental side of the game.
In his final season with the Blue Jays, though, he was a shell of himself, unable to elicit any kind of strong response because there’s no way to feel too passionately about a 36-year-old who hits .203/.308/.366. His strongest detractors probably experience some schadenfreude, but realistically he wasn’t compelling enough to be either hero or villain.
All offseason it looked like that’s where we had to close the book on Bautista. He would be another combatant not just beaten by Father Time, but pulverized by him. He was a 37-year-old coming off a poor season with the bat and glove, and facing one of the worst free agent markets in years. It was hard to imagine a contender who would see him as an upgrade or a rebuilding squad willing to give him at-bats over a younger player. His free agency would create just enough uncertainty to prevent him from having a proper farewell tour, but not enough to earn him a spot back in the major leagues.
Then, on Wednesday, the Atlanta Braves radically changed the narrative:
The Atlanta #Braves today agreed to terms with free agent infielder José Bautista on a one-year minor-league contract for the 2018 season, and he has reported to Atlanta’s extended spring training complex in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. He will play third base.
— Atlanta Braves (@Braves) April 18, 2018
Alex Anthopoulos – a man who believed in Bautista before the rest of the world and was richly rewarded for doing so – showed a willingness to believe in him once again.
Make no mistake, this is a leap of faith. Nothing Bautista did last year indicates he’s going to be a huge contributor for the Braves. Anthopoulos isn’t betting on a 2017 stat line, though, he’s betting on a man.
The Braves have gotten off to a surprisingly-strong 9-7 and their primary third baseman so far has been Ryan Flaherty, who’s hit .221/.291/.358 in 1326 major-league plate appearances. Other options like Rio Ruiz and Johan Camargo are hardly proven studs. They don’t have a tonne to lose. Little enough to consider a 37-year-old who hasn’t played any spring training and hasn’t played more than 10 games at third base since 2011? Apparently.
Ultimately, the stakes for the Braves are low because in 2018 they are inherently a low-stakes team. The stakes for Bautista, however, are massive.
He has the ability to show the world that what they saw in 2017 wasn’t him. He can bolster his legacy by entirely re-writing the final chapter of his career. He has the chance to prove legions and legions of doubters wrong about his decline.
That’s not say he will seize this chance. This is a minor-league deal, for one. It’s possible that he never cracks the majors. Blue Jays fans may recall their team signing Vladimir Guerrero in 2012, only to see him make a few minor-league starts and never see the light of day in Toronto.
Bautista making an impact as a major-league third baseman at this juncture, on the surface, feels like a stretch. The magic of his career was based on a wildly improbable breakout, though. He made his name beating the odds.
Jose Bautista is a proud, defiant, man with an unwavering belief in his abilities and a history of making the impossible a reality. That may not be enough to make his time with the Braves a success, but it’s more than enough to make it compelling. One of the greatest tales in recent baseball history is about to get a new ending – for better or worse.
Love it or hate it, you’re going to want to see those pages.
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