Remembering Jose Bautista’s brief stay with the Orioles

Dylan Bundy has another bullpen session today in Sarasota. He’s up to 30 pitches, an increase of 10 from his starting point, and is mixing in his changeup with his fastball.

Bundy continues to make progress and the Orioles remain encouraged.

Before Jose Bautista became a fastball-crushing, bat-flipping, opponent-baiting, All-Star outfielder for the Blue Jays, he was a quiet, skinny Rule 5 infielder breaking into the majors with the Orioles and collecting splinters on the bench.

If you blinked, you probably missed him. If you looked hard enough, perhaps you saw the untapped potential that led the Orioles to pay the $50,000 fee to acquire him.

The Orioles selected Bautista from the Pirates organization in the Rule 5 draft on Dec. 15, 2003. He appeared in only 16 games for them the following season, going 3-for-11 with a walk and three runs scored.

Bautista played for four teams as a rookie, getting passed around like a flask on a cold day. The Orioles lost him on a waiver claim by the Rays on June 3 while making room for infielder Jose Leon. The Royals purchased his contract three weeks later because the Rays needed a roster spot for outfielder Joey Gathright. The Mets acquired Bautista a month later for Justin Huber and immediately flipped him to the Pirates, along with future Oriole Ty Wigginton, for future Oriole Kris Benson and Jeff Keppinger.

Bautista, who turns 35 on Monday, made $300,000 in 2004. He’s earning $14 million this season and the Blue Jays hold a $14 million option for 2016.

Yes, so much has changed.

Former manager Lee Mazzilli wishes he could have worked the 23-year-old Bautista into the lineup on a regular basis, but it wasn’t that simple. The Orioles weren’t a rebuilding club that could afford to experiment. They finished in third place, with the Jays settling at the bottom of the division. And the infield positions that Bautista played already were occupied.

“When we took him at the Winter Meetings, the reports were that he was young, he was a third baseman, but this kid had a chance to be something,” Mazzilli said yesterday. “We wanted to get a look at him. He was a great kid. I love him, man. I’m so happy for his success. I see him all the time at spring training and we always talk. He just never got a chance to play.

“We tried to play him, but we also were moving Melvin Mora to third base full-time. You just saw glimpses of his talent, but at a young age, you never know when it’s going to click. I remember that year how I felt bad because it was unfair to him. It’s unfair to a lot of Rule 5 guys. Sometimes it works great, sometimes it doesn’t. That kid was with four teams in one year. As a player, one thing we are is a creature of habit. We need to play this game every day to develop skills and maintain that. Unfortunately for him, four clubs in one year is pretty hard for a young kid, and to produce at that level.

“For some Rule 5 guys it works out, like (Johan) Santana, and some get lost. Thank God he didn’t. He’s just a good kid. I’m really happy for his success. I don’t know that anybody was going to predict 50 home runs, but if you look at him now, he’s a force to be reckoned with.”

Bautista has a knack for getting under the skin of his opponents. He’s caused more benches to empty than a metrobus. But Mazzilli never caught a glimpse of that side of his personality.

“I can only speak for myself, but I never saw that in him at all,” Mazzilli said. “He was always a good kid. I haven’t really heard anything bad about him.”

Jose-Bautista-Orioles-sidebar.jpgThe Orioles went 78-84 in Mazzilli’s first season. Bautista wasn’t ready to carry them to the playoffs, wasn’t ready to become an established major leaguer who later would hit 54 and 43 home runs in back-to-back seasons with the Blue Jays.

“For us, we moved Melvin to third base and he played every day back in ‘04,” Mazzilli said. “He couldn’t play shortstop because (Miguel) Tejada was there, and we had Brian Roberts at second base. (Bautista) was still trying to play the infield.

“He’s such a force right now in the game, which is a credit to him. I wish I would have played him more.”

Former catcher Rick Dempsey, the club’s first base coach in 2004, never was impressed by Bautista during that short stay in Baltimore.

“I remember he was a nothing player at that time. He really was,” said Dempsey, now a MASN analyst. “He was just a guy. He didn’t show any power, didn’t show all the ability. All of a sudden, he became a monster.

“Nobody would have known. There was nothing special at the time. He didn’t have a great arm, he didn’t have great speed. He wasn’t a five-tool player. All of a sudden, two or three years later, bam, 50 home runs. He turned out to be a pretty darn good player.

“He was a pretty good kid just trying to stay in the big leagues and get a chance to play. I don’t think anybody could have anticipated what he was going to be today. That’s just a mystery, how that all went down. He’s become a great player. There’s no doubt about it.

“I’m kind of disappointed about all these antics, but that’s what the game has become.”

It can’t be more shocking than what Bautista has become since the Rule 5 draft.

“He was a skinny little quiet middle infielder, if I remember right,” said former outfielder Jay Gibbons, now the hitting coach for the Single-A Great Lakes Loons in the Dodgers organization. “I remember him being a very good guy, though.

“I remember when he had like 12 homers in Pittsburgh, I was surprised he had that much pop. Obviously, the leg kick he developed has made all the difference for him.”

Bautista hit 43 home runs in five seasons and 1,314 at-bats with the Pirates. He’s hit 243 home runs in eight seasons and 3,354 at-bats with the Blue Jays, not including the playoffs.

“Obviously, we would have kept him if we saw that coming,” said former hitting coach Terry Crowley, who still works with the Orioles’ young players in the minors. “I have just a slight recollection of the situation. Obviously, we needed the roster spot when the time came.

“What I remember about Jose is he was an athletic player. He could run, he could throw and he could catch the ball in the outfield. We tried him in the infield. I know he had athleticism, but he was very young with the bat. He still had a ways to go.

“It was hard to do much with him because he didn’t get any playing time at all. All the work we did was like basic stuff in anticipation of should we keep him and should he get a chance to play on a more regular basis next year in the minor leagues, that some of the things we were trying to do would help him out. But I do remember he was very athletic. That’s the thing that stands out in my mind.

“I didn’t see a whole lot of power in batting practice. Not that it means anything. Some guys can hit the ball over the fence in BP and can’t get any gametime home runs or show any power.”

Crowley also remembers Bautista as being well-mannered and respectful.

“Like just about any Rule 5 player, he was very pleasant, very nice to be around, very appreciative of any help you tried to give him,” Crowley said. “I know he was a kid and on his best behavior, but he was the nicest, most polite kid. Maybe he still is, but on the field, I guess sometimes it looks a little rough.”

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