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Jose Bautista: Was The Pirates' Decision To Trade Him Defensible?

Twitter-scrum! Who doesn't love a good Twitter-scrum, where lots of people argue back and forth, one sentence at a time? I know I do! This one centers around Dejan Kovacevic, and it concerns Jose Bautista, who hit three homers today and now has a ridiculous, Bondsian line of .368/.520/.868 - and yeah, that .868 is for slugging percentage, not OPS.

A quick observation, first: Bautista hit 54 home runs last year. The fact that he's doing even better this year doesn't really add anything to the why-did-the-Pirates-trade-Bautista-for-nothing arguments that we all discussed ad nauseam last year, so I look forward to not really listening to them anymore if they continue. It's not that I don't acknowledge that the trade turned out really badly. It's just that I'm sick of hearing about it.

This one time, however, I'll go with it. Kovacevic:

For zillionth time, it's not about envisioning Bautista would become Babe Ruth. It's about seeing more potential than third-string catcher ...

The Bautista who hit 15 HR with .360 OBP, good eye, multiple positions in field was good enough to keep over third-string catcher.

My initial reaction to the trade when it happened was similar to the one in the second paragraph there, but I think I was wrong (and I said so a couple days later). I don't think Kovacevic is making a very good argument. For one thing, Bautista never had an OBP higher than .339 with the Pirates. He was also a defensive liability, which means that even given the modest pop and on-base skills, he was a replacement-level player when he was with the Pirates, or maybe a little better. He was also 27 and about to enter his second year of arbitration.

Generally, that's exactly the sort of player a rebuilding team shouldn't bother with, because that player type gets in the way of building a winner. In 2008, the Pirates had Doug Mientkiewicz around to stand at third base and in right field occasionally. Mientkiewicz was better, and cheaper, than Bautista, and after the season, the Pirates let Mientkiewicz go, and that was fine. Players who provide the type of production that Bautista did then are a dime a dozen, and when a rebuilding team intentionally carves out opportunities and multimillion-dollar salaries for aging, replacement-level players, it's shooting itself in the foot.

It's one thing if that kind of player is needed to fill a role and can fill it cheaply. But with the addition of Andy LaRoche (who turned out to be terrible, yes, but was a much better option than Bautista at the time), Bautista wasn't really needed, and he wasn't particularly cheap either. Teams who wait around for players of that type to achieve their "potential" usually might as well be waiting for Godot. So the argument that Bautista should have been kept based on his statistics (15 homers a year, etc.) doesn't hold much water with me.

If there was anything wrong with the Pirates' decision to drop Bautista, it was that they didn't figure out how to harness Bautista's power, while the Blue Jays did. Should the Pirates have been able to figure Bautista out? I'm not sure, and I don't know if anyone is. But this article has some insights:

The Toronto Blue Jays outfielder was getting started too late in the batter's box, forcing him to use his shoulders rather than his hands when attacking the ball, making his swing long and wild. Rather than going through the ball, he was going around it, leaving him vulnerable on the plate's inner half.

Bautista had heard similar criticism from coaches before, but was never really sure what they meant, or what to do about it. So one day in the Rogers Centre weight room last July, [Dwayne] Murphy pulled Bautista aside, gave him a bat and told him to swing in front of a mirror.

It was there the 29-year-old's slow transformation from journeyman bench player to unlikely big-league home run leader began ...

For the first time in his career, what he was hearing from his coach made sense to Bautista.

Emphasis mine. It sounds like Bautista's coaches before he was with the Blue Jays recognized the timing problems that were holding him back, but for whatever reason, Bautista didn't understand what they were saying. It's possible that Murphy is just a better communicator, in which case the Pirates deserve blame for not figuring things out. But often, when I'm learning a new skill, my ability to implement changes has less to do with the person who's communicating them and more to do with where I am in the learning process and what else I might know.

It's possible the Pirates deserve blame for failing to reach Bautista. But I'm not sure we can know that, and I don't think anyone really saw his power surge coming. And based on the type of player Bautista was - the 15-homer guy who played poor defense at third and in the outfield and had to be paid at arbitration rates - there was nothing wrong with the Pirates dropping him. And the Jays were a .500 team in August of 2008 and they had to put in a waiver claim to get him, and they're also in the American League, which means that every NL team and half the AL teams saw him on waivers and simply passed. The Jays also used him very sparingly down the stretch in 2008, which suggests that they weren't ultimately all that interested in him, either. Nobody was.

UPDATE 1:49 AM: WTM in the comments:

Honestly, this Bautista stuff aggravates me no end because the arguments about the trade bear no relation at all to the real world. As we all know, absolutely nobody, including the Jays over a year after the trade, had the faintest clue Bautista was this type of player. Worst of all is Kovacevic’s criticism of Neal Huntington in his blog entry tonight for thinking Andy LaRoche had a higher ceiling than Bautista. Everybody in MLB thought LaRoche was a far better player. That’s not remotely a valid criticism because it doesn’t reflect anything that was relevant to this plane of existence at the time of the trade. Really, the only valid criticism of the trade is that Huntington should have gotten a return equivalent to what everybody on the planet thought Bautista was—a run-of-the-mill corner utility guy. So the Pirates should have ended up with something like a decent backup catcher instead of a third-string catcher. Big deal.

But it is perfectly sensible to wonder why the Pirates never find their own version of Bautista. Or lesser version, because there’s probably been nobody similar in MLB history. Players come out of nowhere or return from the dead all the time, but the Pirates are never on the receiving end. What exactly is wrong with their evaluations that we keep ending up with the Ryan Churches and Lyle Overbays? That’s the real issue, in my opinion, but I guess it’s too abstract and lacks the emotional satisfaction of whining endlessly about Bautista.