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After breakout season, what will Jays' Bautista do for an encore?

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- By any measure, Blue Jays slugger Jose Bautista experienced one of the greatest hitting improvements in major league history last season. After hitting 13 home runs in 2009 he launched 54 a year later, an unprecedented and unheard-of career turn for someone who had never hit more than 16 in a season in his first six years in the bigs.

But here is one more measure of his improvement: In just a couple years Bautista went from batting eighth on the perennial also-ran Pirates to hitting third on an 85-win Toronto Blue Jays team.

"I'm not saying the Pirates are a bad organization or don't know what they're doing,'' Bautista said the other day. "But they wanted me to [try to hit the ball] the other way. Maybe it's because I was batting eighth.''

Bautista now has a permanent home in the middle of Toronto's batting order. Either the first or second day after arriving in Toronto (he couldn't remember which) following his Aug. 21, 2008 trade from Pittsburgh for a player to be named later, Bautista was called into manager Cito Gaston's office. Gaston and hitting coach Dwayne Murphy told Bautista he needed to revamp his approach and his swing, that he was frequently too late and shouldn't be afraid to pull the ball. Bautista immediately agreed.

Bautista said his "trigger method'' was changed so he could "load more quickly'' and recognize breaking balls and offspeed pitches more quickly. Basically, he was too slow before. "I was getting ready way late in the pitcher's delivery,'' Bautista said. "I was very vulnerable to hard in and soft away.''

He concluded, "It was time to make a drastic change. I didn't want to fall back into the utility player category.''

At first, the results were abysmal, as Bautista hit .214 the rest of that year in Toronto, then managed only two home runs the first half of 2009. A lesser man might have given up. But Bautista, now 30, believed Gaston and Murphy, stuck with it and within months had blossomed into to bona fide power hitter. He finished the second half of the 2009 season with a hardly-noticed bang (10 home runs in September), then picked up in 2010, stunning folks who didn't see or notice his '09 finish, which was almost everyone but him, Gaston and Murphy. He finished 2010 with an American League high 92 extra base hits and 351 total bases to go with his league-leading homer total and .617 slugging percentage, which was third-best.

After that amazing season, he was rewarded with a $65 million, five-year contract.

"I could have been a utilityman putting up the same numbers. But that's not what I wanted,'' said the versatile Bautista, who can play third base as well as the corner outfield spots. "I knew I had it inside me. I didn't want to be that utility guy.''

No one could have foreseen such stark improvement, or such a large contract. Some thought the figure was a bit high -- after all, he's only truly been great for a year -- or worse, even a potential waste of most of the money the team saved after offloading Vernon Wells' inflated deal, which had $88 million left over four years. But it may pay off.

The Blue Jays' well-regarded young GM, Alex Anthopoulos, admitted it wasn't an easy call. "When you spend that kind of money, I don't think you can ever be completely comfortable. And I am one to agonize over everything, anyway,'' he said. But ultimately, Anthopoulos concluded Bautista is a new player after his major mechanical changes, and remains a very fine young man. Anthopoulos said he strongly believed Bautista should be part of what they're trying to build in Toronto.

It's understandable why Anthopoulos would come to that conclusion. Bautista is almost as smart as he is powerful, as confident as he is modest. He chalks up part of his success to being in a more beneficial position, to batting third on a powerful team vs. batting eighth on a weaker team in a league that hits a bit less and runs a bit more, and to Blue Jays people showing enough faith in him to play him full-time after Scott Rolen was traded to the Reds.

That's not to say he knew his power surge was coming. "Obviously the home runs were a surprise, even to myself,'' Bautista said. "But that doesn't mean I didn't believe I was capable of having a productive major league season.''

As for whether he could possibly do it again, Bautista wisely suggested it's not something he should reasonably shoot for. "I don't measure my success by the number of home runs. But I want to be a productive player,'' he said. "It's hard to predict home runs with any accuracy. But historically, those who have hit 50 home runs have had trouble repeating it.''

Anthopoulos said, "What we can expect is a good on-base percentage, certainly some power and a guy who always puts his teammates first. I don't think it's fair to expect him to do (54 home runs) again. How many players have that type of year back-to-back, even great players?"

• The Red Sox aren't likely to lose faith in Tim Wakefield due to one bad spring start, no matter how bad (and it wasn't good with four homers allowed, including one by ex-Boston star Manny Ramirez). The Red Sox' front office, already concerned about the team's rotation depth, has given no serious thought to cutting Wakefield.

• Dennys Reyes has an out in his Red Sox contract Friday if the Red Sox don't take him. But indications are that he will likely make the team.

• Two scouts said they don't believe the Marlins' Matt Dominguez is ready to hit at the big-league level. "He's a plus defender. But he hit .250 at Double-A last year,'' one noted. He was hitting .175 in spring "where mostly fastballs were thrown early,'' the other scout noted. The Marlins have a big hole at third base. "Wes Helms is no answer,'' one of the scouts said. One scout said Dominguez is a 7.5 fielder on the 2-8 scale that scouts use. Loria said Dominguez would be up before the year is over even if he doesn't start the year with the team. Of the third base situation he said, "We're looking at [it]."

• Chris Coghlan and Mike Stanton have graduated from resting their wounds to minor league games, and the Marlins hope they'll be ready for Opening Day. One scout is skeptical about Coghlan as a centerfielder, though. "He wasn't very good at second or third, or in left, so I'm not sure why they think he'll be good in center,'' the scout said. Both Coghlan and Stanton homered in their spring game on Tuesday, perking up the Marlins' spirits.

• Does anyone have more pressure on them than Edwin Rodriguez? Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria isn't pleased by what he says is a lack of "preparedness," though he said he was "much happier" after Tuesday's 3-0 win over the Twins. E-Rod has a one-year deal from the owner who fired managers after 1) a Manager of the Year award (Joe Girardi), and 2) 87 victories in his last full season (Fredi Gonzalez). Let's hope Rodriguez is renting.

• Two of the best Rule 5 pickups have been utilityman Mike Martinez, who the Phillies drafted off the Nationals, and righthanded pitcher Brian Broderick, who the Nationals drafted off the Cardinals.

• Mike Morse has the Nationals' left field job locked up. Manager Jim Riggleman told him when Morse appeared to be pressing in an 0-for-13 slide that he can relax now. Nyjer Morgan came to camp with the inside track on the centerfield job, but he's still in a three-way battle with Rick Ankiel and Roger Bernadina now. Whoever gets the job (and Morgan is probably still a slight favorite) will likely have to platoon with Jerry Hairston Jr., the righty hitter who's been penciled in against lefthanders.

• Riggleman showed a real feisty side when he was screaming at Tony La Russa during a bench-clearing staredown with the Cardinals on Monday and had to be held back. Two Cardinals pitchers had hit Nationals batters in what seemed to be retribution for Morgan inexplicably running over Cardinals catcher Bryan Anderson last year when Anderson didn't even have the ball.

• Ivan Nova has the No. 4 starter's job locked up with the Yankees, though as usual manager Joe Girardi isn't saying until he absolutely has to. Bartolo Colon has pitched better than Freddy Garcia for the No. 5 job, but with Garcia's history of poor springs, that shouldn't be a shocker.

• While the Yankees discussed the just-released Oliver Perez as a cheap sign, they don't seem anxious. Perez is said to have received some interest, so it appears he will get a job, though scouts say he needs to adjust to throwing 85 mph instead of 95.

• The White Sox went with defense when they gave the third base job to Brent Morel.

• Matt Thornton earned the closer's job, as GM Ken Williams hoped he would. Others in the organization preferred Chris Sale for that role.

• Scott Baker beat out Kevin Slowey for the No. 5 job in the Twins' rotation. Scouts say recent high draftee Kyle Gibson isn't too far from the majors, giving the Twins decent depth.

• Tsuyoshi Nishioka has looked good defensively in Twins camp.

• The Phillies don't sound like they have much faith in Luis Castillo, saying publicly he's got 10 days to show he be their second baseman. (It became nine when Castillo showed up a day later than they expected; the Phils wrote it of as a miscommunication between Castillo and his agent). Their in-camp options include Martinez, Josh Barfield and Wilson Valdez.

• Word going around the league is not to look for Chase Utley back anytime soon. He has been out all spring with patellar tendinitis in his knee. Phillies people haven't been especially optimistic in recent days as improvement has been painfully slow.

• Chris Young and Chris Capuano have looked very good for the Mets, so "their rotation should be fine,'' one scout said. However, their 'pen is a bit iffy, scouts agree.

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