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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?"

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