(Updated: 6:15 p.m.)
When Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos took a no-risk flier on Jose Bautista and signed the former Toronto slugger to bring an extra big bat and potential starting third baseman to the team, it seemed like an inspired idea. Bautista could work his way back into shape in the minors and eventually add a veteran presence to a young Braves team still trying to find its way.
There’s only one problem now. Two weeks later, the Braves are finding their way just fine. So is this the best time to make a significant roster move?
The 37-year-old Bautista was called up from Triple-A Gwinnett in time for Friday’s series opener against San Francisco at SunTrust Park, started at third base and batted fifth. Bautista did not go through spring training. He hit only .250 (9-for-36) in 10 games with Gwinnett after two in the Florida State League, but he’s 6-for-15 with a home run, a double and two walks in the past four games, so it seems he’s finding his rhythm.
The risk here is that the Braves are doing just fine without him. They’ve won seven of eight to close a road trip and have started the season a surprising 19-11 to move into first place in the National League East.
There’s a general rule in sports: When things are going well, you don’t change the lineup, or the roster, or your socks. So there’s a worthy debate about whether Senor Bat Flip will disrupt team chemistry.
Peter Moylan, one of the few veterans in the Braves’ clubhouse, didn’t express any concern about adding Bautista, saying the Braves have a strong clubhouse: “Usually on any team there’s a couple of guys who are selfish or something. But in this clubhouse everybody fights for the other guy. My personal feeling on the whole thing, and I haven’t spoken to him, is he’s probably learned a lot from the past and whatever he did in the past is in the past, and he’s here to do whatever he can to help this team win.”
As for a potential negative impact, Moylan said, “If that happens, then this club wasn’t ready, anyway.”
Bautista is infamous for one of the more obnoxious bat flips in baseball history, after hitting a home run for Toronto against Texas in the 2015 American League Division Series. He later said he got caught up in the emotion and didn’t understand the cultural differences from his native Dominican Republic.
But two years later, Bautista did it again -- after hitting a home against the Braves last season at SunTrust Park. The bat flip, along with other incidents that series, led to both benches clearing. The next day, Julio Teheran hit Bautista with a pitch.
None of that seemed to matter Friday. Bautista said the Braves have “a bunch of great players, and you can tell the energy they bring and their youth and athleticism. They can do some special things. It’s a lineup that didn’t need much added on, but I’m thankful they’re giving me the opportunity.”
As for bat flips, he said, “I know that I’m known for that. I did it once. Well, maybe a couple of times. But one really big one (in the playoffs). I don’t consider it part of my repertoire.”
The Braves seemingly don’t need Bautista’s offense now. They entered Friday leading the major leagues in team batting average (.277) and OPS (.802) and ranked fourth with 172 runs scored. The team also may be giving up something defensively, where Johan Camargo and Ryan Flaherty are working out fine.
So why now?
Obviously, Anthopoulos couldn’t keep Bautista in Gwinnett forever. If Bautista flops or things start to go sideways, the team can always make a change.
For what it’s worth I’d be surprised if Bautista messes things up. It seems like a pretty strong clubhouse, despite the youth of the roster, and it’s logical to assume Bautista just wants to fit in. He was an All-Star six consecutive years in Toronto, but the last came in 2015. He hit .234 and .203 in the past two seasons with a total of 45 home runs. So he’s not the 40- or 50-plus home-run hitter of seven years ago, but he still has some pop.
Certainly, Bautista’s presence makes things interesting. Not that the Braves weren’t already interesting.
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