LAKELAND, Fla. – Emilio Bonifacio was at a crossroads last fall, still only 31 but coming off the two worst seasons of his career, with a puny .181 and even punier .420 OPS in a total of just 125 major league plate appearances during 2015-16.
If he was going to get back to being the player he once was, or some semblance of it, “Boni” knew he needed to trim down some. He did, and now the versatile veteran is in good position to win one of the spots on the Braves’ bench after coming to camp as a non-roster invitee.
“Boni’s played great,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “I walked in and saw him and said, damn, he looks in better shape than I remember he did when he broke in with the Marlins. … He’s playing really good, he’s moving great, he’s running good. He’s made three great catches in the outfield. I played him at third base at the end of the game (Tuesday). He’s had a really good camp.”
Bonifacio can play all three outfield positions and showed in a ‘B’ game last week that he’s still fully capable of playing second base and third base. Since neither of the Braves’ other projected opening-day non-catching bench players (Jace Peterson, Chase d’Arnaud) has much outfield experience, the Braves hoped to see Bonifacio have the kind of spring he’s had so far.
He’s 8-for-28 (.286) with a double, a home run, two stolen bases and a .355 on-base percentage in 12 games. His offseason workout regimen has paid dividends.
“I started getting more hefty” in recent years, said Bonifacio, who was among the majors’ best base stealers when he had 40 stolen bases for the Marlins in 2011, then stole 30 in just 33 attempts over 64 games in an injury-shortened 2012 season for Miami.
He had only two stolen bases in six attempts over the past two major league seasons, and his 37 steals last year at Triple-A Gwinnett were probably more of a product of Bonifacio’s technique and base-stealing knowledge than his speed — most minor league ptichers and catchers weren’t quick and slick enough to throw him out. But in the majors, with all the slide-stepping pitchers and quick-release catchers, stealing bases is a far more difficult endeavor.
When Bonifacio reported to Braves spring training this year, after signing a minor league contract, he came looking like the muscular but sleek player he was years ago with the Marlins. He played some winter ball for Licey in his native Dominican Republic, but most of Bonifacio’s offseason was spent at a Miami workout facility favored by a slew of major leaguers who live in South Florida, including Miguel Cabrera.
“I lost eight pounds,” said Bonifacio, who described the workouts as intense but lively, a bunch of ballplayers enjoying each other’s company while running, hitting and doing myriad other strength-and-conditioning drills.
As recently as 2013, Bonifacio hit .285 with a .700 OPS for the Royals. In 2014 he totaled 26 stolen bases with the Braves and Cubs, albeit while batting only .259 with a .650 OPS.
Still, there was nothing that indicated Bonifacio was poised for the precipitous decline in performance that he’s had the past two seasons.
He spent most of the 2015 season in the White Sox organization, batting .167 with a .390 OPS — that’s not a typo — in 82 plate appearances in the majors, and last year he returned to the Braves, toiling for most of the season at Triple-A Gwinnett.
Bonifacio struggled again in limited major league opportunities last season, batting .211 with a .268 on-base percentage in 43 plate appearances for Atlanta. But at Gwinnett he hit .298 with a .356 OBP in 107 games. Snitker had him at Gwinnett briefly before the manager was promoted to replace fired Braves manger Fredi Gonzalez in May.
“He’s just a salt-of-the-earth guy, and he’s a baseball player,” Snitker said, the latter being one of the highest compliments that old-school guys like Snitker can give a player. “I had him last year (at Triple-A) — here’s a guy who’s got eight, nine years in the big leagues and he got sent down and he was like, I’ll play every day. He was unbelievable. And just how respected he is. And he’s a great guy on the club because he has experience, he can sit around and not play and then go in and do a good job.”