Can Bautista prove ’10 wasn’t a fluke?

Last week, my colleague Ken Rosenthal reported that the Boston Red Sox made multiple efforts to acquire Jose Bautista from the Toronto Blue Jays during the winter meetings.

This is significant information — and not because a trade is likely. For the moment, at least, the chance of a deal is essentially zero. The Red Sox signed Carl Crawford as their big outfield addition. The Blue Jays are unlikely to move Bautista — at least not anytime soon.

But it’s noteworthy that the trade talks occurred at all, because of their relevance to a popular question in baseball circles.

Was Jose Bautista a one-year wonder?

At the beginning of last season, Bautista was unknown to the vast majority of baseball fans. One of his biggest career “achievements” was that his rights were held by five organizations at various times during the 2004 season.

But last year, with a retooled swing and consistent playing time, Bautista led the majors with 54 home runs. He made the All-Star team. He finished fourth in the American League MVP voting. During the World Series, he found himself sitting on a dais next to Hank Aaron … while accepting the Hank Aaron Award.

To which a lot of us responded: Congratulations … Now can you do it again? 

“Only time will tell,” the 30-year-old said over the phone this week. “I don’t set goals with numbers. … I want to have consistent, good at-bats and hit the ball hard. If it ends up going over the fence, that’s great.”

Bautista played 161 games last year. More than 11 percent of them were against the Red Sox. So, the Boston decision-makers had plenty of opportunities to scrutinize him. On the field, they tried to expose his flaws. But in the end, they wanted Bautista on their side. From a front office that currently manages the AL’s best roster, that’s a vote of confidence.

For the record, I agree that Bautista will have a very good season in 2011 — in what, for now, is his final year before entering free agency.

Do I expect him to hit 50-plus homers again? No. Bautista’s power numbers are likely to dip, now that a) pitchers will be cautious with him from Opening Day onward and b) Vernon Wells won’t be hitting behind him. However, a 35-homer season — still more than twice his previous career high — sounds about right.

“This is somebody who is very aware of his abilities,” said John Farrell, the new Toronto manager who opposed Bautista last year as Boston’s pitching coach.

“He’s also very aware of the situation he’s in, with his defensive capabilities, where he hits in the lineup, and what makes him most effective. He’s going to put himself in a position to be successful. What that (home run) number is, that’s unknown. But we’ve got to make sure we’ve got the appropriate protection for him in our lineup. That will be a question in spring training.”

Bautista is most likely to bat third, where he had so much success last year. Adam Lind, Aaron Hill and Juan Rivera — Farrell called them “key components to the middle of our lineup” — are the chief options to hit behind Bautista. Lind, a left-handed hitter with power, would be the ideal complement to the right-handed Bautista. But Farrell isn’t preoccupied with the left-right paradigm.

Lind, Hill and Rivera all performed below their career norms in 2010 — just as Wells did in 2009. As long as one of them reverts to the mean — like Wells last year — Bautista should be suitably protected. If that doesn’t happen, Bautista might lead the majors in walks, not home runs.

Either way, Bautista acknowledges that he won’t see the same (hittable) pitches that he did in 2010. By now, opposing managers and pitchers are well aware of the data, at and elsewhere, that says 52 of Bautista’s 54 home runs were to left or left-center.

“It’s going to be a challenge,” Bautista said. “I don’t expect them to try to get me out the same way they did last year. I can’t try to hit home runs to left field if they throw it down-and-away.

“The good thing is that the changes I made (before last year) weren’t about hitting the ball out to left. I was just trying to get ready earlier, so my swing was on time. It was all about driving the ball more. If 85 percent of the pitches I see are outside, hopefully I can hit a lot of hard balls to right.”

I know what you’re thinking: He’s going to overswing. Actually, I don’t think he will. The guy drew 100 walks last year, second-most in the American League.

“The most impressive thing about Jose’s season was the pitches he didn’t  swing at; he had an unbelievable eye,” Hill said. “I think Jose will have another big year. He’s obviously going to have big expectations, but he’s been very good at just focusing on the task at hand.”

We didn’t learn the full extent of that focus until after the season, when the Blue Jays announced that Bautista underwent surgery to repair a sports hernia. Turns out, he suffered the injury while diving for a ball in the outfield in late April but refused to discuss it publicly during the season.

His teammates knew, of course. They saw him undergoing treatment for 90 minutes on many days during the season. “There was no need to go public with it,” Bautista said. “I’m not trying to get sympathy, and I was playing well.”

Bautista may be Toronto’s most vital position player, but there is much unresolved about his upcoming season. First, there is the not-so-trifling matter of where he will be stationed in the field.

Bautista would prefer to play right field. He believes — correctly — that he can best contribute in the outfield. Bautista finished second in the AL with 12 assists from right field, even though he started just 113 games there. “I think I can get better use out of my arm in right,” he said. “Teams are hesitant to take the extra base. If by me being out there, the other team scores less, that’s better for our team.”

Farrell doesn’t dispute that. He considers Bautista a “premier right fielder.” But Bautista can’t play right field if the Jays need him at third base, which is where Farrell said he would be if the season began today. Bautista is league-average or better at third, where he made 45 starts for Toronto last year. But it would be a shame for his game-changing outfield arm to be left unused.

The Blue Jays would, in fact, love to acquire a frontline third baseman and move Bautista to right. They have roughly two months to do so before Opening Day. That is an eternity for industrious general manager Alex Anthopoulos, who could probably draw up a new collective bargaining agreement for baseball … and the NFL … in English and French … on his lunch hour.

Speaking of the front office: Odd as it sounds, Bautista still doesn’t know how much the Jays are going to pay him this year. His agent, Bean Stringfellow, and the Jays are scheduled for a February arbitration hearing to decide how much he will earn. He wants $10.5 million; the team has offered $7.6 million.

Apart from that, the teams could work on a long-term deal. Some have theorized that the departure of Wells (and his contract) will give the Jays a better chance to keep Bautista beyond this season. Certainly, they have the money to do so. But as of last week, Stringfellow said the Jays hadn’t made a multiyear offer.

“We’re not really talking about multiyear deals too much,” Bautista said. “Nothing’s been presented to me. I wish I had something to tell you.”

In other words, Bautista’s future earnings may hinge on his production this year, not last year.

Skeptics, take note: That’s not a bad thing.