The Braves are hoping Jose Bautista can provide more right-handed power to a lefty-heavy lineup that leads the majors in wRC+ (119), WAR (8.4) and the National League with 172 runs.
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ATLANTA — Nearly a year after a bat flip after his home run at SunTrust Park led to benches clearing, Jose Bautista was back — only this time wearing a Braves uniform. A whirlwind run through the minors culminated in the six-time All-Star making his Atlanta debut in Friday’s series opener vs. the Giants.
“Anything can happen in baseball,” the 14-year veteran said, “especially when you’re a free agent.”
Bautista, who signed with Atlanta on April 18, got the start at third base — a position he hasn’t played with regularity since 2008 — as the Braves attempt to see if he can provide more right-handed power to a lefty-heavy lineup that leads the majors in wRC+ (119), WAR (8.4) and the National League with 172 runs.
“You can tell by the energy that they bring every single day and the youth and the athleticism that they’re going to be able to do special things,” Bautista said of the draw of the Braves. “(It’s) a lineup that doesn’t need much added on.”
"I'm hoping to step in and contribute right away."
He wasted little time in making an impact in a Braves uniform, doubling in his first at-bat in Friday’s 9-4 loss to the Giants, and finished 1-for-4 with two strikeouts. But there’s a question as to what the 37-year-old will be adding on long term as he’s coming off a season for the Blue Jays which he hit .203/.308/.366 with 23 home runs and his lowest OPS+ (76) of any of his 12 full major league seasons. But the lure is of of course what he did from 2010-16, when Bautista averaged 36 homers with 93 RBI and a 151 OPS+ in claiming three Silver Slugger Awards.
After waiting to sign — he reportedly mulled over an offer from the Indians before joining the Braves and Alex Anthopoulos, his general manager in Toronto — Bautista played in just 12 minor league games, the last 10 of which were spent in Triple-A Gwinnett. Bautista hit .256/.396/.372 with a double, a home run and a double and five RBI in 43 at-bats.
It was enough for him to believe he’s ready to aid a team that’s raced out to a 1 1/2-game lead over the Mets in the National League East.
"It definitely feels weird wearing different colors."
“My body’s feeling good and just a matter of making the adjustments here,” he said. “You have to do that wherever you’re playing, but hopefully I hit the ground running.”
The Braves have featured five left-handed bats in their primary lineup, while also utilizing a pair of switch-hitters in Ozzie Albies and Johan Camargo. Initially optioning Preston Tucker to Triple-A removed one of those, he was recalled when Dansby Swanson was placed on the 10-day disabled list with a sore wrist.
It’s a lineup that has racked up 50 more plate appearances from lefties than any other team in the majors, though Bautista could help boost Atlanta’s standing as 20th in wRC+ from at-bats via righties (78).
The relationship with Anthopoulos may have helped Bautista ultimately decide to join the Braves, but from the team’s perspective, it was a cost-effective, worthwhile gamble. He signed a $1 million minor league deal, receiving the prorated portion if he’s with the club for the remainder of the year, and given Atlanta’s early successes, the Braves don’t need him to be the Bautista of old to make it worthwhile
“It’s going to be, hopefully, an easy transition for me, not feeling like I have to do everything for a ball club, not that I’ve ever felt in that position before,” he said. “But since they’re playing so good and scoring so many runs, it’s a little bit more of a relaxed atmosphere.”
As for the return to third base, a position at which he’s made just six starts since 2012, Bautista had been preparing himself before he signed with the Braves. He started taking ground balls a third months ago, and noted that he’s always carried an infielder’s glove, standing as an emergency option when he was with the Blue Jays.
“All the reps have been nice to get in the minor leagues,” he said. “I did play a few times in the past few seasons and obviously extensively in the past, so hopefully it’s an easy transition.”
The Braves had been getting solid production at third from Ryan Flaherty, who is eighth in the NL with a .310 batting average, and Johan Camargo (.261 in 26 plate appearances), but neither present the possibility of power that Bautista can provide.
And as for those bat flips — one of which came May 18 after he homered off former Braves reliever Eric O’Flaherty — Bautista was asked if he’d be bringing them with him to Atlanta.
“I know that I’m known for that,” he said. “I did it once … OK, maybe a couple of times … I don’t consider it part of my repertoire as a player. I’m just looking to contribute on the field and help these guys win ball games.”