What could have been with the Pirates and Jose Bautista

How many Pirates fans are wondering what could have been if Jose Bautista was still in Pittsburgh? (AP/The Canadian Press, Nathan Denette)

Every time Jose Bautista of the Toronto Blue Jays hits a home run, I shake my head and cringe a little on the inside. On Saturday night against the Houston Astros, Bautista jacked his 17th and 18th home runs of the season, and he currently leads the majors in that category. After leading the MLB in the long balls last season with 54, I’ve had enough.  I’ve got to voice a little frustration and ponder what could have been if Bautista had not been traded in 2008.

The trade that sent Bautista to Toronto for a player to be named later didn’t create many headlines when it happened on August 21, 2008.  At the time, Bautista was a middling utility player for the Pirates who had a career high of 15 home runs in a season. The team had just acquired Andy LaRoche from the Los Angeles Dodgers, and executives were convinced that he was the long-term answer at third base. Shame on them for not learning their lesson from older brother Adam LaRoche, and shame on them for giving up on Bautista. That trade with Toronto is the one from the Neal Huntington era that most fans would gladly take back. The PTBNL the Pirates received turned out to be Robinson Diaz, a catcher who spent all of one season with the team buried beneath Ryan Doumit and Jason Jaramillo on the depth chart, was released after the 2009 season and is currently on the Texas Rangers triple-A affiliate.

And what did the Blue Jays receive? An improbable power source who is hitting to the tune of .353 with 18 home runs, 30 RBI, and a 1.316 OPS this season. While I will admit that Pirates executives had no idea what was to come with Bautista, it still stings a little to think of what could be. Who knows what clicked with Bautista to turn him into the beast that he is today. Perhaps it was different coaching in Toronto, perhaps it was a minor adjustment in his swing. Maybe the guy just had a moment where he suddenly figured it all out. It wouldn’t be the first time that happened — Cliff Lee, Albert Pujols, and Raul Ibanez were all players who unexpectedly seemed to figured it all out. No matter the cause, any Pirates fan has probably wondered in the past year how different things might be if Bautista had figured it out a couple years earlier, while still wearing black and gold.

Assuming that it all clicked during the 2008 season, the team still would have held the No. 2 pick in the MLB draft, and still likely would have drafted Pedro Alvarez knowing full well that Bautista is versatile enough to play multiple positions. This same versatility wouldn’t have affected either of the major trades the team made in 2008, specifically the one with the Yankees that brought left fielder Jose Tabata to Pittsburgh. Likely using him as a right fielder, the team would have the power-hitting player at the position that it desires, but more importantly, they would have a legitimate threat in the middle of their batting order. They would also have line-up protection for Alvarez, who could only benefit from not having to be relied upon as the only major power source this season, his first full season in the majors.

Moreover, the Pirates, who are competitive now, could be a legitimate threat in the NL with Bautista’s power. His 4.5 Wins Above Replacement (WAR) this season is 4.1 higher than the Pirates current right field combination of Matt Diaz and Garrett Jones, and would have the team at 26-20, good enough for second in the NL Central, one game back of the St. Louis Cardinals. Rather than being in the probable position of standing pat at the trade deadline this season and allowing players to develop, the Pirates could be looking for one more solid starting pitcher to help boost them down the summer stretch and into the dog days of September, a position the team has not been in for nearly two decades.

I understand that all of this is purely speculation, but it’s still fun to think about what could have been. And yes, I feel a little better now that I’ve gotten a little frustration off of my chest, but I can also still assure you all that I’ll still shake my head and cringe a little on the inside when Bautista number 19 sometime soon. But, oh, let’s let bygones be bygones, I suppose — and lets go Bucs!


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