In my new book, Taking The Field, I have an entire chapter devoted to the July 30, 2004 trade of Scott Kazmir. But fascinatingly, Kazmir may not be the most valuable player the Mets dealt on that day. Jose Bautista also became an ex-Met on the day Victor Zambrano arrived in Queens. Based on wins above replacement (WAR), Bautista is well on his way to passing Kazmir. (That assumes Kazmir doesn't add any more value; he's actually lowered his career WAR the past two seasons.)
It has been a fascinating journey for Bautista to 54 home runs last year and an even better start this year. Bautista was with five organizations before he broke out with the Blue Jays – that's more teams than any other member of the 50 homer club belonged to pre-breakout. Only Luis Gonzalez's pre-50 homer travel itinerary came close; he played for three organizations before Arizona, including Houston twice.
Let's chart Bautista's evolution from organizational hot potato to all-time great slugger. The Pirates drafted Bautista in the 20th round of the 2000 draft, a round that produced just two other major leaguers: Carmen Pignatiello and Fred Lewis. With the exception of a terrific 2002 in the South Atlantic League, Bautista profiled about as he did in his pre-2010 Major League career: a .250 hitter with decent plate discipline and a little power. Still just 23 as 2003 ended, he had a good chance, with a season or two of polish, of becoming valuable – if he stuck at a middle infield position, very valuable.
Then, the scourge of reasonable prospect development struck: the Baltimore Orioles took Bautista in the Rule V Draft in December 2003. Suddenly, Bautista needed to make the transition from Class A pitching to the Major Leagues. Not surprisingly, he didn't. He hit a respectable .273 in 12 plate appearances for the Orioles, but Baltimore put him on waivers that June 3. Tampa Bay picked him up, gave him another 15 plate appearances, then sold him to Kansas City 25 days later. A little over a month after that, with 26 more plate appearances in Kansas City, the Royals traded him to the Mets for catching prospect Justin Huber. And the Mets, that very same day (Kazmir Day), traded Bautista, Ty Wigginton and pitching prospect Matt Peterson to the Pirates for Kris Benson and Jeff Keppinger.
Yes, all that could have been avoided if the Pirates just protected Bautista. Pittsburgh kept him around for another 43 plate appearances, and he didn't hit much back with his first organization, either. His 2004 total line over four organizations (five, including the Mets): .205/.263/.239. Pittsburgh wisely sent him to the minors for more seasoning.
After a strong year at Double-A, and brief promotion to Triple-A, the Pirates called Bautista up as a 24-year-old in 2004, hoping he'd be there to stay. He mostly did, providing value, with the ability to play corner positions (though middle infield was a non-starter) and giving Pittsburgh an OPS+ of about 95 each season. But by August 2008, Bautista was 27, and the chances that he'd become a star seemed nonexistent. So the Pirates, needing a catcher, traded Bautista to Toronto for Robinzon Diaz.
Diaz played one season in Pittsburgh, hit .279/.307/.357, then signed with the Tigers organization. He hasn't played in the Major Leagues since. Bautista provided another of his typical seasons for Toronto in 2009 – .235/.349/.408, good for an OPS+ of 99 – then turned into Jose Bautista as we now know him, baseball super icon.
Let's break down the trade. As of today, Bautista leads Diaz in total home runs hit with his new club, 78-1. However, this is misleading, since Diaz is no longer with the Pirates, and able to add to his total. Diaz does lead Bautista in runners thrown out trying to steal (Diaz had nine; Bautista, not a catcher, has 26 outfield assists with Toronto), and the Pirates undoubtedly lead the Blue Jays in fans shaking their fists angrily at the sky.
Generally, I like to find a moral in these trade paths, but it is hard with this one. Every player in baseball history who profiled like Jose Bautista didn't go on to become a classically great slugger, except for Jose Bautista. Perhaps it is simply a reminder that for all we think we know about how baseball will turn out, it still gloriously has the ability to surprise us – not just on a per-game basis, but on a personal one as well.