Anthopoulos bullish on Braves’ addition of Joey Bats

ATLANTA — The Atlanta Braves are taking a chance on a veteran slugger their new general manager knows all too well. The club signed Jose Bautista to a minor league deal on Wednesday. Now Alex Anthopoulos is hoping Bautista might add a jolt to the Atlanta lineup at some point this summer.

Anthopoulos had Bautista in Toronto when he emerged as one of the premier power hitters in all of baseball. The two are hopeful this reunion could bear fruit in a new city with a team that appears to be on the rise.

Bautista, 37, is a two-time American League home run champion who has won three silver sluggers, finished in the Top 10 in the AL most valuable player voting four times and made six All-Star appearances in nearly a decade with the Blue Jays.

It’s an impressive pedigree, but Bautista’s production has declined precipitously of late. His home run total dropped from 40 in 2015 to 45 combined over the past two seasons. He slashed just .203/.308/.366 with 23 home runs in 686 plate appearances in 2017 while striking out a career-high 170 times.

This winter, Bautista found himself among scores of veteran free agents looking for work well into spring training. As it happens, even after the regular season began. After making $18 million on a one-year deal with Toronto in 2017, Bautista will get $1 million if he reaches the big leagues with Atlanta.

Though he may not be the player he was even a few years ago, Anthopoulos believes this to be a low-risk move that will allow the Braves to find out if Bautista has something left in the tank.

“He prepares as well as anybody that you’re going to see,” said Anthopoulos. “I am excited about what the potential is for him and what he can do for us. That being said, we’re going to see what we have here shortly as he ends up getting into games.

“He was following us. He knew our lineup and he likes the team. He thinks this team has a chance to be competitive and to contend.  He said ‘I could just sense you have a good thing going there and a good group of guys just watching them.’”

Bautista is a Tampa resident and reported to the Braves spring training complex in Orlando upon signing on Wednesday. Anthopoulos said he already knows Bautista is in great shape. He’ll work out for a little while with the extended spring training group and then seems likely to join the High-A Florida Fire Frogs of the Florida State League to get back in action.

“He will get out to an affiliate first and once he starts playing in games, then we’ll watch, we’ll observe, and we’ll get with him and come with a plan when we see where he’s at,” said Anthopoulos.

“Now it’s a matter of just being able to get him in the box, getting him reps, getting him at-bats and see how he looks. But in terms of work ethic, the conditioning, all those things, they’re going to be elite.”

In a true case of “what’s old is new again,” Atlanta’s initial plan is for Bautista to move back to third base. He has experience playing multiple positions over the course of his career and both sides believe Bautista can make a smooth transition. He will work with Braves roving infield instructor Adam Everett to get reacclimated with third, a position he has played just a dozen times since 2012.

Atlanta has utilized veteran Ryan Flaherty at the hot corner to open the season. The Braves also activated versatile infielder Johan Camargo from the disabled list on Wednesday. While both have been productive in limited time, neither provide the same kind of power Bautista brings to the table.

In recent years, Bautista has become a somewhat polarizing player for his sometimes-brash manner of playing the game. Despite that, Anthopoulos believes that Bautista’s value goes well beyond what he does at the plate. He sees Bautista as the kind of teammate who makes a club better across the board.

His old GM should know.

“I think what you see on the field is different than what you see in the clubhouse,” Anthopoulos said. “There has been a lot of commentary that he can be a little fiery, demonstrative, things like that, but he’s a class act individual who cares and works hard.

“He is very highly respected overall. The work ethic and the prep, I’ve seen him individually influence players and make players better. Edwin Encarnacion is a great example, when [Toronto] got him from the Reds, I think being around Jose, his conditioning got better, his preparation and the way he studies video and does all those things. Those things can impact other players and can affect other players. [Bautista] is a very intelligent, very cerebral player. A very instinctive player, so that can only help being around a guy like that.”

Anthopoulos confirmed that Bautista had an offer on the table from another club with a higher base salary and incentives that would have paid significantly more than his minor league pact with Atlanta, but the veteran slugger was eager to find the best fit.

“I think to Jose’s credit, the conversation I had with him, it’s not about the money for him,” said Anthopoulos. “It’s about what he felt the best fit for him was and the best opportunity for him was.”

Another draw for Bautista was to be reunited with former Blue Jays hitting coach Kevin Seitzer, who was one of many voices that supported bringing Bautista into the Braves organization.

“The hitting coach here had him in Toronto and felt strongly about him,” Anthopoulos said of Seitzer’s input on the acquisition. “We talked extensively internally. He’s very excited about him.”

“Anyone that’s been around this guy, that’s worked with him and spent time with him, all were very emphatic to make this move. That was important as well. I think that helps, and I don’t want to speak for Jose, but I think the comfort and the familiarity that he would have already here certainly didn’t hurt.”

The Braves will begin the process of bringing Bautista up to game speed, starting first with some work at the spring training facility and then eventually heading out to get playing time through the minor league system. If and when they feel he’s ready, they’ll look to bring him up to Atlanta.

There is no hard timetable on when exactly Bautista could join the big league club, however.

“We’re going to work with him on that,” said Anthopoulos. “It’s something that’s going to be open dialogue.

“He knows his body, he knows himself. He understands where we are as a team and what we’re looking to do. He understands as much as he’d like to get up here, he needs to do the right thing and prepare himself as well. He told me the first thing is ‘I don’t want to hurt the team. For now, I want to make sure that I come up there and help.’”

If Bautista can recapture the magic he experienced in a career renaissance with Toronto, the Braves could have a very affordable power source. One that could help Freddie Freeman in the heart of the Atlanta lineup.

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