Bautista is trying to hold it together, stick with Orioles

In first big league camp, versatile rookie is out to go from Single-A to majors

Orioles Spring Training

March 01, 2004|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - The lessons come daily and at varying speeds for Jose Bautista, the Rule 5 player who's trying to make the jump from Single-A Lynchburg to the Orioles. He has never been in a major league camp, never felt the pressure of staying on a 25-man roster. His world has taken a different spin, and it must leave him dizzy at times.

If Bautista is a little disoriented, it doesn't show as he moves through the clubhouse or swings a bat in the cage. Yes, that's Rafael Palmeiro standing beside him, a near-certain Hall of Famer sharing space with a 23-year-old rookie. And that's Jay Gibbons and Larry Bigbie waiting their turn to hit as Bautista takes his cuts on the main field against Triple-A manager Tim Leiper.

And this is Bautista, sounding mature beyond his professional years as he explains the one lesson that came to him without assistance from the Orioles - how he gained nothing from a slump-induced tantrum last summer that ended with his punching a trash can in the dugout and breaking his right hand.

"It was out of frustration, and it didn't come out very good," said Bautista, who missed 2 1/2 months because of the injury. "There are some things you have to go through to learn. It's not a smart thing to do, though, and it won't happen again."

With that bit of wisdom safely tucked away, Bautista can concentrate on making the team as this year's version of Jose Morban. The Orioles must keep him on their roster all season or offer him back to the Pittsburgh Pirates - who most likely would jump at the chance - for $25,000.

Bautista moved to third base after the Pirates selected him in the 20th round of the 2000 amateur draft, but he returns to the outfield during each winter league season. He played right for the Licey Tigers in the Dominican Winter League and made a few starts at second base for Lynchburg. Such versatility would come in handy if he stays with the Orioles.

"He's got talent," said shortstop Miguel Tejada, who befriended Bautista during the Caribbean World Series and remains a mentor. "He has a good swing, and he runs hard. He's going to be a real good player. I hope we don't lose him."

Players selected from the minor leagues during the Rule 5 draft are required to stay on the major league roster for an entire season or be offered back to the original club for $25,000.

The Pirates barely could count their losses during the Rule 5 draft. Five of the first six players came from their organization, and industry sources during the winter meetings said Bautista was their biggest regret.

"Whenever you sign with a team, it's always good to stay in the system, but there are 30 teams in baseball and it's a business," he said. "They thought nobody was going to take me. It looked like a reasonable decision. It just didn't go that way."

The Orioles took Jay Gibbons in the 2000 Rule 5 draft, and he was voted their Most Valuable Player last season. Morban is regarded as a legitimate prospect, though he might have to switch positions because of Tejada's six-year deal. Now Bautista gets his chance to make an impression, if not an impact.

"It's been going pretty good. I'm really excited to be here, and I'm glad that I've got an opportunity to make the team," he said.

"In baseball, it boils down to adjustments. You have to adjust to the pitching in whatever league you play in. I've been playing winter ball the last few years, and it's pretty tough competition, pretty high-level pitching. It just depends on how you make the adjustments, how you get to know the leagues and the players."

Bautista's bat speed has caught the eye of Doc Rodgers, the Orioles' director of minor league operations. Leiper watched him hit three balls to the opposite field and into the metal bleachers during one turn in the cage. He might be overmatched at times in the majors, but he can rake against batting practice pitchers.

"I can't believe he was in A ball," Leiper said. "He's very professional the way he goes about everything. He's doing what a young kid should do. He's quiet and just going about his business."

Tejada and Melvin Mora have been the biggest influences on Bautista, but he's also soaking up information without relying on private consultations.

"I know some of the veterans, and I talk to them. With everybody else, it's just watch and learn," said Bautista.

"Sometimes it's better that way. You just sit back and see what they do and how they go about their business."

Bautista was hitting .417 through 12 games at Lynchburg last year before finishing at .242. With his right hand healed, he batted .375 in the Carolina League playoffs.

"The kid can swing the bat a little bit," manager Lee Mazzilli said. "Hopefully, he's a diamond in the rough."

"Talent-wise, I think that I'm good enough," Bautista said. "I've just got to learn how to play the game."

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