In 2008, the Pittsburgh Pirates traded a “utility” third baseman named Jose Bautista to the Toronto Blue Jays for a backup catcher. It took him a couple seasons, but the former utilityman rocketed to become a team mainstay.

Earlier, the self-same Pirates also dumped a utility outfielder named Rajai Davis, who had a short stint with the San Francisco Giants, then went to a (the Oakland As) who appreciated his talents a little, before ending up with an As-like “moneyball” team, Toronto, who appreciated his talents a lot, and will put him, and his foot speed, in the leadoff position.

In predicting a “breakout Bautista” in the past, I would never have guessed that he would hit 54 homers in one season. What did not surprise me, however, was his .378 on base percentage (OBP) last year. Forget his power for a moment, and change all his home runs to doubles, and he would still be an immensely valuable hitter.

This kind of production characterized much of his minor league play, although the Pirates somehow managed to kill the goose that laid the golden egg when he made it to the major league team. He only “found himself” in Toronto as a home run hitter under Dwayne Murphy. Perhaps Murphy could do much the same for Davis.

But Bautista’s rise shows that there was a lesson to be learned from a formerly low average, low power, minor league batter named Jason Giambi, whose main virtue was his walk rate: Get OBP high enough, and other things, like batting average and power will fall into place.

Davis has a career  OBP of “only” .330, which would still make his about fifth highest on the Toronto roster. But he posted Bautista-like OBP numbers twice, of .361 in 2007, and .360 in 2009. The second time, he did so with a respectable batting average (.305). Meaning that unlike others with an “average” OBP, Davis can produce a high one.

That’s not to mention Davis’ stellar .384 OBP showing in AAA in 2007 before he was called up to the majors, which exceeded even Bautista’s at that level. Again, I blame the Pirates for messing up his natural style, which includes speed on the base paths and walking from the plate. He’s beginning to find it again, first with Oakland, now Toronto.

In 2011 spring training, Davis’ OBP exceeded that AAA level. While he has never hit more than five home runs in a season, his spring training pace suggests that 20, or more likely, 15 home runs is not out of the question. (Davis hit four home runs in that 53-game stretch of AAA, which extrapolates to 12 for a season.)

Although his spring training .375 batting average overstates his potential, his minor league high average of .318 suggests that his batting average could find a home in the .315-.320 range. This would represent a gain of 10 to 15 points over his previous (2009) high of .305, which in turn was more than 25 points higher than his earlier high of .279.

Like Bautista, Davis had a walk rate of close to 10 percent of plate appearances when he joined the Pirates in 2007. Unlike Bautista, he let the Bucs (a non-walking team) beat it out of him, causing his rate to plummet to more like 5 percent. Only now is his walk rate headed back toward double digits, while Bautista’s has gone into the teens.

Altogether, I’m looking for a slash line of something like .315/.380/.500 from Davis this year, a level that would make him at least as productive as Bautista except for home runs.  Further improvement in 2012 could enable him to rival Bautista next year (especially if the latter starts to regress.)

The Blue Jays have a tough row to hoe in the American League East, with the likes of the Rays, Red Sox, and Yankees. But if they keep trading for “Bautistas,” they could make it to the top of the League anyway.

Meanwhile, the lack of “Bautistas” has been holding back the Pirates, who signed a lesser former Jays’ corner infielder, Lyle Overbay. They might have done better to keep Bautista (and move Pedro Alvarez to first). Rajai Davis would probably have been better than what they now have in right field, as well.

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