Healthy, focused Bautista ready to tee off in '12

Healthy, focused Bautista ready to tee off in '12

Healthy, focused Bautista ready to tee off in '12
DUNEDIN, Fla. -- Jose Bautista is back to full strength and arrived at the Blue Jays' Spring Training facility with the hope of putting his previous injury woes behind him.

The veteran slugger battled neck and ankle problems for a large portion of the 2011 campaign. The lingering ailments almost completely eliminated his ability to lift weights during the second half of the year, and as a result, his overall production dropped.

Bautista managed to finish the year as the American League's most complete hitter -- as evidenced by his second consecutive Hank Aaron Award -- but for the first time in a while, he feels like things are now back to normal.

"The recommendation from the doctor was just to rest," Bautista said while reflecting on last season. "Obviously I couldn't rest all day long, but I laid off the weights and that actually hurt me when it comes to strength and keeping up my weight. I ended up losing a lot of weight during the season, but when the offseason came around, I started getting back into the gym.

"I feel good, I feel like I have a lot more strength than I did at the end of the year. Usually you wear down a little bit, but I feel like I wore down a lot more than I usually do because I couldn't keep up my strength work."

Bautista silenced his critics in 2011 by following up his 54-home run campaign with arguably an even more productive year. The native of the Dominican Republic hit .302 with 103 RBIs while posting a Major League-leading 43 home runs and 132 walks.

The 31-year-old led the AL in slugging percentage (.608) and OPS (1.056) in 149 games. He also became the first player since Mark McGwire (1996-99) to lead the Majors in homers for consecutive seasons, and his 132 free passes were the most since Barry Bonds also drew 132 in 2007.

There's no denying the numbers are impressive, but they could have been even better without the injuries. Bautista managed to appear in 149 games, but the neck injury suffered in late May and the badly sprained ankle that occurred in July eventually took their toll.

Bautista posted a .257 average with 12 home runs, 38 RBIs and an .896 OPS during the second half and will look to improve on that this season. Now that he's back to full health, one of his other top priorities besides finishing the year strong will be to increase production with runners in scoring position.

"That's probably my biggest area of weakness," conceded Bautista, who hit .245 with five homers and 50 RBIs in 181 plate appearances during those situations last year. "It's not about getting that hit, it's about finding any way possible to get that run in. That's what I have to keep figuring out and it was a little bit tougher last year because I wasn't getting many pitches to hit.

"In that situation, you try to be more aggressive so you can make something happen, but sometimes you also have to realize if you don't get a good pitch to hit you have to take it. I struggled with my patience more than I did in the past. I learned from that and I'll try to fix it."

Bautista made headlines during the offseason when he claimed to have been tested for performance-enhancing drugs 16 times during the past two seasons. He relayed that information after being asked a question by former Major Leaguer Pedro Martinez during a fundraiser dinner in the Dominican Republic.

Some members of the media attended the event, though, and reported the news which caught the attention of those around baseball because it is well above and beyond how often a normal player would be tested. Bautista wasn't upset, but he was surprised at how much attention the story received during the past couple of months.

"I thought it was a laid-back event where nobody was working and I thought it was just a relaxed environment," Bautista said. "But I answered honestly and I answered with the truth. I really don't care what other people think or say.

"It was by no means a complaint or a way to retaliate. I could care less how many times I've been tested and I've said that before as well. I was definitely surprised because I'm the one who is supposed to worry about that and care, but I don't, so I don't see why everyone else is so concerned about it."

Manager John Farrell said he supports Major League Baseball's drug testing policy, but felt Bautista has become a target because of his performance over the past few seasons.

"When you see that number of tests administered, it makes you take a step back and say, 'Is there additional thought behind that?'" Farrell said. "We're privy to seeing his work ethic and intelligence, and the adjustments he's capable of making, you might look at it and say are those tests because this is someone who has broken out and really become an elite player and superstar?

"I'd like to think -- and which we all know -- it's the result of hard work and adjustments along the way and not something artificial. The fact that he's had that many tests and they've all been negative, speaks more volume to the fact there's nothing hidden here and there's nothing for it to be attributed to other than the fact that you're looking at a damn good player."

Bautista can now put all of that behind him and focus instead of trying to get into the postseason for the first time in his career. Toronto's core players remained mostly intact, and while the Yankees noticeably improved their roster, Bautista still thinks his club has what it takes to compete against the likes of New York, Boston and Tampa Bay.

The eight-year veteran pointed to a bullpen that has been bolstered by the additions of Sergio Santos, Francisco Cordero and Darren Oliver, and believes that type of talent at the back end of the bullpen will also put the starters' minds at ease.

The key to everything will be the Blue Jays remaining healthy, but if they can accomplish that he thinks the playoffs aren't as far off as some people might think.

"If we all remain healthy and we can play together all year long, we're going to have a much better final product than last year," said Bautista, pointing to the injuries of several key members of the everyday lineup in 2011. "If you think about it, if we had won five more games, that means five less losses and we would have been 10 games over .500 and right there with the Rays trying to sneak in for the playoffs.

"It's not that much of a difference when you look at it -- five games -- and we feel pretty good about the group we have put together and we're hoping for big things this season."

Gregor Chisholm is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, North of the Border, and follow him on Twitter @gregorMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.