Less may be known about Emilio Bonifacio than the other members of the Toronto-bound Marlin Five. But he is a fascinating player. In Toronto, he may be arriving in an ideal environment to exploit his tools. The only questions involve health and opportunity. Let’s look at what kind of player Bonifacio is and how he’ll be deployed.
The Arizona Diamondbacks signed Emilio Bonifacio as an amateur free agent at the end of 2001. He stayed in his native Dominican in 2002, playing in the summer league for the DSL Diamondbacks. He came stateside in 2003 and debuted with the Missoula Osprey of the Pioneer League. It was a team oozing with raw talent, also featuring Carlos Gonzalez and Miguel Montero. But Bonifacio was only 18 and it showed. He hit just .199/.298/.219 in 54 games, showing great speed and a little patience. But he was badly overmatched. Playing exclusively second base he made 11 errors and showing average instincts.
Nonetheless, Arizona promoted him to the full-season South Bend Silver Hawks in 2004. Bonifacio overcame his rookie struggles, improving enough to stick in South Bend the whole season. He played 120 games and hit .260/.306/.319 with 40 stolen bases and a 122/25 SO/BB ratio. Pitchers didn’t hesitate to knock the bat out of his hands and his approach was clearly very raw. But Bonifacio was one of the youngest players in the league and was using his speed to get on more. His season was a quiet success.
But the chance to consolidate his gains couldn’t hurt. Arizona returned Bonifacio to the Midwest League in 2005 and he spent another full season with the team. Though his surface numbers were similar, he changed his game significantly at the plate. In 127 games, he hit .270/.341/.330 with 22 extra-base hits, a system-leading 55 steals and a dramatically-improved 90/56 SO/BB rate. His success on balls in play was purely driven by his blazing speed and though he would need to add strength as he moved up, it was heartening to see him utilize his greater tool to such effect.
In 2006, Arizona promoted Bonifacio to the high-A Lancaster JetHawks in the hitter-friendly California League. He flourished. In 130 games, he hit .321/.375/.449 with 35 doubles, 7 triples, 7 home runs and a 104/44 SO/BB ratio. He also ran wild under the tutelage of former speedster Brett Butler, swiping 61 bases in 75 tries. He led the league in steals and was named a California League All-Star. He continued to play exclusively at the keystone but piled up his third-consecutive 20+ error season. He was capable at second but many wondered if he’d eventually be better suited for super-utility work. He was still just 21 and held no shortage of intrigue. The question was whether his bat would stand up in AA.
He was given the chance to prove it in 2007, advancing to the Mobile BayBears of the Southern League. He put up a decent line overall, hitting .285/.333/.352 with 28 XBH, 41 stolen bases and a 105/38 SO/BB in 132 games, now splitting his time between second and shortstop. He again led the league and system in steals. But he’d also crossed the century mark for strikeouts, a no-no for speedsters with groundball tendencies. Walking more – or even putting the ball in play – would invariably help his cause. Still, Arizona rewarded his quality campaign with a late-season call-up, utilizing his speed and versatility down the stretch. He played in just 11 games but got his first hit off Tim Lincecum and put up a .217/.333/.261 line. Up on the big club, Orlando Hudson, Stephen Drew and Mark Reynolds were all reasonably young and established. So Bonifacio would have to earn his roster spot as a reserve. Probably using some time at AAA to refine all aspects of his game.
That’s where Bonifacio began 2008 as a 23-year old with the Tucson Sidewinders of the Pacific Coast League. The hard infields and elevated locales were a perfect match for his skills and Bonifacio hit .302/.348/.387 in 85 games. He managed a tolerable 64/27 SO/BB rate and chipped in 17 steals. The Diamondbacks recalled him in July to help replace the injured Eric Byrnes but the Snakes only started Bonifacio twice in three weeks and he struggled: .167/.167/.250. Following a 90-win season, Arizona sat two games below .500 a week before the trade deadline and decided to trade Bonifacio to the Washington Nationals for reliever Jon Rauch.
The Nationals started Bonifacio in AAA with the Columbus Clippers of the International League. But he didn’t give them the chance to keep him there long, hitting .452/.500/.516. The Nationals quickly released Felipe Lopez at the start of August, promptly installing Bonifacio at the top of their order as a second baseman. Washington’s lineup was as ugly as you’ll see. And Bonifacio held the job until season’s end, playing 41 games and hitting .248/.305/.344. He managed 5 triples but only 6 steals and just a 41/14 SO/BB rate. (Nats fans, there is a silver lining: all those bad lineups would yield a return of Stephen Strasburg the following April). Bonifacio spent his winter winning the Caribbean World Series with Tigres de Licey and appeared to have the inside track on Washington’s keystone entering 2009. But the Nationals were keen to make any upgrades available to them – and forgive me if you’ve heard this before – the Florida Marlins were shedding payroll. The result sent Bonifacio to south beach, with two prospects, for pitcher Scott Olsen and slugging outfielder Josh Willingham. Bonifacio had now been traded twice in just four months and it was unclear what role he would play on an emerging young Marlins team featuring the cheap, controllable talents of Dan Uggla and Hanley Ramirez in the middle of the diamond.
Bonifacio helped make the Marlins’ decision for them with a strong spring and an unforgettable Opening Day. He led off against his old Nationals teammates, playing third base, and went 4 for 5 with his first major league home run – an inside the park job, no less – and three stolen bases. Bonifacio was electric. And the Marlins looked like they had their future table-setter. He had 14 hits in the season’s first five games and seemed ready to take the league by storm, even if his defense at third was sub par.
Of course, the league eventually caught up to Bonifacio and although he spent the entire season in the majors, much of it was forgettable after opening week. All told, he hit .252/.303/.308 with just 18 XBH – including that lone home run – plus 21 steals and a 95/34 SO/BB ratio. He also showed a dreadful split, irritating lefties to no end (.315/.340/.364) but flailing badly against right-handers (.218/.284/.275). His playing time ultimately diminished in the second half along with his OPS (.628 vs. .560). The Marlins were in the hunt for the playoffs and their acquisition of Nick Johnson from Washington at the deadline shifted Jorge Cantu from first to third base, pushing Bonifacio into a reserve role. The playoffs never happened. Now, entering 2010, Bonifacio could only hope to make his mark as a reserve – but he had to make the team first.
He did, barely, and seldom got onto the field in two weeks before being dispatched to the AAA New Orleans Zephyrs. There, Bonifacio got back to his usual game, hitting for a passable average and getting on a bit. But he wasn’t driving the ball well or running enough to push those ahead of him. Florida recalled him in June after designating Mike Lamb for assignment. But he was firmly stuck behind Uggla and Ramirez, mostly serving as a pinch-runner. When he again saw regular duty in the fall, nothing about his numbers suggested it should continue. In 73 games, he hit .261/.320/.328 with just 9 extra-base hits and a 74 OPS+. He was useful for his speed and versatility, swiping 12 bags without getting caught, while filling in at 6 positions (2B,SS,3B,LF,CF,RF). Of course, he was also cheap. Giving the Marlins a prototypical super sub to call on in the late innings.
That’s how he started 2011 but it wasn’t long until injuries opened the door for more playing time and Bonifacio seized on it with an exhilarating career season. He played a career-high 152 games, swatting 26 doubles, 7 triples, 5 (!) home runs and chipping in 36 RBI on his way to a striking .296/.360./393 line, a 107 OPS+ and a 26-game hitting streak on his way to earning National League Player of the Month honours in July. He also nicked 40 bases against just 11 times caught, finishing as the NL’s second-best thief behind Michael Bourn. Bonifacio did all this while again filling in at those same six positions, logging significant time in left, centre, third and short. He still struck out a lot (129 times) for a leadoff man, but his walk rate spiked, too (8.5%). He still showed vastly better results against southpaws (.333/.407/.456) but raised his line against righties enough (.286/.347/.377) to justify play in all situations. Significantly, he also stayed healthy while others around him fell off. His versatility remained a huge asset but his bat now made him worth slotting in regularly. Bonifacio was just entering his age 27 season and appeared primed to begin his prime as a dynamic weapon in the Florida attack.
Miami’s offseason overhaul left no room for Bonifacio in the infield but he remained a fit in centre and started there Opening Day batting between Jose Reyes and Hanley Ramirez. Pretty desirable real estate. Through seven weeks, Bonifacio was reaching base (.351) and had a clean 20-for-20 stolen base count. But then he jammed his thumb nabbing second and landed on the disabled list for the first time in his career. The injury would cost him 46 games and later become re-aggravated in August. A week after finally returning, he sprained his right knee and was shut down for the season. His splits show a clear tale of two seasons: the healthy first half (.268/.351/.315) and the injury-ravaged summer (.242/.294/.316). He still managed 30 steals against only 3 time caught. And, for the first time in his career, his platoon splits were reversed (.506 OPS vs. LHP, .726 OPS vs. RHP). It was obviously a campaign marred by poor health. Incredibly, his speed still made him valuable even when his other tools were ravaged.
In November, he arrived in Toronto as perhaps the least heralded member of the Marlin Five. But a promising, versatile talent entering his age 27 season just one year removed from a breakout.
Though his name value pales in comparison to the headliners arriving in Toronto, Bonifacio possesses a great deal of value. It’s really hard not to be excited about what he brings to the table. World-class speed. A refined aggression on the basepaths that makes him one of the game’s most effective thieves. Incredible versatility. And functional switch-hitting, particularly against southpaws. As he enters what should be the prime of his career, he is under team control for two full seasons. He’s being given the opportunity to compete for the team’s second base job with Maicer Izturis (a switch-hitter who profiles better against righties) and should be very effective on Rogers Centre’s artificial surface as well as rolling over the lineup, pressure-free from the ninth position.
For Bonifacio, it’s practically a dream scenario. Expect him to become an instant fan favourite. Even if he doesn’t win a starting role outright, it’s hard to imagine Brett Lawrie and Jose Reyes playing 162 games. So I expect we’ll see long stretches with Bonifacio in the starting nine, particularly with Rajai Davis still on hand to serve as the team’s late-inning base-stealing ace. I anticipate Bonifacio will endure a few bumps and bruises. Errors in the field are to be expected, too. But don’t be surprised if he becomes a sparkplug extraordinaire and plays 120+ games with 35 steals and a .270/.339/.355 line.
Come playoff time, this is a guy Blue Jays’ fans will be glad to have on the bench.
Emilio Bonifacio, IF/OF
04/23/85 Bats: S Throws: R HT: 5-11 WT: 205
Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic
Signed: By the Arizona Diamondbacks as an amateur free agent December 27, 2001
Acquired: Trade with Miami Marlins on November 19, 2012
Contract Status: Third-time arbitration eligible in 2014. Eligible for free agency in 2015
Service Time: 4.006