Jose Bautista will be Braves starting third baseman

Jose Bautista hit a career-low .203 with 23 home runs in 157 games last season.

Jose Bautista hit a career-low .203 with 23 home runs in 157 games last season.

Jose Bautista will be the Braves’ starting third baseman whenever he joins the big league club.

The Braves signed Bautista, 37, to a minor league deal April 18 and announced the long-time outfielder as a third baseman, a position he hadn’t regularly manned in a decade.

But that’s the inevitability in the Braves clubhouse. Manager Brian Snitker confirmed Bautista will start at third when he’s promoted, supplanting Ryan Flaherty, the National League’s leading hitter with a .362 average through 20 games.

“He’s going to play third when he comes up,” Snitker said of Bautista. “He’s in good shape. That’d be what happens.”

Bautista has eight straight 20-homer seasons. He represents the right-handed power the Braves are starving for in their regular lineup.

After going 2-for-7 with a double in two games with the High-A Florida Fire Frogs, the Braves promoted Bautista to Triple-A Gwinnett, where he’ll debut in Monday’s doubleheader.

“From what I’ve heard, he’s close,” Snitker said. “I think he needs to see some better pitching right now, in his eyes. That’s why he’s going to Triple-A.”

In benching Flaherty, the Braves would essentially be cashing their chips in early on the 31-year old’s career-best start.

Aside from leading the league in average, Flaherty has a homer, eight RBIs and a .500 slugging percentage while adding reliable defense at third. Bautista’s arrival would shift him back to the utility role he served the past six seasons with the Orioles.

“I haven’t really even thought about it, to be honest with you,” Flaherty told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Monday.

Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos was with the Blue Jays front office when they acquired Bautista in 2008. Bautista experienced his best seasons under Anthopoulos, and that relationship played a role in him declining a more lucrative offer from another team to join the Braves.

“In taking this deal, he’s made the decision to bet on himself. You don’t bet against this guy,” said Anthopoulos, who added he could envision Bautista playing into his 40s because of elite conditioning.

Anthopoulos has always believed in Bautista’s ability to play third, but it wasn’t necessary with All-Star Josh Donaldson at the hot corner in Toronto. He’ll also be available as a first baseman and outfielder if the situation dictates it.

Early returns on Bautista defensively have been positive; perhaps that could go without saying considering the team’s accelerated plan in the five days since his signing.

“Nothing but good reports on what they’re seeing defensively, offensively, running the bases well,” Snitker said. “Obviously the guy’s done a lot in his preparation to stay in shape. He’s in the best possible shape that he can. That’s what I’ve heard too. That he’s a very well-conditioned guy.”

Snitker doesn’t anticipate Bautista needing much time with Gwinnett. But it’s unlikely the veteran joins the team during its trip in Cincinnati, which concludes Thursday.

“I don’t think that many (at-bats are needed),” Snitker said. “I think a guy like that, with his experience, you’ve got to go with those guys too. He’s not coming off an injury. Reports are, his timing is good. He’s facing some velocity, swinging good off of it. He wants to see some more experienced pitching that he’ll see in Triple-A.”

The six-time All-Star is coming off a disappointing season in which he slashed .203/.308./.366 with 23 home runs and 65 RBIs. Bautista’s hit .250 with 331 homers and 927 RBIs in his 14-year career.