Blue Jays’ Playing Time Battles: Hitters

We’ve started our annual Depth Chart Discussions, re-branded as Playing Time Battles for 2016. You can catch up on every team we’ve covered in the Playing Time Battles Summary post or following along using the Depth Chart Discussions tag.

The 2015 Toronto Blue Jays owned baseball’s best offense no matter how you slice it. They outscored the next-highest team by 127 runs, they topped the league in home runs, they set the pace in on-base percentage and slugging percentage, and their weighted runs created-plus of 117 was the league’s high-water mark dating back to the 2007 New York Yankees. The Jays will return their top eight players in terms of plate appearances from a year ago, plus deadline-week acquisition Troy Tulowitzki, so there’s little concern this won’t be an elite offensive outfit once again.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t question marks. The Blue Jays are set at six positions but have playing time at three spots up for grabs, plus a major batting order question to answer.

Left Field

When the Jays dealt Ben Revere for Drew Storen, it was a bet on the health of Michael Saunders, the development of Dalton Pompey, and the lovability of “Big Zeke” Ezequiel Carrera. Those are the Jays’ options in left – and occasionally center, to lessen the load some on Kevin Pillar – as they’re surely done with trying to run Chris Colabello out there and Anthony Alford is probably still a season away.

Saunders is going to make the team if healthy, to be sure. The Jays dealt J.A. Happ for him ahead of last season and then watched him injure himself on a sprinkler in spring training (seriously), which limited him to 36 plate appearances on the year, none of them impressive. The sides agreed to a $2.9-million deal to avoid arbitration, and the lefty enters the season as the strong side of a platoon, if not the favourite for full-time work. If he can stay healthy, of course.

That’s been Saunders’ biggest problem over seven seasons, as he’s topped 100 games just twice. When he’s played, he’s been solid – he can man the corners with unobjectionable defense, he takes a lot of walks, and he had enough pop and speed to register on the fantasy radar. Steamer projects him to be roughly league average at the dish with a .246/.324/.412 line, and he could sniff double-digit home runs if he reaches 300 plate appearances. The speed is tough to project, though, for a 29-year-old coming off of a lost season, and there’s a chance Pompey emerges as a better option.

The 23-year-old local product closed out 2014 with an impressive month, earning the starting job for 2015. He floundered famously, posting a 63 wRC+ in 23 games before getting sent all the way to Double-A. He proved too advanced for that level and then put up solid numbers at Triple-A, re-encouraging the Jays, at least enough to deal Revere. He could approach league-average at the dish thanks in part to strong plate discipline (I think Steamer is a undershooting his walk rate at 7.8 percent), and an outfield with Pompey and Pillar would be great defensively.

A switch-hitter who’s shown a bit of pop in the minors and has enough speed to matter, especially if he hits at the bottom of the lineup, Pompey winning the job outright might be the preferred outcome for fantasy owners. That would require a strong spring, and even then the Jays will work Saunders in regularly. The risk with Pompey is that he could also be sent to the minors if the Jays would rather him get regular at-bats than be the weak side of a platoon.

Carrera’s presence affords them that option, even though he’s also a lefty; he’s well off the fantasy radar, in any case. Commenter Damaso mentioned Junior Lake, and he’s a righty who is out of options, owns a career 114 wRC+ against lefties, and has decent speed and power, though he’s not particularly good.

First Base/Designated Hitter

Things are mostly straight-forward here: Colabello draws left-handed pitchers and occasional starts against righties, Smoak gets the bulk of the righties, and Edwin Encarnacion sees some reps with Colabello shifting to DH. The result is a time-share between Colabello and Smoak, great for the jays but damaging to fantasy potential. At least, that’s the set-up the Jays used for the most part last season, save for a near full-time switch to Colabello in the playoffs.

Does that portend a potential change in playing time? It’s hard to say. Smoak is a superior defender and has pop, but his plate coverage is poor and he’s posted a sub-.300 OBP in three of the last four seasons. All told, he’s probably an average bat or a shade above, and Colabello can provide a little more at the dish, an important consideration given the position. Colabello suffers from some of the same strikeout woes, and if his BABIP normalizes (it was .411 in 2015), he’s probably a .275 hitter, tops, but Bing Bong continues to refuse to fade away. And again, he’s pretty bad defensively.

The guess here is they’re in a platoon to a degree, but Colabello sees a larger share of the playing time. The infield defense is strong regardless and Colabello’s a better hitter even without the BABIP, one who hasn’t shown any aversion to hitting righties. A straight-split is the worst-case scenario for owners, as either would have some power value with a larger share of the playing time. If Colabello can carve out a 70 percent share, he’ll be on the AL-only radar thanks to the RBI opportunities hitting fifth or sixth in this lineup.

Second Base

The battle at the keystone isn’t really a battle between two players, but a battle between one player and health, or a preference for offense versus defense.

Devon Travis impressed as a rookie in 2015, winning the opening day job and slashing .304/.361/.498 in 62 games, showing real extra-base power, a ton of it to the opposite field. Between that small-sample success and a strong minor league track record of getting on base without striking out much, Travis seems a safe bet to perform at the dish in 2016. Steamer likes him to the tune of a 103 wRC+ with a .323 weighted on-base average, the latter good for ninth among projected second basemen.

The issue is that Travis played just 62 games thanks to two trips to the disabled list with a shoulder injury. November surgery to fix an issue with the acromion bone is expected to sideline him until May, and he won’t even begin baseball activities until April, as of the latest update. Acromion non-unions are fairly common injuries for young baseball players but it’s usually with the throwing shoulder. Travis’ surgery was for his non-throwing (inside batting) shoulder, and I couldn’t find a lot of evidence about how players responded after injuries to their non-dominant shoulder. If Travis is healthy, he’s solid enough on both sides of the field to warrant taking the job back, so long as manager John Gibbons hasn’t grown to prefer Ryan Goins.

Goins was the beneficiary of several injuries to the Jays’ infield in 2015, playing a career-high 128 games. His defense has never been a question, as he possesses terrific range at either spot up the middle. Curiously, he also began to hit a little last season, showing a sliver of pop and walking far more than he had at any level since Single-A in 2010. Most notably for the Jays, his plate discipline was great in the second half of the season, resulting in a 108 second-half wRC+.

If he can hit even a little, most teams could justify starting Goins because of the defense. The Jays, with a ton of offense elsewhere in the lineup, may think that way. But Travis is the better player, and given his potential to hit .270 with double-digit contributions in home runs and stolen bases, plus the chance he returns to the lead-off spot, fantasy owners are surely hoping he takes the job back once healthy.

Lead-off Hitter

This isn’t really a position battle, but who the Jays decide to bat first in the order could have serious fantasy implications. With the lineup behind them, that person would stand to see a significant boost in runs. If it’s a faster player, stolen-base expectations may need to be tempered given the cost of running into an out ahead of the heart of the order. (Jays’ lead-off hitters scored 100 runs in 244 times on base last year and attempted 29 steals, all roughly average marks but ones that should, in theory, improve in 2016.)

Tulowitzki may stand out as the foremost option, as he lead off 26 times last season. That would make for a bump in his runs production but probably a decline in RBI production, as he’d be slotted in the five- or six-hole if he doesn’t lead of. The team’s other primary lead-off hitters from a season ago are gone (Revere and Jose Reyes), injured (Travis), or too busy hitting 450-foot ropes (Josh Donaldson). For those who like a speedy player in the one-hole, look away – Pillar doesn’t have nearly the on-base profile and Pompey may be deemed too big a risk, at least initially.

Gibbons will probably make a decision on this too late to factor it into drafts, but the early guess here is that Tulowitzki gets the nod, with Russell Martin as an outside candidate.

Blake Murphy is a freelance sportswriter based out of Toronto. Formerly of the Score, he's the managing editor at Raptors Republic and frequently pops up at Sportsnet, Vice, and around here. Follow him on Twitter @BlakeMurphyODC.

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6 years ago

junior lake as the short half of a platòon is also a potential partial piece of the LF slot.