It’s time for our Depth Chart Discussions to begin. In an effort to suss out every team, we’ve divided them into four parts (infield, outfield, bullpen, and rotation) and will begin breaking them down for you over the next few weeks. You can find them gathered here.
The Blue Jays enter the 2015 season with high expectations, which is a common refrain from recent seasons that has yet to turn into a playoff berth. Despite that real-life disappointment, many of the team’s moves in recent seasons have created fantasy success. Elite players Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion anchor their lineup, and some new additions offer fantasy potential to varying degrees, especially in the infield.
The theme for Blue Jays acquisitions Russell Martin, Josh Donaldson, and Justin Smoak is their upgrade in home ballpark. Last season, Martin played his home games in PNC Park in Pittsburgh, which allowed 15 percent fewer home runs to right-handed hitters than an average park. That was the lowest rate in baseball. Donaldson and Smoak also contended with pitcher-friendly home parks in 2014, the former in Oakland (96 HR Index for RHBs) and the latter in Seattle (97 HR Index for RHBs, 99 HR Index for LHBs). Now, they call the hitter-friendly Rogers Centre home, which allowed 10 percent more home runs to right-handed hitters and six percent more to left-handed hitters than a neutral park.
For Donaldson, the change could tip the scale to elite. Even in Oakland, he had averaged better than .275-25-90-90-5 the last two seasons. Last season, his 29 home runs were tied for the most at the position in baseball. He should be the favorite to lead the position again in 2015, excluding non-third basemen who are eligible at the position (and possibly Kris Bryant). Steamer expects a .264-26-83-87-5 line, and it’s hard to take the under with his improved lineup and situation. As he creeps into the second rounds of drafts, he will no longer be a value, but he also isn’t overvalued there.
Martin and Smoak have a tougher road to fantasy relevance even with their new park. Martin was brought in primarily for his excellent work behind the plate. His moderate power could see a boost to near 20 home runs, and he has always had exceptional on-base skills—he’s walked in at least 10 percent of his plate appearances every season since his rookie season in 2006. Still, Martin’s lack of an elite category and meager counting totals leave him as a second catcher with upside.
Smoak may not even be drafted in some AL-only leagues. Obviously, his time in Seattle was a major disappointment, but his power had trended up to 20 home runs in 2013 before he lost his job for much of the 2014 season. Meanwhile, he has always had solid plate discipline and has fairly small career splits as a switch-hitter. He is the ideal change-of-scenery sleeper candidate. If given the chance, I think Smoak could do a fairly convincing Adam Lind impersonation, but I’m not sure he will get that chance. Our depth charts list Smoak as the primary first baseman with star hitter Edwin Encarnacion in the DH role, but that is close to even odds with Encarnacion back at first base with the team’s former catcher Dioner Navarro at DH. Navarro was fairly effective offensively in 2014 for the Blue Jays and could do a passable job at DH if Smoak is unable to jump start his career. If that happens, Navarro would likely be the better fantasy option at catcher than the team’s actual catcher Martin.
Encarncion’s presence beneath Smoak on the first baseman depth chart should not be taken as a slight on his fantasy prospects. He remains a clear top 12 overall pick in standard formats. His wrist injury entering the 2014 season did little to sap his power. He now has three straight seasons with at least 34 home runs and four straight with a .268 or better batting average. His one shortcoming is mild injury concern. In addition to the wrist injury prior to the season, Encarnacion suffered a quad injury in season that cost him about six weeks and has had some recent back and shoulder issues. Still, those concerns are relatively minor, and his consistent performance makes him one of the safer fantasy options.
Shortstop Jose Reyes has had his own share of injury issues, to say the least, but his 2014 season was a nice bounce-back campaign. In particular, his 655 plate appearances and 30 stolen bases were a welcome sight, especially since Reyes turned 31 during the 2014 season. Reyes never really lost his productiveness on the field. He hasn’t hit below .279 in a decade, and his steals per plate appearance have held fairly steady since he exited his 2005-2008 prime. The problem is that he has missed significant time in five of his last six seasons. The lack of other quality options at the position keep Reyes in the top five among fantasy shortstops, but his injury history makes me shy away. Jean Segura offers similar upside 100 picks later.
The one infield position that lacks fantasy intrigue on the Jays’ 25-man roster is second base. Ryan Goins has the top spot on our depth charts courtesy of his glove. He has saved the Blue Jays 15 runs in about half a season of playing time from 2013-2014 according to Defensive Runs Saved. But offensively, Goins is challenged. His career .213/.231/.300 makes Darwin Barney look like a nice fantasy player. Meanwhile, the team’s other major league second base options are not much better for fantasy. Maicer Izturis missed much of the 2014 season with a torn knee ligament, and he was dreadful offensively in his most recent full season in 2013. Steve Tolleson joins Goins in the career sub-.300 OBP club. In fact, the only Blue Jays second baseman who is draftable in virtually any format is prospect Devon Travis, who the club acquired from the Tigers for outfielder Anthony Gose.
Travis spent 2014 in Double-A where he hit .298/.358/.460 with 10 home runs and 16 steals in 441 plate appearances. His power is limited, but his contact ability could turn him into an effective offensive second baseman similar to Neil Walker. Carson Cistulli identified him as sharing Kyle Seager’s profile and listed him in the top 10 among prospects in projected 2015 WAR (based on Steamer 600 projections). The team has indicated they plan to start Travis in Triple-A this season, but their lack of options in the majors could accelerate his promotion, in which case he would be worth a look in deeper formats.
Scott Spratt is a fantasy sports writer for FanGraphs and Pro Football Focus. He is a Sloan Sports Conference Research Paper Competition and FSWA award winner. Feel free to ask him questions on Twitter – @Scott_Spratt