The Blue Jays offence took a step back in 2016 from the run-scoring machine that was the 2015 lineup. As mentioned previously, the team scored 132 fewer runs, and let the pitchers do much of the heavy lifting on their way to a second consecutive playoff berth. After losing in the ALCS, this offseason was eventful for all the wrong reasons.
The Jays offered a four-year $80 million contract to Edwin Encarnacion, and when he didn’t bite almost immediately, the Jays used that money to replace him. That is an obvious misnomer because you can’t replace what Edwing did for the team last year. (Aside: Why was it a parrot and not a blue jay that resided on his arm?)
The positive (if there is one) is that the team, apart from EE, took a step back offensively. Many players didn’t perform at their career levels and if they can play back up to their usual standards, the Jays should still be a formidable team at the plate.
I’ve separated the team into three groups. The Stalwarts: Guys we can expect to start at least 110 games at their position and would make up the “everyday players” on the team. The Starters: These are players that will undoubtedly play big roles in the team’s success or failure, but for one reason or another, aren’t in the first group. The Depth: These are players whose roles should be limited to coming off the bench, giving guys rest days, and filling in when injuries happen, but shouldn’t be depended upon for a consistent contribution to the team.
With further ado, here we go!
This group is the core of the Jays for the 2017 season, I’m going to save a lot of details for the next group because they pose a more interesting situation. We also know what these guys can do.
Russell Martin will be the catcher most days, and after a brutal start at the plate in the 2016 season, his numbers eventually got back to career-average levels. Even with the terrible start, his work behind the plate is so valuable to the pitching staff, I don’t think it would matter if he had an even worse year at bat, he’d still be our everyday catcher. Troy Tulowitski similarly got off to a rough start last season. His batting average was nearly 40 points lower than his career average at season’s end and his on-base percentage was the lowest since his rookie season. If both of these guys can get back to the form fans have come to expect from them, the middle of the lineup should look pretty scary to opponents.
Devon Travis was a beast at the plate in his second season in the Majors, though he had a late start to the season because of the shoulder injury he sustained in 2015, and missed time in the postseason because of a knee issue that he had surgically repaired in the offseason. Batting .300, and with speed, he looks like the favourite to start the season as the Jays’ leadoff batter.
Kevin Pillar continues his quest for the elusive Gold Glove award Toronto fans know he deserves. He is a human highlight reel in the field and has shown he can contribute at the plate. His average has been consistent over the past three seasons sitting between .267 and .278 and has the ability to steal when he gets on (though we all know Gibbons follows the seventh commandment most of the time). Keep in mind the video below only covers up to mid-June of last season, meaning there’s a whole lot missing.
Josh Donaldson saving the best for last (I know what you’re thinking), the starting third baseman already has a calf injury that could become a nagging issue if it flares up at some point during the regular season. The way he plays the game (full throttle all the time) he’s bound to get some bumps and bruises along the way, but he has demonstrated that even battling injury, he’s better than most of the league at what he does. He took a slight step back last year compared to his astronomical, MVP season in 2015, but if he can repeat what he did last year in the field and at the plate, we’ll be doing just fine at third base.
Just for fun, I threw this in, cause JD shows his presence of mind on the base pads. I like the buildup but fast forward to 1:50 of the video for one of the best moments in recent Jays’ history.
As the sign reads, I’d rather get punched in May, then knocked out in October.
Now I know what you’re thinking. Why isn’t Joey Bats in the first section? I understand the confusion. I think he will be a consistent starter on the team, and his bat will be more important than ever with Edwin gone, but I don’t think he should be playing in right field.
Now hear me out. Jose Bautista is getting on in age, and his gunslinger’s arm isn’t what it used to be. On top of that, he had trouble catching the ball when he was on the run on several occasions last year (Game 3 of ALCS being the biggest).
With that in mind, Edwin leaves a huge hole at first base. A team needs productive offence coming from their first baseman, and Justin Smoak showed last year, that given consistent playing time, he is not that guy. Kendrys Morales hasn’t started more than 51 games in a season at 1B since 2009, and I figure he slots in as the everyday DH. This handcuffs the Jays a bit, as the days of rotating the DH to give guys rest days are likely over.
This brings us to a question that has been plaguing me. Why not shift Jose to first base? He is still in great shape, and the things lost with age (speed, arm strength) are relative non-factors at the Fat Corner. In addition, it would shore up our batting order and keep Smoak available to come in as a pinch-hitter for either of the corner outfielders later in games.
Bautista will be coming into the season needing to prove himself for the first time in six years, and with a guy as prideful as he is, this bodes well for the Jays. He struggled to hit the ball last year, though showed his eagle eye at the plate drawing 87 walks, only one intentional. With the addition of Morales, a switch-hitter to break up all the right-hand batters in our order, the Jays should still have a devastating lineup for pitchers to get through. Keep in mind Morales hit 30 HRs last year playing home games at Kaufmann Stadium. With a smaller ballpark, batting from both sides of the plate should give Morales a chance to increase that number.
Melvin Upton Jr. should slot in as our everyday left-fielder, and showed during the first half of last season that he might still be able to offer something at the plate. He was abysmal after getting to Toronto, but with little to no pressure on him to produce, and his solid defensive play over his career, 2017 could be a renaissance year. He has speed on the base pads and has shown he can bat at an elite level (albeit 10 years ago). I think a lot of his problems were in his head, as things started going downhill when he signed a monstrous contract in Tampa and failed to live up to expectations. If he bats behind Pillar in the 8-spot, not much will be expected of him, and maybe that will help get him back to at least the level he was playing at in San Diego before the trade that brought him to Toronto.
Darwin Barney, Ryan Goins, and Steve Pearce are all extremely valuable to the team over the grind of a 162 game season. Between the three of them, every position except CF can be played at above-average levels. Their versatility in the field will be a boon in the dog days of summer when injuries and fatigue start playing a role in competing every night. Pearce also had a great year at the plate last year and offers a more consistent offensive approach than the others.
Though Jarrod Saltalamacchia (Let’s call him Saltal to keep things simpler) hasn’t officially made the team on his minor-league deal, the release of A.J. Jimenez, the only other catcher on our roster makes me think Saltal will backup Martin this year. He had a rough year at the plate in Detroit last season batting .171 but showed he had pop in his bat. Of his 42 hits on the season, 18 went for extra-bases, and 12 left the yard. And could we get any worse than Josh Thole?
Ezequiel Carrera and Justin Smoak should factor as fill-in players to give a break to our everyday corner outfielders and first baseman respectively. Carrera is valuable coming off the bench to lay down a sacrifice bunt or pinch-run, and Smoak offers switch-hitting power that could be used late in games to come in for the man I hope will become our everyday right fielder.
Dalton Pompey is becoming a yearly fixture in late February and March in the “Maybe this is the year,” conversation. He has proven he is a capable outfielder in the minors, and with proper playing time, could challenge records for stolen bases. His problem has always been at the plate. He has a .222 average in 135 career at-bats and a sub-.300 on-base percentage at the major-league level. If he could get those numbers up, even just a little, I would love to see the switch-hitting, hometown boy platooning in right with Carerra and Pearce.
I know the whole idea of Bautista at first base may be outrageous right now, but look at how it shakes out in the batting order.
With Bautista playing RF:
1.Travis 2.Donaldson 3.Morales 4.Bautista 5.Tulo 6.Martin 7.Pillar 8.Smoak 9.Upton
With Bautista playing 1B
1.Travis 2.Donaldson 3.Morales 4.Bautista 5.Tulo 6.Martin 7.Pillar 8.Upton 9.Pompey
Now I know the difference may look small as the top-seven is unchanged but look at the speed on the back-end in the case of Joey “first-base” Bautista. If one of Upton or Pompey gets on, they should be in scoring position quickly for Travis, Donaldson and Morales. If both got on, look out. And in a best case scenario, Pompey shows prowess at the plate and actually becomes our lead-off man making the order that much deeper.
The main goal of Bautista playing first is to have Smoak on the bench. He’s a power switch-hitter which is a useful thing to have in later innings to force pitching changes and open up the field. It also allows us to utilise Pearce and Carrera (and hopefully Pompey) on a relatively regular basis, keeping Jose in the lineup day in, day out.
How guys play at the plate will certainly decide most of this, but if Upton resembles what he once was, and Pompey can crack the lineup out of Spring Training, Bautista should start a new chapter of his career at first base.