Projecting the Fielders

Donaldson_Tulo2016_01Earlier this week, I outlined where I thought the chips would fall for the Blue Jays pitching staff through Spring Training. Well, Friday marks the first official full-squad workout, so it’s time to take a look at how things should shake out for the position players. While there’s quite a bit of intrigue on the mound, centred around the domino that is where Aaron Sanchez fits in, there are considerably less question marks on the other side of the ball for the Blue Jays.

This is a little more cut-and-dry for the Jays, as the following players have spots locked up for Opening Day (#OD16)

C – Russell Martin
1B: Chris Colabello / Justin Smoak
2B: Ryan Goins*
SS: Troy Tulowitzki
3B: Josh Donaldson
RF: Jose Bautista
CF: Kevin Pillar
DH: Edwin Encarnacion

*Goins is a seat-warmer until Devon Travis returns from his shoulder injury. Initial projections have him back in the line-up in mid-May.

So where are the question marks?

You’ll notice the absence of a left fielder in the line-up above. As of this writing, the job is Michael Saunders’ to lose. However, he was very nearly traded to the Angels on Monday night in a three-team swap that would have landed the Blue Jays left-handed slugger Jay Bruce. So for the moment, Saunders is pencilled in to be the left fielder, the job he was supposed to have last season before a sprinkler head-related injury in spring cost him all but nine May games in 2015.

Pompey2016_01His most fierce competition comes from Canadian speedster Dalton Pompey, who if you remember, broke camp with the Jays as the starting centre fielder at Yankee Stadium in 2015. He didn’t make it through April, and eventually had to go back down to Double-A to get his offence back in gear. That opened the door for Kevin Pillar, who has climbed a SkyDome outfield wall to keep it shut.

Ideally, Pompey will get to play every day, and his best shot at that remains in Buffalo, where he will lay in wait as an injury replacement. So assuming Saunders is healthy enough to play every day, his ideal back-up will be a right-handed hitter, who can also spell Pillar in centre on occasion. The candidates are Ezequiel Carrera, Junior Lake, and Domonic Brown.

Carrera is not a right-handed hitter. He’s also not a great centre fielder. But he faired decently, hitting a surprising .273/.321/.374 in 43 games last season. But his defensive WAR rating was a -5.1, according to FanGraphs.

Lake has the advantage of hitting right-handed, but not very well in 2015. He played just 20 big-league games, with a .200/.238/.325 slash line. However, that jumped to .315/.404/.472 in Triple-A, so it appears the raw skills are still there. His defensive WAR rating was -4.5, which is not much of an improvement over Carrera.

Brown was brought in to the organization yesterday, and it seems like it was only a matter of time. He’s been linked to the Jays in trade rumours for over a half-decade, in both Roy Halladay and Jose Bautista whisperings. He’s another left-handed hitter, and he slashed .228/.284/.349 in 63 games with the Phillies in 2015. So he’s depth, but doesn’t seem to have much of a chance to break camp as a reliable backup for this team.

Ultimately, the best option to serve as reserve left fielder might be Colabello. He’s the right-handed bat who could spell Saunders against lefties, but he was almost as ugly as it gets in the outfield last season, which contributed mightily to his -19.9 defensive WAR rating. But there is some discussion he might get a lot of reps there this spring to be able to bring himself up to speed to be at least adequate for a handful of games in the upcoming season.

When it’s all said and done, I think the job will likely go to Carrera. He provides a little bit of speed off the bench, can handle the bat, and isn’t awful against lefties (.266/.329/.329 in 176 career plate appearances.)

On the infield, Darwin Barney is the back-up infielder, will likely play against most lefties to spell Goins, and give Donaldson or Tulowitzki the occasional day off their feet. He was a good soldier in September last year, contributing to the pennant push knowing full well he was ineligible for the playoff roster. He’s a former Gold Glove winner, and the perfect guy to have on the bench to give limited exposure to.

The other most intriguing roster battle is backup catcher. While there’s an obvious number one contender, it’s quietly a three-man race between favourite Josh Thole, and newcomers Tony Sanchez and Humberto Quintero.

Stock_Thole02 (Dickey)Thole has the advantage of experience with R.A. Dickey, which would free up Martin to play pretty much every other day, and not have to worry about the challenges the knuckleball presents. I was unable to dig it up, but there was an excellent piece last year about how Martin’s offence improved the further away he was from a Dickey start. So having Thole around to ease that burden, and limit the risk of injury, might be the best option of all for the Jays. Despite the fact he really can’t hit major league pitching at all.

Sanchez has experience as Martin’s back-up in Pittsburgh in ’13 & ’14. He’s a former high draft pick who hasn’t panned out, and only has 155 career plate appearances. He’s basically a younger version of Henry Blanco, who came in to camp and stole Thole’s job in 2013 by learning the knuckleball on the fly. Dickey never appeared comfortable with him, and Jays’ brass might want to make him as effective as possible this year.

Quintero is a 12-year vet of 471 games with a number of organizations, and provides an experienced man for young pitchers to work with in Buffalo, while also providing (limited) injury insurance. Let’s make no mistake about this, Martin will be leaned on heavily behind the plate this year, and for good reason. But if he suffers any type of long-term injury, the Jays will be in scramble mode to fill in for his talents, leadership and experience.

So, to recap: Saunders will start in left, subbed by Carrera. Barney will reserve on the infield, with Thole behind the plate.

There’s a lot of good work being done by the Jays blogosphere in the opening week of spring training, so I’ll take this opportunity to point you in their direction:

And one final housekeeping item, Asher & I have discussed recording the first episode of the 7th Inning Stretch Podcast this weekend, likely Sunday evening. So that should be up for your listening enjoyment in time for you to procrastinate at the office on Monday morning.

Don’t forget to find us on Facebook and Twitter for more insight, banter, and links!


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