“This is a ‘don’t get hurt’ kind of spring.” — Sportsnet’s Arden Zwelling on The Jeff Blair Show
The above was a quote from the thirty minute roundtable with Jeff Blair, Stephen Brunt and Arden Zwelling on Sportsnet 590 this morning. A thoughtful, honest, level-headed discussion between three of the brightest baseball minds at the station. (Full audio can be found here.)
Aside from a battle for the last few bullpen spots, which, let’s face it, is not very sexy, the biggest opponent the Blue Jays will face when Spring Training opens this week, is themselves.
You’ll recall the club had remarkable good fortune last season, when their entire starting pitching staff stayed healthy, save for Marco Estrada’s back, which only caused him to miss one start prior to the All-Star break. Of course, they weren’t so fortunate two seasons ago when Marcus Stroman blew out his knee three weeks before Opening Day, sending them into scramble mode.
They’ll need that kind of luck again this year, with very few quality options available beyond the five set in stone (how rare is it that a team has all five starters locked in heading into camp? Is this normal? Feels like it’s been a while around here.)
Outside of those bullpen spots, and what they do in left field (where most fans feel neither option is particularly inspiring–paging Dalton Pompey), perhaps we need to create our own drama.
So in today’s activity, we’re going to imagine Justin Smoak doesn’t start the season on the 25-man roster. We’d certainly never wish an injury on someone (though let’s be honest, it would make things easier). Let’s pretend Smoaky shows up to Dunedin and hits woefully poor in Grapefruit League games. Like .120 bad. 30 strikeouts. Just awful. What’s a front office to do? They have to realize the margin for error this season is smaller than in years gone by. Can they afford to roster a player like that? Might it be more beneficial to just “punt on the contract” ($8 million over two seasons), and release Smoak?
See, I’m not the only one thinking this way.
So without Smoak, the door certainly opens for Rowdy Tellez, who many think has a shot to slug his way onto the roster. Personally, I think he’d benefit from a full season mashing in Buffalo. Remember, he has yet to advance beyond Double-A, putting together a great season in New Hampshire last year. Perhaps he can force their hand and earn himself a promotion late in the season. (For the record, Zwelling said Tellez is “a Justin Smoak injury away.”) But I want to get more creative.
By now you’ll know from reading in this space that I’m on Team Pompey. I want him on the roster. And so does Brunt, it would appear.
“Lord knows there’s an opportunity for him. And he would certainly solve a lot of issues. He’s the kind of player they talked about. He’s a Dexter Fowler kind of player, if he ever became that. He’s perfect in a lot of ways. Except … ” — Stephen Brunt
Brunt acknowledges there are faults, but remains open-minded to the idea that he could make an impact this season.
“I think Dalton Pompey is going to be on this team at times this year. I don’t know if it’s going to be Opening Day. But this is his last option year. So the Blue Jays have to give him Major League chances to see what he is going into 2018, when they can’t option him anymore, and they have to really make a decision. So they have to give him opportunities this year. I think we’ll see him up and down.” — Arden Zwelling
This is a phenomenal point. He hasn’t shown a ton in the parts of three seasons he’s been seen on the big league roster. At some point, you do have to get a sense of what you’ve got, especially with Jose Bautista set to be a free agent again, and Melvin Upton Jr also set to hit the open market. So there’s a strong chance they need to fill two outfield spots again a year from now. It would be nice to know heading into 2018 that you can rely on Pompey to have one of those spots locked down.
So in this Smoakless society (mine, anyway) there’s room on the roster for five outfielders. Bautista, Pompey, Upton, Kevin Pillar and Zeke Carrera. That might seem like a lot, you say. That might leave a hole at first base, you add. Stay with me. I’ll let Blair clear the waters.
Here we go again. We heard this a lot when Bautista came off the DL in August last season, after his second leg injury of the year. Know how many innings he played at first base after that point? 0. He did DH a lot more, with Edwin locking down first. But Kendrys Morales will be the everyday DH now, so that’s not an option. However, things appear to be different this time around. When asked about it at his re-introductory press conference in January, he said he was open to playing wherever John Gibbons wanted him to. (And for the record, I think if his next contract comes with a team other than Toronto, he’ll be a 1B/3B/DH.)
So if Blair thinks he’s getting more reps at first, and my lineup requires him to get more reps at first, that’s something I can get on board with. We know Steve Pearce is likely to play first against lefties, but as I suggested yesterday, he could see some time there against righties, too, since I don’t think Bautista is going to suddenly become the everyday 1B against righties. So let’s take a look at some mock lineups, starting against lefties.
So, no lefties in the lineup, and some noted lefty-mashers in Pearce and Upton, to a lesser extent. Then you’ve got Pompey, Carrera, Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Darwin Barney on the bench. You can use Pompey and Carrera to replace Pearce and Upton in the late innings, and you don’t lose much defensively either, sliding Bautista to first if needed. That looks like a pretty decent lineup to me. Now let’s take a look at how things could shape up against righties.
Hmm. Okay maybe I see your point about the bottom of the order. And I could certainly see switching Pompey and Carrera depending on who’s hot. You’ve got mashers Pearce and Upton available off the bench should the situation arise. And again, pretty solid defensively.
Now, I don’t want this to be the kickstart to the Justin Smoak Smear Campaign. He can be a useful player at times. The versatility of a switch hitter, the ability to smash a ball 420 feet, and being above-average defensively. But he doesn’t get on base enough, and he strikes out way too much. And we saw in the playoffs last year, those were two issues that led to the team’s demise. And they were not greatly exaggerated.
This roster construction might not start right away. As Zwelling suggests, Pompey is unlikely to make the team off the hop. But could it come four-to-six weeks later? Maybe some time in May, as Gregor Chisolm suggests?
Once again, the guys on the roundtable appear to be on board.
So even if Smoak is on the roster, he’s going to be used sparingly.
Would it be ideal to just eat the $8-million, especially when we constantly hear about how Rogers and the Jays need to be wise with their money? Well, no. But again, I think this front office is smart enough to know they need to maximize the window, and can’t afford (pun intended) to carry around the dead weight of a one-dimensional player. They need the best 25 guys, and at this point, I don’t think Smoak is in that category.