It’s good to be lucky and at times, it’s better to be lucky than good. Enter the 2016 Blue Jays.
Like most other fans, this observer has been quite underwhelmed with the off-season moves of Toronto’s new front office, led by new President Mark Shapiro. Yet despite the departure of David Price , the retirement of Mark Buehrle with JA Happ and Jesse Chavez the apparent heirs; despite the ongoing and somewhat bitter back-and-forth contract negotiations (or lack thereof) between the big bats of Bautista and Encarnacion and the team, Toronto still sports the best record in spring training…and that is even without Edwin E. taking part so far!
As we now enter the final week of spring training, the roster is looking more and more in focus. The majority of the slots are inked in, barring unexpected injuries or other developments, but the few remaining ones offer some good battles to watch and more depth than anticipated.
My take: the regular position spots are all filled and I’m going out on a limb to say the Jays should, and will, add Encarnacion to the DL with a day or two. Bad tooth, oblique injury…all works toward the knock on Edwin, namely that he’s not very durable. In time he will be back as the team’s everyday DH this season and will probably tip 30 out of the park even if that time doesn’t arrive until May. But with exactly zero at bats and zero innings on the field thus far, it’s unfair to EE and to the team to expect him to be in game shape next weekend. So with him and Devon Travis out, we start with
C- Russell Martin- struggling at the plate, but still the unquestionable star
1B / DH – Justin Smoak and Chris Colabello, interchangeable but likely to be in the lineup every day
2b- Ryan Goins, hitting quite well this spring (.367, 9 rbi)… if he keeps that up in the regular season, Jays may not be in a hurry to bring Travis back
SS- Troy Tulowitzki- sore hand but should be good to go, and that he’s tied for team lead in RBI bodes well for a vintage Colorado-style season from him
3B- Josh Donaldson, needless to say
LF- Michael Saunders – looking healthy and tied for lead in RBI, raising hopes of what the Canuck can do if he’s in good shape all year at Rogers’ Centre
CF- Kevin Pillar, aka new lead-off hitter
RF- Jose Bautista, who is struggling a little so far but could hit below .100 in spring and be written in for hitting third opening day.
Presumably, that will leave four spots open for position players. I’m guessing the mix will be one catcher, two infielders and one outfielder.
Josh Thole gets the nod as catcher even though AJ Jimenez is hitting better. Jimenez will benefit from regular use in Buffalo and the team will benefit , of course, from having Thole catch his usual battery mate, RA Dickey.
Darwin Barney seems a good choice for a backup infielder given his experience and fielding prowess and may still make the team but relative unknowns Dave Adams and Andy Burns are making the choice tough. Both of them are proficient at basically any infield position, and are hitting up a storm in Florida. Adams, at 28 is the more mature and has a limited amount of MLB experience with the Yankees in ’13. Last year he logged 116 games at three IF positions with AA Jacksonville and hit .294 with 6 HR, 50 RBI and a highly respectable .399 on base. In 16 games this spring he’s clipping along at .407 with a 1.133 OPS and smooth fielding at second. Burns is known to Toronto’s Buffalo fans, where he played 126 games last year for the Bisons. He hit .293 with 4 HR, 45 RBI and had a sparkling .995 fielding percentage and 4.72 range factor in games at second.
The race for the two backup spots will be something to keep an eye on this coming week and shows an unexpected strength in infield depth.
The backup outfield spot is also up for grabs. Dalton Pompey has already been sent down to gain more experience, leaving essentially a battle between three. At first glance, Dominic Brown might hold the best hand, being left-handed and having over 1500 career AB but his spring has been disappointing (.200, 0 homers) and his once skyrocketing career has been on a steady decline since his 2013 All Star season (.272, 27 HR/83 RBI) for the Phils. Junior Lake has bounced between the bigs and minors for a few years and has a total 624 AB at the major league level, and is having a bit better spring than Brown (.243 with 4 stolen bases.) But he’s right-handed, something Toronto is already top-heavy with and has been over-shadowed by the most impressive, and little known Darrell Ceciliani. Ceciliani was likely little missed by Mets fans when he came to Toronto; his 68 AB there last year were hardly memorable. However, he’s tearing up opposition pitching this March, easily the Jays biggest bat so far. After 17 games, he’s 14 for 32, a .438 average with 3 homers and an over-the-top 1.339 OPS. Throw in his decent enough defense and his solid .345 average in Las Vegas last year and you figure we have our backup outfielder and left-handed bat off the bench for 2016.
So, looking ahead to next Sunday, let’s project a lineup of 1.Pillar 2. Donaldson 3. Bautista 4. Tulowitzki 5. Saunders 6. Colabello 7. Smoak 8. Martin 9. Goins with Thole, Ceciliani, Burns and either Adams or Barney on the bench. A solid enough lineup- if the pitching co-operates.
Next we’ll look at the pitching possibilities to round out the roster…