Backup Plan: Examining the Jays’ Bench

The Blue Jays’ bench isn’t great. To anyone who’s watched the team the last couple of years, this is not a shock. With a lot of money invested in high-end players, the Jays have generally bargain-hunted and worked the edges, taking chances on Quad-A players and filling the empty spaces from within rather than spend a lot of effort to fill out the roster.

The suspension to Chris Colabello and injuries to Devon Travis and Troy Tulowitzki threw a wrench into the Jays’ plans for this season, but injuries and ineffectiveness from players are a part of life in baseball. We certainly saw that last season, with Michael Saunders, Jose Bautista, Travis and Tulowitzki among the offensive regulars who missed time after getting hurt. It was those injuries that led to the Jays getting players like Ben Revere, Cliff Pennington, and Darwin Barney to fortify the roster.

Though the Jays have been quiet on the trade front so far, there’s a lot of season left, and if they’re close at the deadline they may well look to improve their reserves. With roughly a third of this season gone, let’s examine the Jays’ current bench situation, and see how they can improve it.

The Numbers

Teams usually need at least three backups for defensive purposes: a catcher, an infielder, and an outfielder. Given that Darwin Barney replicates and eclipses a lot of Ryan Goins’ skills, one could easily argue that they could ship out Goins (or Barney) and not lose much. But is replacing Goins with a pitcher an improvement? Given the Jays’ struggles in the bullpen, perhaps. But the Jays’ starting staff is also fifth in baseball in innings pitched. The problem with the bullpen (which we’re not going to spend time on here) is not quantity, but quality. They don’t need more options- they need better options. So we won’t explore a three-man bench.

What about five guys? Do the Jays need more players off the bench, to add additional skills and versatility? They have a lot of premium offensive players in their everyday lineup: Jose Bautista, Josh Donaldson, Edwin Encarnacion, Troy Tulowitzki, and Russell Martin are (or have the reputations as) great hitters, and will be in the lineup almost every day. Devon Travis and Michael Saunders are solid regulars, who will probably get some days off. That’s seven out of nine spots right there, leaving Kevin Pillar and Justin Smoak. Smoak is hitting very well so far this season, and without Colabello, has no platoon partner at first base any more. So there’s no platoons, and we have only Pillar as an obvious pinch-hitting opportunity. With that in mind, another bench player probably wouldn’t be that useful, given the assumed depth in the lineup. Since we’re sticking with four bench guys, who should we change out?

The Options

Thole’s spot, much to the collective chagrin of Jays fans, is probably safe. It’s unlikely that the Jays will change Dickey’s catcher in the middle of the season, and cut Thole loose without an airtight solution. The fact is there aren’t any ready replacements out there. The internal options aren’t enticing, and have never caught the knuckleball. The only other knuckleball catchers in baseball are in Boston, and intra-division trades during the season are rare. Though Blake Swihart, who caught knuckler Steven Wright earlier in the season, is now playing left field, he’s still relatively young, and the Jays aren’t going to give up what Boston would want for him. We’ll have to grit our teeth and bear with Thole, for the days Dickey catches. At least R.A. has been better since the calendar turned to May. If there’s a injury, I’d expect the Jays to go get someone who could passably resemble a regular catcher.

Carrera’s spot is interesting, and would be a more natural fit for a right-handed bat, given that he usually subs for the left-handed hitting Michael Saunders. Jays fans perhaps pine for Red Sox outfielder Chris Young, who would be an ideal fit as a fourth-outfielder type, but he’s much too expensive for Toronto. Getting Darell Ceciliani and Dominic Brown in the off-season was good insulation against the nightmares of last season happening again (Remember the Goins-Carrera-Valencia outfield?), but they too are left-handed. Ceciliani outplayed Carrera and Brown in the spring, but his having an option and the team’s familiarity with Carrera (for better and worse) made his demotion to Buffalo inevitable, even with Ceciliani being a better defensive outfielder. Carrera has been used as a defensive replacement for Saunders, and as a pinch-runner, but he’s not very good at either of those things, he’s just the best of what the Jays have. Given that Carrera has torn the cover off the ball so far, they probably won’t change his spot now, but it’s certainly worth monitoring going forward.

So we come to the infielders, Goins and Barney. Both accomplished defensively, both below average hitters (usually), with Goins having a couple more defensive positions in his history, and Barney having a longer track record of success. As we discussed previously, this is where we could look at making the change, since there’s not a lot of sense in keeping both of them once everyone’s healthy. Both of them being good defensively is fine, but there isn’t really a need for a regular defensive replacement. Tulowitzki, Smoak, and Donaldson are all fantastic defenders, and Travis isn’t a liability. You only really need one of them, for when Tulowitzki, Travis, or Donaldson needs a day off. Barney has a longer track record, and has hit much better this year, so the Jays should look to keep him over Goins.

But who, or what, do they replace Goins with? The best option would be someone who could pinch-hit, as that is the obvious gap in the Jays’ bench right now. Though the Jays have a lot of premium offensive players, Kevin Pillar is not one of those, and he should be pinch-hit for in crucial situations. And on days where one of those elite players is sitting, someone like Thole or Barney is in the lineup, and represents another opportunity for a better bat to take a crucial late inning appearance. Last year, the Jays had Chris Colabello, Danny Valencia, or Justin Smoak as potential power threats in the late innings. This year, they haven’t really had that, which has been noticeable with the offense performing below expectations. They could have kept Jimmy Paredes after getting him from Baltimore, which would have avoided this problem, as he had an obvious potential role as a late-inning bat. None of the current options are appealing as a hitter, as Barney and Carrera probably aren’t as dangerous as their numbers suggest.

Internally, the Jays have some interesting names at AAA Buffalo: players like Andy Burns, Jesus Montero, or Dominic Brown would be potential late inning bats. Brown is a left-hander (like Carrera), and hasn’t hit well at Buffalo this year, so he’s probably not an option. Burns was a popular name at the end of spring training, has hit lefties capably this year (a .765 OPS against them at Buffalo), and would offer some defensively flexibility, playing second, third, and the corner outfield spots. He didn’t get much of a chance with the Jays earlier this season, so maybe it’s time to give him another look. Montero would slide into the Colabello role nicely, as someone who could play first base and offer some power potential. He is another lefty masher, though he has hit both sides well in the minors this season. A frustrating note is that the Jays have had potential solutions to this problem in-house, and let them go free: Danny Valencia last season (he would have been very useful during the offensive swoon early on), and Paredes several days ago.

The Verdict

The lack of a dangerous reserve bat is something that has hurt them at times this year with how many close games they’ve been in, though not as much as the offense under-performing as a unit. Swapping Goins for someone a little more dangerous with the stick would help them some, as Goins doesn’t offer anything unique in the construction of the team. Once Tulowitzki comes back, I’d expect them to send Goins down for someone like Jesus Montero or Andy Burns. My preference would be Burns for the positional versatility, though Montero does have some of that post-prospect shine still on him, and there’s always the chance he figures it out and becomes something more, like Colabello did last season. Hopefully the Jays pull the trigger on that and give John Gibbons a little more ammunition, both in filling out a lineup card and those close, late games that they seem to keep having.

Lead Photo: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

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