TORONTO – With the return of Kevin Pillar to the Toronto Blue Jays lineup Tuesday, and Jose Bautista expected to be back today it would seem that the club’s outfield picture just got a lot clearer. However, with further inspection it would seem that in actuality the water is about to become a whole lot murkier.
As my colleague Matt Gwin suggested two weeks ago, the logical move by the Jays might be to have Bautista, who is in the midst of an historically bad defensive season, stay out of the outfield altogether. This would let Melvin Upton Jr., Pillar, and Michael Saunders get the lion’s share of work.
Bautista is last on the club in defensive runs saved with -9, while Upton Jr. has +3 in his time in Toronto despite appearing in slightly more than a quarter of Bautista’s innings. However, the imminent return of Bautista likely won’t affect the club’s outfield hierarchy according to general manager Ross Atkins.
“(Bautista) will be playing every day.” Atkins said. “As long as his health is dictating that he’s feeling fine, recovering fine, he’ll be playing every day.
“BJ will be the guy that we acquired who can play all three (outfield spots), and when he’s not playing someone who can come off the bench and pinch hit, pinch run, pinch defensively, so providing depth.”
“BJ will be the guy that we acquired who can play all three (outfield spots) and when he’s not playing someone who can come off the bench and pinch hit, pinch run, pinch defensively, so providing depth.”
Maybe Atkins is toeing the company line and staying sensitive to a clubhouse leader who has been unselfish by putting the team first and his personal stats second time and time again this season. Maybe he even believes that for whatever reason (unannounced injuries, hitting ability, etc.), the Jays are better off with Bautista in the outfield.
At the plate the 35-year-old is batting just .129 with one home run, one RBI, and a .250 on-base percentage when not in right field this season, albeit in just nine games and 36 plate appearances. That could certainly be part of Atkins’ decision, however historically his slash line is a tidy .267/.380/.503 with 14 home runs, 51 RBIs, and 44 runs scored in 288 at-bats as a designated hitter.
Whatever the reasoning behind it, it seems unlikely Bautista will move from his usual spot in the outfield. That is unless Gibbons has found a way to put his best defensive and offensive lineup out there with a convenient, and ego-saving excuse; Bautista’s left knee injury.
“When Jose comes back, he’s probably coming back Thursday, he’s going to need to DH a lot with his knee,” Gibbons said prior to his club’s 7-2 victory over the Los Angeles Angels Tuesday. “It feels good, but I think it’s the smart thing to do.”
Admittedly, little has been revealed about the Dominican Republic native’s left knee injury outside of it being a grade-1 sprain, so maybe it’s still not fully healed and won’t be for some time. But it does make it a little bit easier for Gibbons to put Bautista at DH when he returns.
Furthermore, with Upton starting to find his stroke a little, hitting .290/.343/.581 over his last nine games and .255/.302/.447 with three home runs and nine RBIs in his past 14 games entering Tuesday, it would mean his spot in the batting lineup wouldn’t be a complete black hole devoid of offense and with limited returns.
Something else that Gibbons has noted is how Upton’s comfort levels with his surroundings, new city and teammates over the past little while are likely contributing to his recent success. This is something that would bode well for the future.
“I think he’s settled in here, he’s comfortable here,” Gibbons said. “I’ve said it before… you’re in a new environment you naturally want things to get off to a great start. Your tendency is to press and try to make things happen, in baseball that works against you. It always does, or always seems to.”
As the season continues Gibbons said that Upton’s “going to play a lot.”
Time will tell how much playing time Upton Jr. will see and in what role down the stretch drive. For Gibbons, however, it only makes sense to optimize your lineup with what works best for the club both offensively and defensively moving forward, and it appears there’s at least a possibility that Bautista will be found focusing more on his hitting and less on chasing down fly balls in the future if the manager has his way. He has the prefect excuse to make it happen.
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