The middle infield was supposed to be a strength of this year’s club. It would’ve been nice for Gibbons to be able to pencil in Troy Tulowitzki and Devon Travis at the 4 and 5 every game, but it hasn’t quite worked out that way.
As of today, Tulowitzki and Travis have combined for 302 PA at shortstop and second base while the combination of Ryan Goins, Darwin Barney, Chris Coghlan and Steve Pearce have combined for 437 PA. That ungodly quartet has collectively posted -1.3 WAR up to now. Throw in Tulowitzki and Travis’s production and you bump that number up to -0.4 WAR.
To be fair, unless you’re the Astros or the Indians, middle infield production can be pretty hard to come by. Here’s a look at the projected rest-of-season middle infield WAR across the league according to Fangraphs’ depth charts.
Somehow, the Jays rank 16th with a projected 2.5 WAR from their mishmash of middle infield options. Baseball Prospectus’s depth charts differ slightly with a 2.7 WARP rest-of-season projection. Tulowitzki accounts for 72% of that sum, and then it’s pretty much random guesses at who delivers the rest. On the one hand it’s impressive that they’re projected to be around league average. On the other hand it’s profoundly depressing. With a healthy Tulowitzki and Travis you’d expect Toronto to rank in the upper third, maybe between the Mariners and the Twins. That’s a leap of a win or so, which is absolutely crucial given how the AL East is shaking out.
But there’s no reason to take that 2.5-2.7 WAR figure as gospel. With Travis out for at least a few weeks (probably longer, given his knee’s history), the depth charts bumped his projected plate appearances down to 89 and automatically distributed the remaining playing time to the ungodly quarter (Goins/Barney/Coghlan/Pearce). It even gives some action to prospect Richard Urena, but somehow completely omits 26-year-old utility man Jason Leblebijian. It’s worth noting that there’s a human element involved here. As a result, we might as well toss out that 2.5 WAR projection and try to come up with a better number that more accurately captures who will be getting the bulk of the middle infield playing time going forward. Let’s start with a quick look at Leblebijian.
Jason Leblebijian was drafted in the 25th round (775th overall) back in 2012 as a defence-first infielder. He’s a plus defender at short, second and third, which would be a huge asset off the bench for a club that’s already used Russell Martin and Jose Bautista in the infield. Here are a few examples of his defensive wizardry:
Defence is still his strong suit, but over the past two years he’s risen from Low-A to Triple-A on the strength of his consistent bat. Here’s a fun comp.
Player A: .299/.366/.461
Player B: .277/.367/.436
Player A is Leblebijian over 178 games dating back to the start of 2016.
Player B is 2015 first overall pick Dansby Swanson over his 127 game minor league career.
Just for fun I calculated their similarity score—a whimsical stat Bill James thought up to make comps more fun—and it came to 948. To put that in context, that’s about the same similarity score you’d get comparing Francisco Lindor to Carlos Correa or Corey Seager. Sure, Dansby Swanson of the current .609 OPS isn’t the most flattering comp, but he’s still projected to put up 1.7 WARP over the rest of the season and has a good track record.
I could see Leblebijian contributing similar defence, with less patience and more pop than Swanson. He’s got a compact swing with easy power that should translate nicely to the big leagues, and doesn’t have much of a platoon split.
Now that we know who Leblebijian is, let’s take a crack at a revised rest-of-season middle infield WAR projection for the Jays. For the sake of this estimate, we’ll assume that Leblebijian forces his way into a call up with his continued production in Buffalo and vultures 150 PAs at 2B/SS by the end of the season. Using Ryan Tansey’s simple WAR calculator, I input a regressed version of Leblebijian’s 2016-present statistics and came out with 1.2 WAR at shortstop and 1.06 WAR at second base. With Travis’ health in question, Leblebijian would probably get more time at second so we’ll settle at 1.1 WAR over 150 PA.
Plug that production into our new (highly unscientific) depth chart and we end up with a projected 3.9 WAR rest-of-season from the middle infield. BP’s depth charts currently project Goins for -0.1 WAR at second over 61 PA, so assuming Goins doesn’t get a chance to suck we could even go a step further and bump the new projection up to an even 4 WAR.
Going back to the middle infield WAR rankings chart up top, that would put Toronto right around the Mariners, Giants, Cubs and Red Sox. That feels right. Time is perhaps the most important part of this hypothetical solution. Whether or not Leblebijian actually sticks for 150 PA, the front office needs to act now, while there’s still time for him to have a real impact.
Lead Photo: Butch Dill-USA TODAY Sports