NEW YORK – Even if the games have been completely meaningless from a competition standpoint, September baseball has been a breath of fresh air for the Blue Jays.
The second half of the season has seen a number of encouraging debuts: from Ryan Borucki, Sean Reid-Foley and Thomas Pannone all taking turns through the rotation, to Danny Jansen and Reese McGuire behind the plate. And, of course, there’s been the incredible hot start from Rowdy Tellez, who took the league by storm with his doubles barrage.
While that group has drawn the bulk of the headlines, the Blue Jays have also called up a pair of outfielders who are hoping to stake their claim to future spots with the big club: Jonathan Davis and Dwight Smith Jr. Playing time for the pair hasn’t quite been there to this point, with Smith making just one start in the seven games following the series opener in New York on September 14th, and the pair combining for six pinch-hitting or pinch-running appearances over that same timeframe.
Rowdy Tellez was put into the starting lineup against David Price on September 12th, with John Gibbons referring to the tough matchup as one of the challenges that players have to face if they’re to prove themselves as everyday options. In a manner of speaking — the direct quote was, “What, you think he’s a platoon player? If he’s going to be any good he’s got to play both ways.” But the point stands. The same opportunities haven’t been extended to Smith and Davis just yet, as Gibbons juggles things around with a full outfield group.
“Well, you know what happens is we brought a lot of young kids up and you want to see them play, but you’ve still got your core group of guys that are going to be here next year themselves,” Gibbons explained. “Most of them haven’t had a full season but you still – they need to play their six months. So you can’t just sit them and play the other guys all the time, I don’t want to do that. So you know we’ve been trying to make sure they all get some kind of playing time. I think it’s going pretty good right now.”
The job of sorting out playing time in the outfield has been made more difficult by the solid play of Billy McKinney and Randal Grichuk, who figure to be part of the team’s long-term plans. Gibbons is hesitant to disrupt anyone’s rhythm, but is aware that those who aren’t getting consistent work deserve a chance to work into the same rhythm themselves.
“It can be tough if you’re a hitter, timing is everything with hitting, it can mess with that a little bit but you know what, they’ll figure it out,” Gibbons said. “You wish you could play all of them all the time but you can’t, but I do think it’s important they all get in there every so often.”
Neither Smith nor Davis said they had heard about how much they would play to close out the season, but that their primary focus was on showing up to work and helping the team win. If either could make a good impression over the final handful of games, it would give the Jays some additional hope in the outfield going forward. It’s a spot where the depth has been problematic for a few years running — a problem that was only exacerbated by Jose Bautista’s decline in right and the team’s revolving door of subpar defenders in the opposite corner.
When Steve Pearce hit the DL between games of a doubleheader on May 3rd, Smith came up in a corresponding move. He was optioned back to Triple A just one day later, with Dalton Pompey getting the call. The very next day saw Anthony Alford summoned from Buffalo. That duo would last on the roster for a full week before Pompey was returned to Buffalo on the 12th, with Alford getting sent down two days later. That brought the return of Smith, who would be sent down at the beginning of June. The next outfielder to join the Blue Jays was Darnell Sweeney, with Smith making another brief cameo before McKinney was added to the mix. It’s a crowded group without many sure things, and one that saw the addition of both Curtis Granderson and Grichuk in the preceding offseason.
While adding competition to the mix in Toronto didn’t have an immediate effect on the battle for playing time in the minors, it’s something that Davis couldn’t help but notice even, if it didn’t change his approach to the game.
“If you have a goal that you’re trying to reach and you see something or anything interfering with that of course it crosses your mind,” Davis said. “But at the end of the day you’ve got to realize that you can only do what you can do, you know what I mean? If you spend all your time worrying about what’s going on and things you can’t control, then you just miss out on getting better and miss out on progressing.”
Davis hasn’t missed out on any progression this year, blitzing Double A with a .302/.388/.443 line to go with five dingers and 19 steals in 78 games before getting promoted to Buffalo and then the majors, collecting his first big league hit in the process. While his numbers with the Bisons weren’t as good (.249/.308/.389 with five homers and nine steals in 46 games), the organization felt his season was strong enough to warrant a look in September – something that Davis wasn’t expecting to get.
“You’ve got some good players up here, man, and you’ve got some good players in the organization. Not saying that I didn’t want that to happen but I didn’t expect it because of the depth. It was an awesome feeling to get that call and to be able to contribute to this ballclub.”
The same can’t be said for Smith, who has had several cups of coffee with the Jays and always seems to get sent back down through no fault of his own. Entering Thursday night’s game against the Rays, Smith had hit .286/.358/.452 in 46 games at the MLB level, a continuation of his quality work with the bat throughout the minors. This season he went .268/.358/.413 in 85 games with the Bisons, with 32 of his 83 hits going for extra bases. Despite the early success, the team keeps Smith working on some select things whenever he’s demoted.
“They give me a couple things to work on but I just work on what I’ve been working on from the offseason. Taking it into the season, just trying to continue my good habits, working hard and just come in ready to play.”
Most young left-handers struggle with southpaw pitching early in their careers, and Smith was no different. He does differ, however, in that he seems to have handled the learning curve faster than most. In his first two years of pro ball, Smith collected just 20 hits in 109 ABs against left handed pitchers. He took a major step forward in 2014 with Dunedin, hitting .300 with 16 extra base hits and an OPS of .939 in 120 ABs. Things weren’t as kind in New Hampshire, as Smith hit .247 across 243 at-bats against lefties in 2015 and 2016. It certainly looks like things have clicked in Triple A, however, as Smith picked up a slash line of .321/.378/.440 in 109 ABs against southpaws in 2017 and has followed that up with .282/.364/.398 marks in 102 ABs this season. Smith says a lot of his recent success has to do with learning to be more selective in his approach.
“I started laying off of pitchers’ pitches and started hitting pitches that I wanted to hit and not chase as much. That helped me a lot, because my first time in Double A I feel like pitchers pitched different than I was accustomed to in the past and I just got used to it.”
Beyond his relative success against left-handed pitching, that patience has always manifested itself in sterling on-base and walk numbers. To this point his career-low OBP is .332, aside from a .279 mark in his very first taste of pro ball back in 2012. This year, Smith had 44 walks and 53 strikeouts with Buffalo.
While Smith’s numbers are hard to ignore, it’s not exactly easy to stand out in a crowded outfield mix at Buffalo that also featured Davis, Pompey, Alford and speedster Roemon Fields. That has lead to some competition for playing time, both in Buffalo and theoretically at the next level, but the fact that all of them are battling for the same spots hasn’t affected their relationship with one another.
“It was all good between all of us. We all got along pretty fine, we did stuff on and off the field. We became buddies throughout the minor leagues before we all landed on the same team so it was second nature. I thought it was pretty fun and seeing everybody do well is always awesome.”
Davis believes that the healthy competition is good for the entire group, adding, “We’re all pretty much boys. Come to the field every day to work. We enjoy going out there and competing and playing together. We all definitely want to make it to the big leagues and compete for a starting spot, but I don’t think that hinders our relationship with each other.”
The organization is also hoping that internal competition pushes each player to their peak. Everything seemed to click for the young Jays in Thursday night’s comeback win, as both players were called on to pinch-hit; Smith doubled and Davis was hit on the 10th pitch of his at-bat in the team’s furious ninth-inning rally. It’s too early to say definitively what next year might hold for Davis and Smith, but they’ll both go about their business and try to make the most of limited chances in the meantime.