2016 Canadian draft list
Letters of Intent
The Saunders solution
By Eric Elliott
In the wee hours of Thursday morning, Toronto Blue Jays fans received some unsettling news: newly acquired left fielder Michael Saunders suffered a torn meniscus in his left knee and will be out of the lineup until the end of April, or maybe the All-Star break.
The injury occurred while shagging fly balls at the Bobby Mattick training facility. Saunders says while jogging he felt a pop as he landed on a patch of soft ground near an underground sprinkler.
Suddenly, what was an area of perceived comfort for Jays’ fans became an area of unequivocal uncertainty. No one, including manager John Gibbons and the Jays front office, has absolute certainty who will be run out to left field until Saunders’ long-awaited return.
General manager Alex Anthopoulos has said that he is open to any options while mentioning that he would prefer to fill the position internally. The internal options are both plentiful and pedestrian. They include, but are in no way limited to Dalton Pompey, Kevin Pillar, Ezequiel Carrera, Andy Dirks, Chris Dickerson, Caleb Grindl, Chris Colabello and the surprising inclusion via Gibbons, Danny Valencia.
Those names should excite few. But given Anthopoulos’ comments, there is no better time to examine who is best suited to man the 2/3 of the Jays’ outfield that aren’t Jose Bautista’s right field.
Going into this season it was expected, or at least hypothesized, that Pompey would garner most of the workload in center field. That assumption is, for this article’s sake, unaffected. He should be able to handle the promotion to some degree and produce to at least a major league average level.
His colleagues here are more interesting to the story. The four leading candidates are whom this article is most interested in with Pillar, Dirks, Valencia and Carrera the most likely to earn the nomination.
Starting with Pillar, it’s easy to see why he would provide a plug to the lifeboat that is the Jays outfield. In a brief 53 game stint with the Jays last season, Pillar produced a .267/.295/.397 slash with a mere two home runs. His resume also boasts that he is at least an average defender in left field.
The downside with Pillar is his discipline at the plate. Last season, he put up an unseemly 3.3 BB% with a power hitting like K% of 23%. Put simply, Pillar strikes out far too much while walking not nearly enough.
The second candidate, potentially the best among the class, is newly acquired Dirks. The problem with Dirks is that he is currently recovering from a back injury and has not played more than 40 games since 2013.
With that said, his 2013 season was tolerably serviceable. In a Detroit Tigers uniform, Dirks published a .256/.323/.363 slash and was an above average defender according to advanced metrics Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) and Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR).
Thirdly, lies another “safe” option in Carrera. In 45 games with the Tigers last season, he was above replacement level, 0.3 WAR (Wins Above Replacement) to be exact. In that time, Carrera managed to produce an impressive .261 batting average all the while remaining a plus defender. Similar to Pillar, his walk rate is quite low at 4.1% but shows more promise at the minor league level and thus may be able to translate that in the big leagues.
The area of concern with Carrera is that he benefited from a .327 batting average with balls in play (BABIP) so he may fall victim to bad or average luck this season which would translate into a lower batting average.
Lastly is the internal, virgin to the outfield, Valencia. Valencia came to the Jays last season and performed admirably in the Jays selective usage. His .258 batting average isn’t representative of how the Jays actually employed Valencia.
His talents are best implemented in a platoon, allowing him to face off against left handed pitchers whom he dominated last year with a .321 batting average and wRC+(weighted runs created) of 135. The major league average for that metric is 100, placing Valencia in the above average to great category for the measurement.
For all intents and purposes, this is the best way the Jays can fill the void. The problem is that it is right-handed heavy with Pillar and Valencia swinging from the right side. Add left-handed hitting Carrera and all hit lefties much better than righties so it’s difficult to determine which direction the club will go.
The Jays would be best suited, and are most likely to use, a Pillar-Dirks platoon providing that Dirks is ready for opening day. Pillar could play against left-handed pitchers, employing his .304 batting average from last season while Dirks plays against righties.
Both players provide comparable defence as marginally above replacement level outfielders. The Jays brass has said that Valencia will get a chance to try out left field this spring so maybe he will provide a much better option than Pillar against lefties.
For now, Jays’ nation knows that Pillar is the more proven, safe solution to the day old nightmare in left field. Only spring training holds the answer to who will march out to left field on opening day April 6.