The Toronto Blue Jays have an interesting conundrum on their hands.
They made two potentially impactful off-season additions in third baseman Josh Donaldson and catcher Russell Martin. They improved the strength of their core roster and the signing of Martin was lauded in an ESPN poll of MLB executives.
While it’s hard to doubt the additions to the top of the roster, the question remains: do the Blue Jays have enough major league depth to sustain them over a 162-game season?
On the surface this may sound like nit-picking, but those issues played a significant role in Toronto’s demise last year. Mark DeRosa, an MLB Network analyst who spent much of his 16-year MLB career as a valuable utility player, says depth could be an issue for the club he played on in 2013.
“You would like to see them having a stronger bench,” DeRosa told Sportsnet in a phone interview. “I’m a huge believer in that. It’s important on so many levels. You need guys to come out and pinch hit. You need guys to play defence in big spots. You’re calling people up (to compensate for injuries). And it plays a huge role in keeping the team (morale) up.”
Prior to the 2014 season, colleague Ben Nicholson-Smith pointed out a stat that was hard to ignore: bench players can account for close to one third of a team’s plate appearances – whether it’s because of injuries, substitutions or days off. The Blue Jays were ill-suited to deal with injuries last season, let alone injuries to two or three starters, and their roster does not look markedly better in that department heading into spring training.
As currently constructed, the Blue Jays bench looks something like this: Dioner Navarro (and possibly Josh Thole) at catcher, Danny Valencia at corner infield, Kevin Pillar or Ezequiel Carrera in the outfield and Steve Tolleson or Ryan Goins in the middle infield. Having Valencia for a full season will certainly be an upgrade, but is that group strong enough?
“It’s a tough spot for (Dioner) Navarro,” DeRosa explained. “He was good enough to start. Now, they’re asking him to go to the bench. (Kevin) Pillar is dying for an opportunity. Maicer Izturis, he would be your one classic (bench) guy. He can play every day, but he’s more suited for a backup role.”
Beyond the projected bench players, the Blue Jays aren’t left with many inspiring internal options. Those include infielders Munenori Kawasaki and Ramon Santiago, outfielders Chris Dickerson and Andy Dirks (though Dirks is still dealing with a lingering back injury) first baseman/outfielder Chris Colabello and young second baseman Devon Travis.
In the event that one of Jose Bautista or Michael Saunders suffers an injury – a plausible scenario – the Blue Jays will have to start two of Dalton Pompey, Dirks, Pillar, and Carrera on an everyday basis. That’s a thin group.
And if Jose Reyes gets hurt at shortstop, two of Tolleson, Izturis, Goins, Travis and Kawasaki will be in the starting lineup. Given the turf in Toronto and the injury history of starters such as Saunders and Reyes, it’s a risk for GM Alex Anthopoulos.
At one point last year, the Blue Jays were so depleted in the outfield they were forced to start underwhelming minor leaguers Brad Glenn and Darin Mastroianni in important games. Sure, that’s an extreme scenario but it shows how valuable depth can be. Especially if the club carries Thole, whose role the last two seasons has been to catch R.A. Dickey every fifth day.
DeRosa says the Blue Jays would benefit from having a proven bench player.
“It’s tough to ask young guys,” said DeRosa. “It’s more of a veteran role. It’s better to have veterans on the bench. The eye is on a different sort of prize. Younger guys are more concerned about playing time rather than their role on the team.
“I thought Miami did an amazing job bringing in in Ichiro (Suzuki),” DeRosa said. “Jonny Gomes would’ve been great too but he’s a $4-5 million player. Those kind of guys are huge. They’re absolutely priceless. Sabermetrics people like to write it off, but you’ll be damned if you could find any player that would.”
It’s clear why DeRosa sees great value in having a quality bench.
Outside of the obvious tenets of pitching and defence, a good bench has been a consistent element of playoff teams over the last several years. The Kansas City Royals and Baltimore Orioles had two of the best benches in baseball last season before facing off in the ALCS. The same could be said about the Boston Red Sox and St. Louis Cardinals – the two World Series clubs the year before.
The Blue Jays still have time to upgrade. They can find players off the waiver wire and there will be some more released during the season. But for now, it’s still a potential problem area.
Looking at the big picture, DeRosa says it’s impossible not to love the Blue Jays’ additions. The quality at the top is obvious. Saunders will add versatility – he can play either centre or left field – and manager John Gibbons has improved lineup flexibility with designated hitter Adam Lind shipped out of town.
While the top five looks great on paper, it’s the bottom of the roster that could hold them back. Even putting bullpen issues aside, depth looks like a real concern entering the 2015 season.