• Gibbons confirms club expects LF platoon of Upton Jr., Carrera
• Pearce likely to begin year splitting time at 1B with Smoak
CLEARWATER, Fla. — Being the veteran, looking-to-contend team that they are, the Toronto Blue Jays don’t have many competitions around the diamond this spring.
The rotation’s set. There’s an MVP winner playing third. There are no questions up the middle, unless Devon Travis begins the season on the disabled list, which would open up an opportunity for Darwin Barney or Ryan Goins to play second base.
Right field belongs to Jose Bautista. Kendrys Morales will be the designated hitter. Minor league free agent Jarrod Saltalamacchia is all but certain to claim the backup catcher position. Justin Smoak will play a lot of first. There are a couple spots to be won in the bullpen, but a major league relief corps is a fluid thing that features plenty of shuffling parts throughout the season.
All that remains is left field, where the loss of Michael Saunders to free agency has created a bit of a vacuum. But even that position isn’t one of great contention, as Blue Jays manager John Gibbons confirmed Thursday the club is currently looking at fielding a platoon of the right-handed hitting Melvin Upton Jr. and left-handed Ezequiel Carrera.
Here’s the normal caveat: it’s March 9. There is nearly a full month until the games begin to matter. A lot can happen. Players get injured. Minds change. Everyone just simmer for a moment.
But if the status remains quo, you can expect the Blue Jays to go forward with Upton and Carrera splitting time in left to begin the season. Steve Pearce will also factor in, although it’s likely he’ll begin the year splitting time with Smoak at first as he continues to recover from off-season elbow surgery.
Pearce has been taking regular batting practice all spring and getting into games here and there as a designated hitter, but he’s yet to test his arm in the field. He’ll begin playing a position in games on March 19, manning first base for a few days before the team tests him in the outfield. The Blue Jays will wait and see how Pearce’s arm responds to that, but he may need a week or two more during the regular season before the club is comfortable playing him regularly in the outfield.
And while the versatile Pearce has played second and third base previously in his career, the Blue Jays don’t foresee him serving much time there, unless there is an emergency need. You can expect Pearce to get the bulk of his at-bats at first and in the outfield. As Gibbons delicately put it: “You look at him—he’s not built like a normal second baseman.”
So, there you have it. A left-field platoon is pencilled in for now, but if someone wants to put together a hot start and win the position, the opportunity’s there.
“We’ll get the best man out there—the guys that are playing the best,” Gibbons said. “We’re just going to let that play out.”
Upton appears to have the best shot at making that happen, as the Blue Jays are on the hook for only $1 million of his salary this year and would love to reap the value of a productive season. Upton was putting one together last year, batting .256/.304/.439 for the San Diego Padres with 16 homers in 92 games before he was traded to the Blue Jays.
But that’s when things bottomed out. Upton hit just .196/.261/.318 with Toronto, striking out nearly 30 per cent of the time. While he started nearly every day in August after he was acquired, Upton began to lose playing time to Carrera down the stretch as the Blue Jays made their run to the post-season.
Upton says that not playing every day hurt his production as he struggled to find a groove without consistent at-bats. The Blue Jays hope that’s something he can manage going forward, and that the benefit of a full spring training with his new club will help him put those struggles behind him.
“I can tell you this: if he’s playing well, he’ll be out there a lot—lefty or righty,” Gibbons said of Upton. “He can control that.”
Upton’s career splits are fairly level, but in 2016 he was far better against left-handed pitching (.275/.341/.533 in 136 plate appearances) than right-handed (.226/.274/.360 in 403), which would seem to position him well for a platoon.
But things change. Upton’s struggles against right-handers could merely be a one-season aberration or they could be the beginning of a trend. Over his career he’s generally been slightly better against left-handers but never have his splits been as pronounced as they were in 2016. From 2013-14, for instance, he was actually better against right-handers. It’s not inconceivable that his numbers could creep back to the mean.
Carrera, meanwhile, actually has reverse splits for his career, hitting left-handers better than right-handers. And those numbers were especially pronounced last season when he hit .329/.372/.452 against lefties and .218/.307/.320 against righties. That would seem to leave the Blue Jays exposed against right-handed pitching if they fielded an Upton-Carrera platoon.
Of course, the club is well aware of that. And while those numbers suggest the platoon wouldn’t entirely work in theory, the Blue Jays are hopeful it will have some utility in practice, at least to begin the season.
“Melvin’s always hit left-handers really well. And that’s what he did well for us last year when we brought him over,” Gibbons said. “And we like what Zeke’s doing. He’s kind of had some crazy splits a little bit. He’s actually been better against lefties himself. But it’s in there to hit righties.”
So, we’ll see. Plenty can still happen. Upton could win the job. Carrera could, too, like he did last September. Steve Pearce, who’s been working diligently with the Blue Jays high performance department, could look great in left later this spring and claim the position. If Dalton Pompey gets off to a hot start at triple-A, he could factor in as well. We shall see.
“We’re still trying to figure it out,” Gibbons said. “But [Upton and Carrera] are proven players and we’ve got them here. So, we’ll see how all that shakes out.”