Why Blue Jays must improve bench depth

Michael Young #10 of the Philadelphia Phillies takes a swing during a baseball game against the Washington Nationals on August 9, 2013 at Nationals Park in Washington, DC. The Nationals won 9-2. (Mitchell Layton/Getty)

The difference between a productive bench and a poor one adds up to many wins or losses over the course of the season.

Take the Boston Red Sox, who relied heavily on David Ross, Mike Carp and Jonny Gomes on their way to a World Series win. Or the St. Louis Cardinals, who seem poised to make a run at another National League pennant because of a deep bench that now includes Mark Ellis, Daniel Descalso, Jon Jay and Shane Robinson.

A glance at the defending league champions serves as a reminder that the Toronto Blue Jays must address their bench depth between now and opening day. If the season were to begin today, the Blue Jays’ bench would look something like this: Josh Thole at catcher, Maicer Izturis on the infield, Moises Sierra in the outfield and perhaps Anthony Gose or Steve Tolleson. At this stage it doesn’t compare favourably with the better benches around baseball.

Bench players can account for close to one third of a team’s plate appearances with nearly 2,000 chances to bat per season due to injuries, off days and substitutions. Blue Jays reserves batted 1,868 times in 2013 – more than Jose Bautista, Colby Rasmus, Brett Lawrie and Jose Reyes combined. They accounted for 31 percent of the team’s plate appearances while combining to hit to hit just .236 with a .294 on-base percentage and a .351 slugging percentage.

There’s lots of room for improvement.

The group that compiled that .645 on-base plus slugging won’t be back in 2014. Rajai Davis, Mark DeRosa, and Emilio Bonifacio have already left, which means Munenori Kawasaki is the only one of the team’s primary 2013 bench players with a shot at returning (the Blue Jays have had some discussions with Kawasaki’s camp though he may return to Japan). Even triple-A players such as Mauro Gomez and Mike McCoy are no longer in the organization. Right now manager John Gibbons doesn’t have many sure things on his bench.

“We know Izturis is going to be there,” Gibbons said this month. “Izturis can play. He can play anywhere. You want in a bench guy, you want a guy that can come in and catch the ball. That’s what his primary job is.”

So far, the Blue Jays have kept their options open.

“It depends if we’re going to go with a platoon and say [Adam] Lind, and if he’s a right‑handed guy, this guy has to pound left‑handed pitching,” Gibbons continued. “Or maybe that extra outfielder means a guy that can run or plus defender type thing. It all depends.”

The Blue Jays have enough outfield depth to get by thanks to Gose, Kevin Pillar and the out-of-options Sierra. Erik Kratz improves their catching depth – a clear need given Dioner Navarro’s relatively light catching load in recent years. Yet beyond Izturis, the Blue Jays’ infield depth is suspect. Newcomer Steve Tolleson helps, but a player with a history of success against MLB pitching would be preferable.

It wouldn’t have to be a big-name player to rival the New York Yankees’ star-lined bench. Instead, Michael Young, Jayson Nix or Jamey Carroll could be capable of stepping into the role DeRosa played in 2013.

One way or another, the Blue Jays must have enough depth to get by when an infielder or two inevitably hits the disabled list. Lawrie and Reyes have both spent time on the disabled list in recent years and Ryan Goins is just a rookie. When injuries strike again in 2014, the Blue Jays could find themselves with limited depth. Relying on Tolleson or Andy LaRoche for a couple of weeks is one thing, but the Blue Jays could get exposed quickly. This isn’t about upside, it’s about insurance – making sure that the worst-case scenario isn’t so bad.

While the Blue Jays don’t necessarily match up to the Washington Nationals (Tyler Moore, Danny Espinosa, Scott Hairston and Nate McLouth), the Los Angeles Dodgers (Scott Van Slyke, Dee Gordon and Andre Ethier) or the Cleveland Indians (Mike Aviles, Ryan Raburn and Jason Giambi) when it comes to bench options, they do have time on their side. The free agent market for bench players remains robust and typically develops late. Many teams around baseball including the Tampa Bay Rays and Texas Rangers face similar questions. Plus, players inevitably become available during spring training when other teams face roster crunches of their own.

General manager Alex Anthopoulos doesn’t need to panic by any stretch. But he does need to add to his bench before opening day or risk that the Blue Jays will be exposed when their regulars need a day off or a stint on the disabled list. The Blue Jays’ formidable everyday lineup isn’t enough. Toronto’s bench players will bat far more than 1,000 times in 2014 while playing thousands of innings on defence. As the Red Sox and Cardinals can attest, rounding out the roster with quality role players will distinguish title contenders from sub-.500 teams.

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