With a little more than a month of the regular season left, the Toronto Blue Jays seem to be running late to shake their lineup and put together a streak that will get them squarely into the postseason berths. Their offense struggles have them conceding games against non-contending opponents like the Cleveland Guardians, looking powerless against a direct rival like the Baltimore Orioles, and unsuccessfully playing catchup with the Tampa Bay Rays.
The team has been great at putting runners in scoring positions (they are third in MLB in at-bats in this situation) but lousy when it comes to bringing them home (third from last overall in MLB). Unfortunately, they have little room for maneuvering with their starting players, though, and have had a meager contribution from their substitute players.
What can they do to shake things up considering their constraints? They could be more creative with the options available in their organization and start that upgrade with the guys coming from the bench. Especially with those playing the infield.
Have the Jays reached the point where they will make the adjustments to get the most out of their entire roster?
So far, the Jays have insisted on Cavan Biggio (who plays mostly second base) and Santiago Espinal (third base and shortstop) as their main backup infielders, even though their contribution has been poor. It appears that the organization does not trust anyone else to have Whit Merrifield‘s, Bo Bichette’s, or Matt Chapman‘s back. Their boldest move was to promote Davis Schneider from Buffalo (AAA), and it worked out well: they swept Boston and the whole team showed a different approach at the plate, at least for a full series.
Schneider played six out of seven games against the Red Sox and the Guardians, five at second base, posting a 1.201 On Base Percentage plus Slugging (OPS) and getting on base half of his plate appearances. His offensive numbers and drive to succeed have made him look like a headliner, at least in the short term. He looks like a glimmer of life amid a lineup that easily turns off. And Jays’ fandom has loved that.
Beyond Schneider’s move
Can’t the Blue Jays go further and take another chance on someone from the farm system who is producing more than Espinal and Biggio combined?
The no-longer prospect Ernie Clement has enough merit to join the Jays and deserves an opportunity to be one of the guys sitting on the bench if the Jays dare to demote Espinal and Biggio to Buffalo. Clement has been up three times but only has played 16 innings with the Jays, despite his On Base Percentage (.500 in eight at-bats) and of him having his best year in the minors. Until August 10th, the 27-year-old second baseman and shortstop was hitting a .985 OPS with runners in scoring position with 26 runs batted in in 63 at-bats. His OPS against righties and lefties is above .900, and he has only nine strikeouts in 208 at-bats.
If they are willing to consider another good defender with a decent bat who could help them before September’s roster expansion, then the prospect Leo Jimenez could get the call from New Hampshire. His OPS is above .800 against righties and lefties can inspire a bit of respect in opposing pitchers.
Paul DeJong is not part of this discussion. Given that Bo Bichette is the Jays’ best hitter and his team needs him back badly, but needs him healthy, his playing time as a shortstop is very likely to be dosed when he returns. That provides the former Cardinal and his solid defense (he had no errors in his first ten games as the backup shortstop) with immunity: he is a life insurance policy on the roster despite his slumping bat.
Likewise, what if the Blue Jays were open to revisiting the way they have been rotating their outfielders? Since Daulton Varsho’s lumber still does not wake up, it could be healthy to scatter his plate appearances even more and give more opportunities to the incumbent backup outfielder, Nathan Lukes. If Lukes is not the high-impact substitute they are looking for, Spencer Horwitz, who can play first base or be the designated hitter as well, is persistently hitting in Buffalo and putting in a remarkable OPS (.946).
The conservative (and more likely) route
Being versatile (he plays the outfield corners and second base) and having a left-handed bat seem enough for Biggio to stay on the 26-man roster. Occasional flashes of talent tend to appear when the 2016 draft fifth-round pick place with the Jays is questioned. The duel against Cleveland on August 7th was one of those peaks: he hit a two-run homer while Toronto’s offense had been held in check by Cleveland’s pitching and made a non-assisted double play on second base in a crucial moment. One day after, he made the starting lineup and went hitless in four trips to the plate, one strikeout included; typical Biggio.
He has looked slightly better at the plate since the All-Star break: until August 11th he had held a .421 OBP and a .840 OPS, but his notorious inability to hit power pitchers (he has a 36% strikeout rate and a below .100 Batting Average with Balls in Play against them) conspires against his chance to take on a more important part or become a permanent presence in the lineup.
Espinal is the weakest link in the Jays’ roster or the hardest case to defend. He has not looked like the efficient and promising player who made the American League All-Star team last year with either the glove or the bat. The costliest error that comes to mind is the one he committed versus the Dodgers at the end of July when he stood with the ball in his hand for a moment of hesitation in the pivotal ninth inning. That allowed catcher Will Smith to score the tying run, and the Jays ended up losing that game, wasting a four-run lead.
Espinal’s contribution at the plate has also been insignificant. If Jays have been way below average when it comes to batting with runners in scoring position (28th out of 30), the utility has been, even with a small sample, one of the least productive in the entire team: only 11 runs batted in 45 at-bats with an OPS of .475, almost .300 below Biggio’s (.754).
Given that the Jays are reluctant to make drastic moves involving their headliners, they could at least rethink the way they are using their bench players, so they can be more resourceful in their quest to clinch a playoff spot.