A lot of talk this offseason has focused on Toronto’s pitching staff, and rightly so. After losing David Price and Mark Buehrle from the rotation, Mark Lowe, LaTroy Hawkins, and Liam Hendriks from the bullpen, and with question marks surrounding Aaron Sanchez and Drew Hutchison, Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins had no choice but to make arms a priority. And they have done an admirable job, bringing back Marco Estrada, and bringing in J.A. Happ, Jesse Chavez, Drew Storen, and several other “lightning in a bottle” type guys like Gavin Floyd and David Aardsma.
But all of the focus on pitching has glossed over another problem that exists on the Blue Jays roster: left field.
The LF position looked settled heading into the offseason with little Ben Revere locked-in. Though he always appeared to take awkward routes to the ball and seemingly wore a glove that was way too big for him, he was a solid defender and a nice offensive player. But when the Jays dealt him to Washington, it opened up a hole in left….again.
It never used to be the case in Toronto, but left field has turned into a bit of a black hole in the past decade and change. For the most part, the first 27 years in franchise history featured a fairly stable and steady group manning the position. Al Woods transitioned into Dave Collins, who turned into George Bell, who became Candy Maldonado. A few seasons of patchwork followed (Rickey Henderson, Joe Carter, Jose Cruz), but then stability returned with six years of Shannon Stewart and two of Reed Johnson. But starting in 2006 things got messy. Just take a look at this:
Any player highlighted in blue represents a player who started at least half the season in left field. You’ll notice there are only four of them: Melky Cabrera in 2014, Rajai Davis in 2012, Fred Lewis in 2010, and Frank Catalanotto in 2006. In ten seasons, the Blue Jays have employed a full-time left-fielder only four times. And only once has a player exceeded 100 starts. Players have reached double digits in starts a whopping 36 times! In all, 46 different players have made at least one start in LF for the Toronto Blue Jays since 2006. That list includes such luminaries as Chad Mottola, Joe Inglett, Buck Coats, Mike McCoy, Jeremy Reed, and Ryan Roberts. It even includes a few forgettable appearances by Edwin Encarnacion.
So while most of us are thrilled to have a shutdown bullpen arm like Storen on the team, I’m sure most will also miss the stability that Revere would have provided in left.
So what now? The two most obvious candidates appear to be Michael Saunders and Dalton Pompey. The former was a fairly significant acquisition last offseason and the latter is still one of the team’s best young prospects. Both will go into Spring Training expecting to win the job outright. But who is the better choice?
Saunders can claim to have the advantage for several reasons. He has more experience, put up solid numbers in 2014, and has the potential to be a more sound hitter, with more power than Pompey.
Pompey, however, has more raw talent. He is a better fielder, incredible on the basepaths (as he proved late in the season), and is a switch hitter.
But both also have question marks – serious, serious question marks. To this point in his career, Saunders has proven that he can’t stay on the field. Yes last season’s injury was a major fluke, but he has never played in 140 games in a season, and has only exceeded 100 games three times in seven years. Pompey has proven that he can’t hit big league pitching. Yes the sample size is small (146 PA), but a .295 OBP and .685 OPS is hardly promising.
While a strict platoon might not be ideal for either, it might be exactly what the best course of action is for the team. Have them each start a few games a week to see if one cements himself as the starter. Ideally that starter would be Saunders, with Pompey reprising his role as late-inning base thief extraordinaire and still making a few starts a week, spelling Saunders, Pillar, and Bautista in the outfield.
At the end of the day though, with Bautista, Encarnacion, Donaldson, Martin, and Tulowitzki on the team, the correct answer as to who should start just might be this: