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Predicting the Blue Jays' Starting Lineup Halfway Through Spring Training

James O'DonnellContributor IIMarch 7, 2013

Predicting the Blue Jays' Starting Lineup Halfway Through Spring Training

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    Following the acquisitions of Jose Reyes, Melky Cabrera and Maicer Izturis, along with the return of Jose Bautista, the 2013 Toronto Blue Jays' lineup will look dramatically different than the primary lineup used in the disappointing second half of last season.

    Much of the Blue Jays' expected everyday lineup for 2013 has been set in place for months now, but we'll take a closer look at how the team's batting order for the regular season should shake out as we near the halfway mark in spring training.

    The Blue Jays had some serious issues at the top of the batting order last season, but went out with the intent to fix those issues in the offseason by acquiring Reyes and Cabrera. Meanwhile, the return of Bautista paired with Edwin Encarnacion, who is coming off a breakout campaign in 2012, should solidify the heart of the lineup.

    The Blue Jays still have some flexibility with their lineup, however. There is a real question as to who will offer protection behind Bautista and Encarnacion. There is also a debate about where budding star Brett Lawrie should bat.

    Finally, the bottom-third of the order is not set in stone; there is still some competition at second base and uncertainty about who will bat seventh and eighth.

    With that in mind, here is my effort to predict the team's everyday starting lineup at the midpoint of spring training. This may not be the batting order that appears on the Opening Day lineup card, as staff ace R.A. Dickey may require a personal catcher, but this is the lineup I believe we'll see for the most part early on in the 2013 season.

Leading Off: Jose Reyes, SS

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    Perhaps the most certain of all is that new shortstop Jose Reyes will be leading off for the Blue Jays in 2013.

    In the mega-deal that landed the Blue Jays five veteran players from the Marlins, perhaps most important is Reyes, who will provide a major upgrade over last year's leadoff hitters.

    In 2012, without a bona fide top-of-the-order hitter, the Blue Jays were forced to plug in Yunel Escobar, Kelly Johnson, Brett Lawrie and Rajai Davis at the leadoff spot throughout the season.

    Though the quartet of hitters used weren't terrible hitters, none of them were as ideally suited to hit leadoff as Reyes is. He is a career leadoff hitter who can set the table for the heart of the order better than any of the four primary leadoff hitters the Jays used last season.

    Reyes offers a rare combination of the ability to get on base via hit or walk and the speed to steal second base or stretch singles into doubles. Reyes has stolen at least 30 bases in every season in which he has played at least 126 games, and he owns a lifetime OBP of .342.

    Manager John Gibbons was recently quoted by MLB.com as saying, "[Reyes], that's been his job his whole career, being a leadoff guy," and that he is "one of the best in the business."

    In the same report from MLB.com, the Blue Jays' best hitter, Jose Bautista, echoed similar sentiments, stating, "We haven't had a true leadoff guy here since Scutaro left," but that "[w]ith Reyes, we have the whole package, which is going to be huge."

    One thing is for sure, and that is the switch-hitting Reyes will be playing shortstop and providing a serious boost to the lineup by giving the Blue Jays the leadoff hitter they have lacked in the recent past.

Batting 2nd: Melky Cabrera, LF

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    Another switch-hitter, left fielder Melky Cabrera, is the most likely candidate to hit second and follow Reyes in the Blue Jays' lineup in 2013.

    Like Reyes, Melky was acquired this offseason by the Blue Jays to revamp the top-third of their lineup and provide another hitter capable of setting the table for Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion.

    Melky may have been caught using PEDs last season, but he has served his suspension and looks the part of an ideal No. 2 hitter for the Jays.

    We don't know what effect, if any, the PEDs had on Melky's ability to hit, but he was having a phenomenal season in 2012 before his suspension. In 113 games, Melky hit .346/.390/.516 with 84 runs scored, 11 home runs, and 13 stolen bases. He was the prototypical No. 2 hitter for the Giants before they moved him into the No. 3 hole due to an injury.

    Of course, we all know Melky was suspended shortly thereafter, but those weren't the only 113 games Melky showed the ability to be a solid, top-of-the-order hitter.

    In the year prior with the Kansas City Royals, Melky hit .305/.339/.470 with 102 runs scored, 44 doubles, 18 home runs and 20 stolen bases.

    For two straight seasons, Melky has shown 20/20 potential with the ability to hit over .300 and maintain an OBP above league-average. If he can duplicate his season averages over the last two seasons, his production would fit perfectly in between the table-setting Reyes and the big bats of Bautista and Encarnacion.

    According to Gregor Chisholm of MLB.com, Melky will be expected to set the table behind Reyes in the No. 2 spot in 2013 and should provide another significant upgrade to the top of the lineup. The Blue Jays' No. 2 hitters in 2012 posted a combined OBP of .319, while Melky has an OBP of .345 over the last four seasons.

    The Blue Jays will likely start their lineup with two switch-hitters, both of whom offer a good mix of speed, power and the ability to get on base at an above-average rate.

Batting 3rd: Jose Bautista, RF

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    Transitioning to the heart of the order, Jose Bautista—the most prolific home run hitter in the game over the last three seasons—is the expected No. 3 hitter for the Blue Jays in 2013.

    There may be some argument that Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion should be switched in the lineup after the year Encarnacion had in 2012, but that isn't likely to happen.

    Bautista has established himself as one of the game's biggest power threats and has entrenched himself as the Blue Jays' most productive and reliable hitter when healthy.

    In the 90 games prior to his injury, Bautista batted third each time—even when Encarnacion started to break out and was moved into the clean-up role. Even when Bautista returned for two games late in the season, despite his questionable status, he was once again plugged back into the No. 3 hole.

    Bautista's prodigious power and well-trained batting eye make him the perfect No. 3 hitter, and John Gibbons is unlikely to alter his role in the lineup. Having Bautista hit third, ensuring that he will reach the batter's box in the first inning of every game regardless of what happens before him, is a huge boon to establishing an early lead in games.

    An axiom of baseball—albeit one that has some detractors—is that you bat your best hitter third. Jose Bautista is the Blue Jays' best hitter when healthy and he belongs hitting third, getting the first crack at driving in Reyes and Melky when they reach base.

    Bautista can also draw walks at an elite rate, extending rallies and making it more difficult to pitch to the now-intimidating Edwin Encarnacion. Bautista led the league with 132 free passes in 2011 and was on pace for his third-straight 100-plus walk season prior to his injury last year.

    With Bautista back at full strength in 2013, he needs to return to the third spot in the batting order, where he has dominated for the past three seasons.

Batting 4th: Edwin Encarnacion, 1B

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    Hitting clean-up and providing much-needed protection for Jose Bautista will be Edwin Encarnacion.

    Encarnacion has earned the right to bat fourth in the Blue Jays' order in 2013 after a masterful 2012 campaign in which he hit .280/.384/.557 with 42 home runs and 110 RBI.

    He is expected to form one of the best right-handed, power-hitting duos in the league with Bautista this season and is by far the best candidate to serve as the clean-up hitter.

    In an ideal world, the right-handed bats of Bautista and Encarnacion would be split with a left-handed hitter.

    Unfortunately, for the Blue Jays, their best power-hitting lefty is Adam Lind, who struggled so mightily last season that he was optioned down to the minors on May 31. Needless to say, Lind isn't the type of hitter you want batting clean-up and protecting your best hitter.

    Fortunately for the Blue Jays, Encarnacion swung the bat like he was the archetypal clean-up hitter in 2012, and the power potential of having Bautista and Encarnacion hit back-to-back overshadows any concerns about having two righties hit next to each other in the heart of the lineup.

    According to Richard Griffin of the Toronto Star, Encarnacion will be expected to complete a quartet of Dominican hitters in the top four spots of the Blue Jays' batting order in 2012.

    Griffin says there may be some question down in the order, "but the top four is a certainty—Jose Reyes, Melky Cabrera, Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion—all Dominican, a quartet combining to earn $40 million (U.S.)."

    Encarnacion is locked into the clean-up spot; the only question is whether he'll do so as the team's first baseman or designated hitter. Last year, he played 68 games at first and 82 games as the DH, and he could see a similar split in 2013 with him and Adam Lind rotating among the two positions.

Batting 5th: Adam Lind, DH

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    This is the part of the Blue Jays' lineup where things become less certain and more likely to be subject to change.

    Adam Lind is likely assured of the fifth spot in the order to open the 2013 season, but his advantageous placement behind Bautista and Encarnacion is far from guaranteed should he not improve upon his 2012 campaign.

    Lind played in 93 games for the Blue Jays last season and hit an uninspiring .255/.314/.414 with 11 home runs and 45 RBI. This is certainly not the type of production that will cut it batting fifth in any lineup, and if Lind hits as he did a year ago, he may send the Blue Jays scrambling to reorganize the bottom half of their lineup.

    So why, despite his struggles, continued disappointment since his 2009 breakout, and aforementioned demotion last year, is Lind still the team's No. 5 hitter?

    The answer is both simple and unfortunate. It is due to a lack of better options.

    Despite all the upgrades the Blue Jays made this offseason, they were uanble to add another power-hitting, left-handed bat to balance a righty-heavy middle-of-the-order. Lind will be relied on to fill an important role, and that is to offset the right-handed power in the heart of the lineup.

    Brett Lawrie is a far more intriguing hitter at this juncture, and perhaps he is more deserving than Lind to bat in the cushy spot behind two of the game's best power hitters. But the task will likely go to Lind as the default power-hitting lefty.

    As good as Bautista-Encarnacion-Lawrie can be in 2013, the Blue Jays will likely see it fit to split the three up with a left-handed bat. And right now the only real option to do so is Adam Lind.

    If there was any chance of Lind losing the role before the season started, that concern has been quelled by his hot bat in spring training. According to the Toronto Sun, Lind is hitting .474 in 19 at-bats and is 2-for-4 against lefties.

    Lind isn't a complete lost cause. He knows the tenuous grip he has on his job and roster spot, and at age 29, a return to the solid, productive peak he had from 2009-2011 isn't out of the question. Right now, he's penciled in as the team's primary No. 5 hitter.

    He'll need to build off of a modest return after his demotion last season and a strong spring training to maintain the job in 2013.

Batting 6th: Brett Lawrie, 3B

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    The likely No. 6 hitter for the Blue Jays to start the season is Brett Lawrie.

    Though Lawrie could quickly meet his lofty expectations and be deserving of a much higher spot in the batting order, it is hard to move him into the top five given its current structure.

    There are some who may argue that alternating between lefties and righties isn't as important as having a potentially great hitter in Lawrie batting behind Bautista and Encarnacion instead of a struggling Lind.

    And in the case of a left-handed opposing starting pitcher taking the mound, Lawrie could be moved up into the fifth spot due to Lind's pronounced struggles against lefties (.220/.264/.343 lifetime).

    Lind may not be in the lineup altogether against lefties, and without a power-hitting, right-handed platoon partner, it should be Lawrie who will find his way into the heart of the order.

    Lawrie was mildly disappointing at the plate in 2012, but his underlying improvement and impressive set of tools should portend continued development and improved production in 2013.

    Should Lawrie continue to advance as a hitter and become a 20/20 threat, he would slide in perfectly into the No. 6 spot (or in the case of an opposing left-handed starter, the No. 5 spot).

    He gives them another potentially-powerful bat to extend rallies created by the heart of the lineup, as well as the speed to set the table for the bottom-third of the lineup and 20-plus home run hitters, Colby Rasmus and J.P. Arencibia.

    Lawrie may settle into a No. 3 spot as he nears his peak. But for now, coming off a solid 2012 season in which he hit 11 home runs and stole 13 bases, he is a good fit for the No. 6 spot in the order on most days.

Batting 7th: Colby Rasmus, CF

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    I think it is likely that we see the enigmatic, left-handed-hitting Colby Rasmus bat seventh and begin the bottom-third of the batting order.

    Similarly to Lind and Lawrie in the fifth and sixth spots in the lineup, Rasmus and J.P. Arencibia can be swapped if less reliance is put on the need to alternate between lefties and righties.

    Additionally, Arencibia could hit seventh against left-handed starting pitching with Rasmus dropping to the eigthth spot or being taken out of the lineup altogether after hitting .182/.262/.292 in 173 plate appearances vesus left-handed pitching in 2012.

    This spot—in addition to the eighth spot—is very much in flux. Rasmus has shown the potential to be a capable No. 5 hitter at times, but for most of last year, he barely warranted a starting job.

    At his best, as in 2009 when he hit .276/.361/.498 with 23 home runs and 12 stolen bases, he deserves to hit anywhere from No. 2 through No. 6.

    However, when he's at his worst—as he has been for just about his entire 186-game stint with the Blue Jays—he firmly belongs hitting in the bottom-third. And for now, with a lot still to prove to the organization, Rasmus is best suited for the No. 7 spot in the order (while dropping to No. 8 against lefties).

    Rasmus will still offer some pop, even at his worst, as he managed 23 home runs last season despite a .223/.289/.400 batting line. If he can get back to his production levels with the Cardinals under new manager John Gibbons, he would be a good fit for the No. 7 spot, given his solid combination of power and speed.

    Not taking handedness into account, Arencibia is probably the more deserving No. 7 hitter, if you subscribe to the theory that your No. 6 through No. 9 hitters should bat in order of descending talent. However, if there is a desire to alternate lefties and righties throughout the lineup and still have some speed in the No. 7 hole, then Rasmus is the hitter best suited for the job.

Batting 8th: J.P. Arencibia, C

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    As mentioned, I think we will see Rasmus and J.P. Arencibia split time between the No. 7 and No. 8 spots in the lineup in 2013, depending on whether a left-hander or right-hander is starting for the opposing team.

    If Rajai Davis is asked to spell Rasmus against lefties, given Rasmus's struggles versus southpaws, then we will almost assuredly see Arencibia batting at least No. 7 in the order.

    However, in the event that a right-handed starting pitcher takes the mound, it's likely the more dynamic Rasmus steps into the No. 7 spot, while Arencibia is asked to provide an additional source of power at the bottom of the lineup.

    Arencibia saw the bulk of time hitting eighth (24 times) and ninth (30 times) last season, with some starts higher up in the order, including 20 games in the heart of the lineup (between No. 3 and No. 5). However, with an improved lineup and the return of Jose Bautista, it is likely Arencibia will resume his role as the team's No. 8 hitter.

    Arencibia took a step last season, but also battled injury. He had a terrific July (.321/.345/.736 with 6 home runs) before a hand fracture forced him out of the lineup until September. He returned before the season ended, but did not appear to be back at full-strength, hitting .197/.260/.303 in September and October combined.

    Given his sophomore slump and his need to get back on track after a cold finish to last season, Arencibia fits best at the bottom of the order. He can provide another source of power and has the ability to drive in 80-90 runs per season. But as a lifetime .222 hitter with a below-average walk rate, he is best suited for the No. 8 spot.

    Despite his desire to do so, he may not start on Opening Day, depending on whether John Gibbons allows him to catch R.A. Dickey, but he's expected behind the plate for the other 80 percent of the season. And when he is, he should be hitting in the No. 8 hole against right-handers and seventh against lefties in 2013.

Batting 9th: Maicer Izturis, 2B

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    Finally, rounding out the lineup, will be the starting second baseman who will offer a second leadoff hitter from the No. 9 spot.

    Right now, there is an open competition for the starting job between Maicer Izturis and Emilio Bonifacio, but neither has yet to pull away and establish himself as the superior option.

    However, whether it's Izturis or Bonifacio, both will offer a similar skill set in the No. 9 hole.

    Both possess speed on the basepaths (Bonifacio more so than Izturis), both can post a solid OBP in the .333 range (Izturis has a lifetime .337 OBP; Bonifacio .329), both do not offer much in terms of power, but both are switch hitters with the ability to lead off in a pinch and can provide a second table-setter to Jose Reyes when the batting order snakes around after the first inning.

    There is some debate as to whether Izturis or Bonifacio will be the starter, but either way, the lineup will likely be rounded out by whoever is the starting second baseman. Bonifacio offers a bit more flexibility since he can handle the outfield, so he may be better suited for the utility spot.

    However, he is also a better base stealer and having him and Reyes on the basepaths at the same time could wreak havoc for opposing pitchers.

    In an improved lineup where there should be plenty of production from the No. 1 through No. 8 hitters, John Gibbons told the Toronto Star that "defense is important to us" and "someone has to go out there and catch it, too." If the emphasis is on defense, which makes sense, given the similarly-low upside of both hitters, the edge may go to Izturis as the starter.

    Izturis has both a better UZR/150 and fielding percentage than Bonifacio at second base and has logged nearly four times as many innings at the position (1965.2 for Izturis versus 587.0 for Bonifacio).

    Neither is going to make a profound impact on the lineup from the No. 9 hole, so with defense playing a bigger role, it is very possible we'll see the free agent-signee Izturis hitting from the No. 9 spot in 2013. Bonifacio will certainly see time as the second base starter throughout the season. But for now, it seems more likely he'll be asked to fill a super-utility role and provide a speed boost off the bench.

    Whether it's Izturis or Bonifacio, expect the starter at second base to round out the lineup in the No. 9 spot to start the 2013 season.

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