Now that the Vernon Wells trade has indeed been accepted as reality and praised across the board by almost everyone associated with the Toronto Blue Jays it's time to look at the biggest issue with the team that has yet to be resolved. That is where Jose Bautista will take up his primary residence in the field for the upcoming season. The decision has implications towards filling out the seemingly only remaining spot on the Jays roster, as far as position players is concerned.
The Jays roster as presently constituted is set at first and second base, shortstop, center field, catcher, and left field. That is if several assumptions are made based on the construction of the roster and various statements made about each player. It's a given that Aaron Hill will man second, Yunel Escobar will take up short, and Rajai Davis will patrol center with Travis Snider on one side or the other. It also seems safe to assume that Adam Lind is going to be given every opportunity to take over at first base and J.P. Arencibia is going to get the bulk of the time at catcher.
That leaves Mike Napoli and Edwin Encarnacion as the primary DH options and Napoli has shown to be the better of the two right handed batters, leading to the assumption he'll get the bulk of the at-bats. That Encarnacion was brought back under the premise of no longer being allowed to play third base he becomes the right handed bat option off the bench. Joining him on the bench will be backup catcher Jose Molina and one of either Mike McCoy or John McDonald as the utility infielder.
That leaves one spot open for another position player. The Jays could put Bautista at third and sign another outfielder to go along with Juan Rivera or put Bautista in right, Rivera on the bench and sign a third baseman. Deciding on where to play Bautista at this point in the off season has almost as much to do with who is available to play where Bautista isn't as where Bautista would be better utilized.
Let's tackle where he'd be better off first, then take a look at the options to fill in where he isn't. The one certainty is that Bautista's bat should be good enough to deserve the bulk of the playing time at either spot. Bill James projects Bautista to hit .251 with a 13 percent walk rate and a .258 isolated power that would spit out a solid .373 wOBA. James is also buying Bautista as a thirty plus homer candidate projecting him to hit 34 in just over 600 trips to the plate. A performance like that would do just fine at either third or right field.
The only question then is where is he better off defensively? The cynic would say neither as Bautista hasn't wowed anyone at either spot, anyone including TotalZone and UZR. At third he's ranged from a -12 to a -6.7 UZR in widely varying innings totals from one season to the next. In right he put up a +20 in 2009, albeit in just 286 innings, and a far less impressive -8.3 in 982 innings last season. The defensive metrics aren't perfect but they don't paint a pretty picture either.
Bautista does have one undeniable skill from right field, his arm is considered to be above average in terms of gunning down baserunners. The Arm portion of UZR backs this up rating his arm at 8.7 runs above average between '09 and '10. With Davis patrolling center this season Bautista's range figures to hurt the team less than it did with Wells in center. His arm offers plus defensive value in the outfield, not enough to make him above average overall but it is something. It's just enough to think he'd be better off, all things being equal, in right field.
All things of course are rarely if ever equal and that's the case when it comes to finding someone to take up the spot Bautista won't be in. Looking at the talent presently on the roster there is no one outside of Encarnacion who has any significant time playing third, and that has been a painful experience to endure from a defensive standpoint. It's possible that Encarnacion could return to putting up .350+ wOBA seasons like he did with Cincinnati back in 2006-2008. Again, turning to Bill James projections we find him pegged to do just that with a .258/.335/.477 batting line good for exactly a .350 wOBA.
Earlier in the off-season resigning Edwin seemed like a waste of money and a roster spot but now with Fred Lewis and Vernon Wells gone there's a more of a need for Bautista in right and there's no one left on the free agent market that projects to produce better at third than Encarnacion. The catch though is his bat HAS to be better than it's been since he joined the Jays because his defense is going to drag down a lot of his production.
If the Jays front office is too terrified of another edition of what's been deemed the E5 Experience in 2011 the only solution, barring a trade, is to put Bautista at third. Andy Laroche was the only intriguing option to fill third but he inked a minor league deal with the Oakland As today. With the loss of Brad Emaus to the New York Mets via the rule five draft there isn't a single option in the minor league system to take over third either.
Putting Bautista at third means putting newly acquired Juan Rivera in left field. Rivera struggled at the plate last year hitting .252 with a 7.3 percent walk rate and his lowest ISO since 2002 checking in at .156. That added up to a less than reassuring .314wOBA. Throw in that he's played in over 130 games in a season just once and will turn 33 next year and it starts to make Encarnacion at the hot corner look a little better.
As mentioned above however, the Jays have an open spot to play with and there are a couple interesting outfield options still on the market to look at. First, the Jays could go and get Ryan Church for next to nothing and platoon him with Rivera. Church is a lefty with a career wOBA of .344 against righties and is consistently rated as an above average fielder as well. He struggled overall last year coughing up a .273 wOBA but before that he was consistently an average to slightly above average hitter.
Rivera doesn't necessarily need a platoon partner though, he's handled both righties and lefties well in his career. Church like Rivera has never played a full season leaving it more likely they'd wind up with a whoever's healthy plays kind of platoon.
The Jays could also entertain the thought of bringing in Lastings Milledge. Not just because he's a cast off from the Pirates like Church and Laroche but because despite his well travelled, well documented major league career he'll be just 26 on Opening Day. There's certainly a host of negative occurrences that have to happen for a talented young man like Milledge to have burned through three organizations by the age of twenty-five and find himself without a job at this point in the off season.
That being said, Alex Anthopoulos has made a habit of building his bullpens with low-risk, high-reward players the past two off seasons. Maybe he'll try and turn the same trick with a troubled, young and talented outfielder like Milledge. Turning to Bill James once last time, his system projects a robust .284/.347/.413 triple slash from Milledge should someone decide to take the plunge and bring him in.
When all is said and done it really comes down to what the Jays prefer, Encarnacion at third or Rivera/Church/Milledge/Somebody else in left field. Anthopoulos could still make a trade too to solve the puzzle. Bautista is probably ever so slightly better off in right, which, shockingly, seems to leave taking a gamble on Encarnacion at third the best bet.