Like with any other aspect of the Blue Jays going into 2008, the quality of fielding and defensive play will depend largely on whether or not the team can stay healthy.
Last season saw the Jays’ lineup depleted by injuries and struggling to maintain any sort of consistency in fielding, hitting, or even pitching for the first half of the year.
This being said though, the current lineup provides much more depth defensively than last year’s model, and assuming everyone can stay healthy, defense will not be an issue for this Jays team.
Here’s a breakdown of the positions...
If Reed Johnson can come back healthy and consistent in the left field spot this year then the outfield looks to be very solid coming into 2008. His hustle is outstanding and his willingness to lay-out for fly balls makes him a huge defensive asset. In fact, in his first game back from back surgery last year he made a diving catch to save the game in the ninth inning; that kind of heart will surely prove beneficial over a long season.
Matt Stairs proved last year that his left-handed bat is too valuable to leave out the batting order completely, so expect to see him and Johnson in a platoon role, with Johnson likely seeing more time late in close games when defense is at a premium.
Vernon Wells will be a lock at center field, and defense certainly won’t be a problem for him and his three gold gloves, while Alex Rios will see full-time duty in Right Field.
Rios’ fielding isn’t overly impressive, but what he lacks in highlight reel catches, he makes up for with a cannon of an arm that keeps opposing base-runners honest, and more importantly off the scoreboard.
Also, Adam Lind and Buck Coats are solid prospects on the AAA team at Syracuse who can fill in nicely if injuries become a problem.
The trade that brought third baseman Scott Rolen over from St. Louis for Troy Glaus represented a huge upgrade defensively. Rolen has won six gold gloves over his career, and will play a stellar third base barring injuries.
There is a little concern about his health, however, as he just had surgery on his non-throwing shoulder this off-season. Rolen claims that he feels healthier now than he has in several years, so hopefully he can recapture his gold glove form with the club this year.
At first base, Lyle Overbay is coming off a season where he had his hand broken in three places by an errant pitch. It turned out to affect his batting the most, as he still posted a .996 fielding percentage in limited action, which was the second highest total of his career.
The middle infield saw some of the most notable changes after the club brought in free-agent David Eckstein at shortstop and traded with Oakland for utility man Marco Scutaro.
Returning to the line-up are second baseman Aaron Hill and short-stop/utility man John McDonald, who was relegated to a bench role with the addition of Eckstein.
The biggest change here from last season is that the depth of the infield has been dramatically improved. This will play a crucial role if Toronto gets bit by the injury bug like they did last year.
For most Blue Jays fans the move to sign David Eckstein was bittersweet since “Johnny Mac” had emerged as such a fan favorite given his incredible defensive play last year. However, they can take solace in the fact that with the addition of Scutaro, both he and McDonald will form one of the best defensive benches in the league.
This improved depth will not only cover for injuries, but also give all the other infielders much needed rest to keep them healthy and productive down the stretch.
Also, Eckstein, who was criticized for his poor defensive play last year, has by his own admission, said he needs to be better. Last year he set a career low at shortstop with a .960 fielding percentage, and a high of 20 errors. However, hopefully infield guru Brian Butterfield, who is credited with improving Aaron Hill’s game, can help improve Eckstein’s defense.
Furthermore, when ground-ball pitchers like Roy Halladay or Shaun Marcum are on the mound, John McDonald will see more time. Defensive play at shortstop shouldn’t be too much of a concern for the Jays in 2008.
Gregg Zaun will start most games behind the plate with Rod Barajas serving as his back up. The aging Sal Fasano was also invited to spring training, so he is in the catching mix as well.
Barajas, with whom Toronto had a nasty contractual falling out with last year, had a forgettable season with the Phillies and will look to rebound with the Jays this year.
One advantage that will give Barajas an edge over Zaun entering the season is that he is much better at throwing out base-runners.Last year Barajas posted a .368 CS%, where as Zaun only had a .151 CS%.
Look for the Jays to go with Barajas against the fleet-footed teams of the NL during inter-league play, or late in games with quick runners on.
LF – Reed Johnson/Matt Stairs (platoon)
CF – Vernon Wells
RF – Alex Rios
3B – Scott Rolen
SS – David Eckstein
2B Aaron Hill
1B – Lyle Overbay
C – Gregg Zaun
Off the Bench – John McDonald, Marco Scutaro, Rod Barajas