Blue Jays 1B: The Forgotten Option
By Jim Scott
The Blue Jays may be overlooking an option for 1B in 2016 and beyond
The Jays are in a generally good position heading into 2016 in terms of position players, with five potential All-Stars on the starting roster. But one position that is still open is first base. Is the frontrunner Chris Colabello, with his .411 2015 BABIP? Or could it be Justin Smoak, with his 30+ HR potential and a soft fielding glove? Or perhaps Jose Bautista, who many are saying is not long for right field?
Or could it be someone else?
Someone, say, whose 5.1 UZR/150 at 1B in 2015 was 12th among the 45 first basement with more than 300 innings played at the position. Someone relatively new to the position (less than 2 full seasons worth of innings played) but who has shown steady improvement year-on-year? Someone who took a major step forward in 2015, when told that the team was counting on him to play first?
Yes, that’s right. I mean Edwin.
Hear me out.
Edwin broke into the league as a third baseman with the Reds in 2005. That was his primary position through 2011, when his defensive struggles at third convinced the Jays to move him to first base. From 2012-2014, Edwin played a total of 227 games at first, but spent more of his time at DH. His role was poorly defined. Edwin knew that he would be getting at-bats, but not where – Adam Lind has signed a 4 + 3 year contract in 2010 and was expected to be the first baseman of the future once he overcame that “little problem” hitting left-handed pitching.
Things changed after the 2014 season. Lind was traded (in a much-criticized deal) for Marco Estrada, and the Jays told Edwin that they would need him to play more first base in 2015. They needed him to step up. And, characteristically, he did.
"“They told me I’m going to be playing more first base,” Encarnacion said. “I’ve worked hard this offseason [because] I knew I’m going to get more time at first. But I’m ready for whatever they need me, if they need more at first base, or if they need me at DH, I’m ready.”"
Edwin increased the conditioning on his back and stomach (the stomach to support his back), and reduced his weight to below 230, because he said “that’s when I feel good and I can be away from the injuries.”
The plan was never to play Edwin at first base full-time. As John Gibbons said, “Ideally, you’d like him to be out there (at first base for) 150 games…but I don’t think that’s going to happen. If even his back isn’t bothering him, you want to give him enough rest where it maybe doesn’t happen.” Realistically, the Jays had likely planned to have Edwin play something close to the 80 games he played in 2013 and 2014, but when Chris Colabello’s bat started begging for more at-bats (and his glove started begging – even louder – to not be played in LF) Edwin ended up with 59 games at first.
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And what were the results of this improved conditioning and weight management? Edwin played 146 games in 2015, the second highest in his career. His slugging, wRC+, wOBA and similar batting stats were all near-career-bests. And his defense at first? Improvements across the board – in Defensive Runs Saved, Range Runs Above Average, Error Runs Above Average. And of course in UZR/150, which went from -10 in 2014 to a very good +5.1 in 2015.
Defensive stats are notoriously fickle, and it is entirely possible that Edwin’s excellent 2015 was an aberration. But it is also entirely possible that he is better at 1B than most writers give him credit for. And Edwin playing ~75 games at 1B each year would create valuable flexibility. The advantage of keeping his bat in the lineup in NL parks. The ability to give Tulo and Josh partial days off, while keeping their bats in the lineup. The opportunity to play matchups (Tolleson against left handers!). The luxury of keeping bats in the lineup even when they are too injured to field. An Edwin who could provide that flexibility would be more valuable to the Jays than a full-time DH – and perhaps deserving of a more lucrative extension?
The bottom line
I am not suggesting that the Jays pencil in Edwin for 150 games at 1B in 2016. But neither am I ready to concede, as some writers feel, that he offers very little in respect to defensive contributions. I also do not concur with the meme that Edwin is too injury-prone: his 701 games played in the last 5 seasons would put him in the top 40 in baseball (and ahead of Joey Bats’ 667). And I do not see how people can claim that Edwin is too old to play first at 33 years old but express total confidence that Jose Bautista can do so at 35.
I AM suggesting that the value Edwin would provide as a ~60-80 game first baseman would be substantially higher than that of a full time DH. Given that Edwin says that he has no problem playing first, and that his hitting performance does not seem to decline when playing in the field, I would give him every opportunity to prove the critics wrong.