The Toronto Blue Jays could maximize the unique talents of Junior Lake while still giving Canadian Michael Saunders the majority of the load in left
Michael Saunders has had a firm grip on the Blue Jays left field job since the moment the Jay Bruce deal fell apart, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for a little creativity.
Coming off a knee injury that cost him nearly all of 2015, the 29-year-old Saunders could find a loose platoon mate in offseason waiver claim Junior Lake.
Lake’s first challenge, of course, will be cracking the back end of Toronto’s 25-man roster. His primary competition seems to be Ezequiel Carrera for the fourth outfielder’s spot, as both players are out of options (which defaults them ahead of Darrell Ceciliani).
That camp battle is close, though the injury to Encarnacion could allow for both to open the season with the big club. Earlier in the week, I highlighted the loser of the Lake/Carrera competition as the likeliest man to claim the 25th roster spot should Edwin Encarnacion require a brief stint on the disabled list to begin the season.
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Saunders, the left-handed bat, is expectedly stronger against right-handed pitching. For his career he holds a slash line of .232 / .310 / .391 against righties, but sees that drop to .226 / .282 / .358 against lefties. Saunders’ numbers against right-handed pitching were even stronger in 2014, where he posted an .831 OPS over 190 plate appearances.
Turning to Lake, as you can already assume, we see the opposite.
At the Major League level, right-handed pitchers have eaten Lake up (.605 OPS). It’s been a different story against the southpaws, however, against whom Lake has hit .280 / .325 / .446 (.771 OPS) over 200 plate appearances.
Lake did see some real success against right-handers with the triple-A Iowa Cubs last season, but for Toronto’s purposes, his value lies in his ability to excel in areas that Michael Saunders does not. And perhaps, excel when Michael Saunders can not.
Saunders’ knee has gotten a string of green lights through spring camp, but the fear of “soreness” arising mid-summer is still very much a factor. By no means would I suggest a 50-50 timeshare here, as I wholeheartedly believe in Saunders’ ability to be a 2.0+ WAR left fielder this season, but a 75-25 split would provide a regular slot of rest to keep that knee fresh.
That 75-25 split, too, could be made easier by this platoon. It would still allow Saunders to face left-handed pitching at times, but largely, put Lake into situations where he could relieve Saunders without any drop off in value to the lineup.
In Toronto’s opening four-game set against the Tampa Bay Rays we can expect to see lefties Drew Smyly and Matt Moore (likely both, assuming Erasmo Ramirez is their 5th starter in the order). This would be the perfect opportunity to get Saunders one start against a left-hander, give the other to Lake, then let them both enjoy the off day before flying home to Toronto.
The numbers to call for this to some extent, but the potential of keeping Saunders at full health for the year is certainly worth a regular day of rest. Especially if those rest days can be slotted in a way that allows for his replacement to be put into a position of likely success.