Toronto Blue Jays News

Toronto Blue Jays: Unsung Heroes in 2016

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Jun 12, 2016; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Blue Jays relief pitcher Jason Grilli (37) celebrates with second baseman Darwin Barney (18) after defeating the Baltimore Orioles 10-9 at Rogers Centre. Mandatory Credit: Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports
Jun 12, 2016; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Blue Jays relief pitcher Jason Grilli (37) celebrates with second baseman Darwin Barney (18) after defeating the Baltimore Orioles 10-9 at Rogers Centre. Mandatory Credit: Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports /
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Very few teams in Major League Baseball are fortunate enough to have an elite player capable of breaking open a game and lifting an entire roster to victory on their franchise shoulders. A few come to mind – Mike Trout in Los Angeles, Manny Machado in Baltimore, David Ortiz in Boston, and Giancarlo Stanton in Miami. For the Toronto Blue Jays, it’s Josh Donaldson.

But surely the real measure of a competitive team can be found in the reservoir of steady and often forgotten performances of their “unsung heroes.” They are the depth players. The hardened utility men. The high-octane, late-inning defensive specialists and injury replacements who offer selfless feats of steady play which fans rarely mention after celebrating a victory. And yet where would the team be without their timely and often overlooked contributions?

During the course of a 162-game season, they are the glue which holds together the aspirations of a playoff contender and can often make the difference between winning and losing. Let’s take a quick look at three Blue Jays in particular who have provided the 2016 team with more than just a handful of key plays or significant plate appearances – players who have become essential stalwarts in the upcoming wars against the bannermen from Boston and Baltimore.

Ezequiel Manuel Carrera Reyes

This 29-year old from Venezuela is a classic baseball journeyman who finally found a home in Toronto. After bouncing around with Cleveland, Philadelphia, and Detroit, it would seem that the indefatigable Carrera has an admirer at virtually every level of team management  – John Gibbons loves using him, Ross Atkins loves talking about him, and Mark Shapiro loves knowing that he can replace Jose Bautista in stretches…really long ones.

During the course of a 162-game season, they are the glue which holds together the aspirations of a playoff contender and can often make the difference between winning and losing.

Ezequiel is hitting a remarkably steady .287/.382/.413 in 60 games this year – a testament to his consistency in the first half.  His performance at home (.352) and leading off (.291) have been crucial elements for a team that struggled to generate runs in April and May. Factor in the $522,000 he’s earning this year for his services and suddenly you have a bargain worth bragging about.

Granted, he is an underwhelming .213/.330/.333 during his last 30 days of almost non-stop daily action – but that’s a reminder of his utility capacity and why he’s not considered a starter. He plays competitively, brings speed to the base paths, and as a Tiger made a catch for the ages.

Back in 2013 during spring training, Terry Francona was particularly impressed with Ezequiel. “His speed impacts the game,” he gushed, “he has the ability to hit the ball out of the ballpark.” We’ve certainly seen glimpses of both along with his once-a-week tragic fielding and/or base running blunder that’s usually consistent with someone reserved for spot duty. But there can be no denying that this player has become an important bench option and a capable fourth outfielder for the team.

I was personally sold on him during the team’s recent Sunday afternoon tilt against the Indians when, in the bottom of the 4th with nobody out and runners on first and third, Carrera took advantage of a shallow pop fly that led to Francisco Lindor tripping over his own feet. Flashing impressive baseball instincts while never taking his eyes off the shortstop, he ended up scoring on the play – essentially creating something from nothing in true baseball fashion. It was as breathtaking a sequence you’ll find in a market that’s grown unaccustomed to gutsy, improvisational plays from anyone not named Donaldson.

Darwin James Kunane Barney

Having legitimate infield depth armed with the ability to hit and field is a true rarity in today’s game. Championship seasons have been squandered over key injuries down the stretch, and to this day I still shudder at the thought of what “could have been” with the 1987 squad when one of the best Jays of all-time, Tony Fernandez, was replaced by Manuel Lee.

So naturally when you have a 30-year old former Rawlings Gold Glove and Fielding Bible Award winner who signs with your team for relative peanuts ($1.05 million/yearly) and brings such an established level of superior defensive skill to the table, you know your team’s done something right. With a Japanese grandfather and a Korean grandmother in his lineage, this Portland native grew up as an American of Hawaiian descent – thus making him the most multicultural signing since Alex Hinshaw.

Darwin is hitting .292/.346/.386 for the year while playing in 60 games – 30 at second base, 17 at shortstop, and 13 at third base. He hasn’t made a single error on the left side of the diamond and his versatility is precisely why manager Gibbons frequently relies upon him in close games and tight situations. He’s hitting .347 at home with a natural knack for calming the nerves of countless fans perched on the edge of their seats. There’s also his sense of humour.

They are the depth players. The hardened utility men. The high octane late-inning defensive specialists and injury replacements who offer selfless feats of steady play which fans rarely mention after celebrating a victory. And yet where would the team be without their timely contributions?

Barney finished 7th in Rookie of the Year voting in 2011 for the Cubs, secured the highest second baseman fielding percentage in 2012 and 2013 (.997 and .993), and his 3.6 Defensive WAR was first in the National League – a fact that made him enormously attractive to the brass and secured his place as a key contributor on this team.

Joe Carlo Biagini

This Californian has become a personal favourite of mine after an early season post-game interview revealed the extent of his eccentricities and aloof sense of humour. Originally selected in the 26th round by the San Francisco Giants in 2011, Joe comes from a baseball family (his father played for the Giants in 1981) and has become one of the more popular Jays in the clubhouse. He also owns the most awkwardly delightful interview you’ll ever watch.

On December 10th, 2015, the Jays picked up Biagini in the Rule 5 draft and he’s more than earned his $507,500 salary with a 3.09 ERA in the first half and his unheralded ability of keeping the ball inside the park (0 HR in 32 innings). Armed with a lively fastball and a biting curve, Joe has proven to be a revelation and is used judiciously in high leverage situations. Early in the year it almost seemed as if the baseball gods were squarely on Biagini’s side – his ability to induce ground balls bordered on legendary. And although he endured a series of rough appearances in late June, he’s likely to remain a quality late-inning option coming out of pen.

But perhaps the best compliment given to any unsung hero across any professional sport is the one received from an underachieving teammate fighting alongside in the trenches – one who commands a substantially higher expectation gone largely unfulfilled. “He’s got stuff you can’t teach,” embattled reliever Drew Storen told The Star in June. “I’ve played with guys who are funny, but he’s different. He’s hilariously self-aware, if that makes sense. He’s a couple of chess moves ahead of you always…”

Now that sounds like my kind of hero. And on a team blessed with established superstars like Troy, Jose, Edwin, and Josh, cheered on ravenously by hungry fans eager for a culture of winning, the thrill of another division title, and having a shot at the World Series – don’t be surprised if players like Joe, Darwin, and Ezequiel are your heroes on most nights.

Next: Blue Jays rumour roundup: Gray, Santana, Bruce

You can follow Ari Shapiro on Twitter at @ari_shapiro
Follow Jays Journal for all Blue Jays news and analysis at @JaysJournal

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