When the Toronto Blue Jays take the field against the Baltimore Orioles at Camden Yards on April 3rd, it’s unlikely their depth chart will look the same as it does today, but it will be awfully close.
There won’t be any dramatic changes to the core group of players that will try and propel the Blue Jays into the postseason for the third consecutive year. Josh Donaldson, Troy Tulowitzki, Russell Martin and Kendrys Morales will bat somewhere in the two-three-four-five spots in the line-up on Opening Day.
A perennial MVP candidate, a shortstop and catcher with well above-average power and a switch-hitter who knocked 30 baseballs out of Kauffman Stadium resemble a group many teams would envy.
On the other hand, an undesirable outfield and the departures of a pair of premier power hitters and on-base machines leave the Blue Jays with more challenges than they’ve seen in recent years.
They have a pitching staff good enough to offset the loss of offensive depth. What they need is to find other ways to win, and it starts with reliable secondary offence. Steve Pearce was brought in to contribute on that front, but the most important piece of this puzzle is 25-year-old Devon Travis.
Travis is the x-factor (see lack of synonyms for x-factor) on this new-look Blue Jays team. He is a career .301 hitter — albeit in just two injury-shortened seasons — with leadoff experience and the ability to wear down opposing pitchers with tough at-bats. “But, he can’t stay healthy,” you state confidently. “Well, why the hell not,” I ask.
There’s no statistic, measurement or groundbreaking equation in sabermetrics designed to quantify how ‘injury prone’ a baseball player is. It’s a label that comes with a track record of missing baseball games, which is unfortunate, because in many cases, a laundry list of injuries is a result of plain old bad luck.
Disclaimer: I am not a doctor. Here is a list of Travis’ injury history from college to the pros that I spent too much time digging up.
February 16, 2010: Hamate bone fracture, missed 17 games in his rookie season for Florida State University.
2011: Travis injured his knee after he fell rounding first base in his sophomore year at FSU. He played with damaged cartilage on the inside of his knee for some time, but eventually had it replaced.
May 7, 2012: In-grown toenail, supposed to miss a day, but he pinch hit for FSU the next night.
August 8, 2012: Placed on 7-day-DL with the Connecticut Tigers in short-season A ball, missed final month of season.
April 12, 2014: Placed on 7-day-DL with right oblique strain, missed one month with the double-A Erie Seawolves.
May 16, 2015: Travis, playing with the Blue Jays, takes a bad hop off the collarbone, ends up with left shoulder inflammation and 15-day-DL stint.
May 29, 2015: Suffers setback in first rehab game with Bisons, misses two more weeks.
June 26, 2015: Travis makes his return to the Blue Jays after 10-game rehab stint.
July 31, 2015: Back on the 15-day-DL with the nagging left shoulder problem, would later be transferred to the 60-day-DL, ending his season.
November 18, 2015: Travis undergoes shoulder surgery to repair a rare condition called Os Acromiale, sidelining him until late-May the following season.
October 16, 2016: After 100 healthy regular season games, Travis hurts knee in ALDS. An MRI revealed a bone bruise and small flap of cartilage in the joint. He was done for the playoffs.
November 18, 2016: A year after his shoulder surgery, Travis undergoes knee surgery. He is expected to be ready in time for spring training in 2017.
It’s a long list for a young ball player, but his toughness can’t be questioned.
He played through a fracture in his hand in his rookie college season until it got to a point where he could no longer grip a bat. He played with a torn-up knee for as long as he could a year later.
There is nothing that could make me leave my couch for 48 hours if I had an ingrown toenail, but Travis limped into the batters box and delivered a double. A mysterious knee injury took him out of the ALDS against Texas a few months ago. He tried to play through it for his team in game one against Cleveland, but had to be pulled off the field.
Whether this trend continues or not will play a big factor in the Blue Jays’ playoff hopes this season. They need him.
Travis has managed to carry a .301 batting average despite having to fight through the injuries, rehab stints, and unavoidable struggle of rediscovering his timing after absences. It’s one example of how good a hitter he is. Another reason he is so valuable at the dish is his resiliency and ability wear down pitchers.
He also did it against the San Diego Padres last season in a 14-pitch, game-changing at-bat. It’s something that doesn’t show up in the box score, but is such a useful attribute — especially for a leadoff hitter.
The Blue Jays were 24-19 when Travis was slotted as the leadoff man last season. While he doesn’t have the ideal speed or on-base percentage of a stereotypical leadoff hitter, he makes up for it with his athleticism and ability to hit the ball to all fields consistently. He loves those line drives to right field.
Travis’ 2.9 WAR in 100 games in 2016 would, in all likelihood, have been heightened in a healthy season. If dumb luck subsides and grants him the chance to play a full year without spending chunks of plate appearances trying to get his timing back, he will get the chance to show how good a hitter he really is. He’s the type of complementary player whose contributions could help propel an 86-win disappointment into a 90-win playoff team.
With Travis in the starting lineup this season, the Jays were 55-43 (.561), and 34-30 (.531) without him. The 3% dip may not seem like a significant gap, but last season, it was the difference between a 91 win wild-card berth versus the 86-win campaigns from the Detroit Tigers and Seattle Mariners. Obviously, there were several other factors in each of those games that happened to make the Jays more successful with Travis in the lineup, but it’s a trend worth noting.
Travis’ alternatives at second base are Ryan Goins or Darwin Barney. He is not as sharp defensively as the sure-handed duo behind him on the depth chart, but that does not make him a liability. Despite a couple of September blunders, Travis put together a respectable 2.4 UZR/150. That number ranked him 12th among major-league second baseman, ahead of the likes of Brian Dozier, Jonathan Schoop, and Starlin Castro. Finding consistent playing time and reps at second will only result in continued improvements with the glove.
ZiPS projections think Travis will have a 2.9 zWAR in 2017 and compared his play to that of Jeff Kent — a power-hitting second baseman who played for the Giants, Astros and Dodgers.
While his value from a projections standpoint remains on par with his shortened 2016 season, his value to his team has never been higher.
With an offence moving in a new direction and an aging roster, it’s the 25-year-old’s time to become one of the obvious names suggested when listing off the new group of core players on the Toronto Blue Jays.