Blue Jays: Aoki could lead off, but where does he play?

HOUSTON, TX - AUGUST 04: Norichika Aoki
HOUSTON, TX - AUGUST 04: Norichika Aoki /

The recently acquired Nori Aoki profiles as the best option to hit at the top of the Blue Jays’ lineup. The problem is, there is nowhere for him to play as long Jose Bautista and Steve Pearce are around.

The Blue Jays have had a wide variety of reasons for their disappointing season, but one of the glaring issues has been the lead off spot in the lineup. The team in general has failed to reach base at an acceptable clip, but it’s been particularly obvious near the top of the lineup. Kevin Pillar and Devon Travis had some success early in the season, but since then it’s been a source of frustration for John Gibbons and the fan base.

As we all know, Jose Bautista has been relegated to the leadoff position, not because he’s particularly well suited to the role, but because there is a serious lack of better options. Despite hitting just .216 on the campaign, “Joey Bats” is still sporting an OBP of .323, which is impressive for a batting average that low.

Still, you’d like to see your lead off hitter do a little better than that, especially in the batting average department. It’s not just reaching base though, as simply putting the ball in play has been an issue for the Blue Jays this year. Bautista in particular is just five strikeouts away from reaching his career high, and we’ve still got a lot of baseball left to play.

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If you follow the team on Twitter, fans have been calling for Gibbons to make a change for awhile now, but again, his options are limited. Outside of putting Justin Smoak at the top of the lineup, there hasn’t been another hitter in the lineup who has performed on even a semi-regular basis.

When your season goes like this it’s not uncommon for the front office to seek some changes in the trade market, and that’s exactly what Ross Atkins and Mark Shapiro did last week. One of the deals brought veteran outfielder Nori Aoki to Toronto, and he got his first start against the Astros over the weekend. He actually hit a home run on Sunday as well, showing his old team that he’s still got some gas left in the tank.

Aoki profiles as the type of contact swing that works well at the top of the lineup. He’s a career .285/.350/.385 hitter, and has spent time in the leadoff spot throughout his career. He rarely strikes out, and he’s shown a little bit of speed in the past, though at 35 he’s not as quick as he used to be. For the Blue Jays, this is the type of hitter they’ve needed to add to the lineup for two seasons, even if he’s not of the All-Star variety.

The problem is of course, the Blue Jays don’t really have a place to put him. In their regular outfield, Kevin Pillar is flanked by Bautista and Steve Pearce. Pearce has been hitting better of late (see: grand slam heroics), and Baustista is a franchise icon and one of the few lineup regulars who has managed to stay healthy throughout the season. Sitting either of them down doesn’t really feel like an option, even if it maybe should be. They also both have experience at first base, but with Smoak and Kendrys Morales taking that and the DH role, playing time is limited.

For now it appears Aoki will be a part-time player, getting the occasional start for the remainder of the year. The Blue Jays could continue to pursue the trade market in August, which could open up more playing time, but it’s likely that Gibbons will have some juggling to do for the remainder of the year. It’s also possible that Aoki could end up traded again or DFA’d, as many suspected he might be when the Blue Jays acquired him.

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Which is too bad because his skill set is something the Blue Jays could truly use. Sure, the season is all but lost, but those of us that are still tuning in and heading to the ballpark on a regular basis, want to see a competitive team. Personally, I’d love to see what he can do in the role, even at 35, but he’ll be hard pressed to get much playing time as long as the roster remains as it is now.