Blue Jays 2018: The Zobrist Lite Challenge

PHOENIX, AZ - AUGUST 11: Infielder Ben Zobrist
PHOENIX, AZ - AUGUST 11: Infielder Ben Zobrist /

The Jays demonstrated (painfully) in 2017 how important it is to have backups for key players.  What options are available in 2018 to back up Tulo and Devo?

Ben Zobrist was (and is?) one of the most underrated players in baseball.  Not only has he put up solid offensive stats (a lifetime 116 wRC+) but he played multiple positions – and all of them well.

Teams need a Zobrist-type player on their bench to provide backup for injuries and flexibility in matching lineups to opposing pitchers.  The Jays appear to recognize this in their grooming of Lourdes Gurriel Jr.  Rather than use him in a single position, they are deliberately giving him reps at multiple positions.  But Gurriel is likely 1-2 years off, which begs the question: what should the Jays do in 2018?

Before discussing the options, let’s be clear on what the Jays would need.  The first priority is a player who can play passable second and short, as those are the two positions of highest injury risk.  Third base would be a bonus, and not an unrealistic expectation – most players who can play shortstop could play third in a pinch.  Hitting is secondary, but ideally, the Jays would not have to completely sacrifice the bat to get the glove.  And finally, the player should ideally be available on a short-term (1-2 years) contract at a less-than-exorbitant cost.

Toronto Blue Jays
Toronto Blue Jays /

Toronto Blue Jays

So let’s talk options.

Zack Cozart is having a career year at the plate, with a 144 wRC+ that is 38 points higher than any of his past five years.  Cosart is a very good shortstop, with a career 10.6 UZR/150 and +56 DRS.  He is a free agent in 2018, so there would be no trade cost.  He might not be the best candidate for the Jays, however, as (a) he will likely be looking for a full-time gig at SS, (b) he has never played 2B or 3B at the MLB level, and (c) at 32 years old he will likely be looking for a multi-year contract at significant dollars.

Dee Gordon has long been rumoured to be available on the trade market.  He plays for the Incredible Shrinking Marlins, and will be making $10m+ for the next three years.  Gordon is having an excellent 3.2 WAR year, based to a large part on very good defense at second base.  But he is a career -22.9 UZR/150 at shortstop and has never played third at the MLB level.  So he is not the ideal fit, financially or by experience.

Detroit was rumoured to be shopping Jose Iglesias prior to the trade deadline.  He was put on revocable waivers in August, but then pulled back when a claim was made.  He’s a poor batter (lifetime 81 wRC+, 72 in 2016 and 2017) but an exceptional fielder (a lifetime UZR/150 at SS of just under 10).  He last played second base in 2013, and even then for only a few innings, but given his exceptional defense at shortstop, he should have no trouble at second or third.  And Iglesias has one year of arbitration left, and will likely not get a major raise in 2018 over his 2017 salary of $4.1 million.

Jed Lowrie, like Cosart, is having an exceptional year at the plate, with a 118 wRC+.  The good news is that he has experience at the MLB level at short, second and third.  The bad news is that he is below average defensively at short and second – but not so much so as to make him unplayable.  Oakland has an option on his services for 2018 at $6 million ($1m buyout).  The A’s are always looking to save cash, and they might need 2B for some kid named Franklin Barreto.

Aledmys Diaz is a free agent after a 2017 season split between the Cardinals and AAA.  He is a natural shortstop but can play second and third.  His defense at short was an acceptable -2.5 UZR/150 in 2017, and he hit to an 81 wRC+ after an outstanding (some say lucky) 133 over 460 PAs in 2016.  He should (?) not be too expensive on the free agent market, having earned a 0.3 WAR and $2m last year.  At 27, he might be open to a one-year pillow contract to re-establish value at a point closer to his 2.7 WAR from 2016.

And the winner is ….

Darwin Barney.  Yes, I know.  Not the sexy new blood you were hoping for, but hear me out.  DarBar has a career UZR/150 over 10 seasons (!) at 2B, SS, and 3B.  He is a free agent in 2018, but after a disappointing -0.5 WAR in 2017, he should not be too expensive to re-sign.  His 58 wRC+ in 2017 was pretty ugly, but he earned an 87 in 2016 and 122 in 2015. He also brings the further benefit of familiarity with the Rogers Centre turf.  If you believe that Darwin’s offensive (in many ways) 2017 was an aberration, he is likely to be the best combination of experience, price, and upside that the Jays will find.

The bottom line

Most of the super-utility options for the Jays come with issues: whether defensive shortcomings, high price tags or strong preferences for a starting role.  Absent a clear upgrade, the Jays would likely be best served by sticking with the DarBar they know.