The Blue Jays still lack a true leadoff hitter, especially when Devon Travis has been injured. Now that he’s healthy, he could be the key to the offence.
Throughout their playoff seasons in 2015 and 2016, the Blue Jays offence was largely built around the power approach employed by many of their best hitters. It’s been a discussion point around the lineup for several years, but when you’re penciling in bats like Jose Bautista, Josh Donaldson, Edwin Encarnacion and many more, you don’t try to make slap hitters out of them.
Of course, we know that the Blue Jays kind of “lived and died by the sword” in those playoff appearances, and in 2017 things came to a head even more when the power numbers dried up as well. Donaldson managed 33 home runs in 113 games, but otherwise the home runs were down across the board. Bautista managed just 23, Encarnacion was gone, Troy Tulowitzki hit just seven after producing 24 the year before, Russell Martin hit just 13, and so on. Justin Smoak finally filled the promise that made him a first round pick and swatted 38 long balls, but otherwise the source of lineup strength was severely lacking.
In a way that’s a good thing for the Blue Jays, as they can continue to build their team around a more well rounded approach. Only that didn’t really happen this offseason, at least with most of their acquisitions. Curtis Granderson largely contributes with a power stroke, and the same goes for Randall Grichuk, who hit 22 home runs last year, but also struck out 133 times in 412 at bats. Yangervis Solarte and Aledmys Diaz also have power in their stroke, and Solarte’s .314 OBP was the higher of the two last year.
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Which is why the same question could loom for the Blue Jays’ lineup in 2018, and that’s whether or not Devon Travis can stay healthy. The talented second baseman is by far the best fit at the top of the lineup for John Gibbons‘ scorecard, but he has had a terrible time staying healthy throughout his young career, and managed just 50 games last year around knee issues.
The good news is that Travis is healthy and feeling great this spring, and his situation was well documented in a piece from Ben Nicholson-Smith of Sportsnet yesterday. The article features several quotes from Travis himself, as well as from Gibbons about how the Florida native has looked so far this spring. From all reports there’s a lot to like about how he’s moving, and reason for cautious optimism. For Travis, he’s just happy to be back out on the field, and summed it up well in this quote from the Nicholson-Smith’s article:
"“I’m excited to come in and be a baseball player and not be a rehabber,” Travis said. “I get to play the game I love. It’s a thing of beauty.” –"
You can hardly blame him, and you’d better believe the Blue Jays are hoping for a healthy season from the 27 year old (as of yesterday). It’s not just that he’s an above average second baseman, which would be a benefit to any club. It’s the approach he takes at the plate that is different from almost any other hitter on the 25 man roster. Quick, who would you have as your leadoff hitter if the season started today, if it isn’t Travis? Here’s a look at last season’s OBP marks for the projected starters:
C- Russell Martin (.343)
1B- Justin Smoak (.355)
2B- Travis/ Yangervis Solarte (.314)
SS- Troy Tulowitzki (.300)
3B- Josh Donaldson (.385)
LF- Curtis Granderson (.323 ), Steve Pearce (.319)
CF- Kevin Pillar (.300)
RF- Randal Grichuk (.285)
Looking at that list, the only suitable candidates by the numbers would be Donaldson, Smoak, or Martin. Obviously there are big flaws in using any one of them in that role, as they’re all better suited as run producers than table setters, and they’ll be utilized the most effectively with someone on base ahead of them. That’s where Travis ideally fits in, as long as he can stay on the diamond.
Last season he got off to a dreadful start in April (.130 batting average) before lighting the league on fire in May (.364). Things didn’t look that great with a .291 OBP in those 50 games, but it’s the .300/.332/.454 slash line from 2016, and the .304/.361/.498 posting from his 62 game stint as a rookie in 2015 that show what he’s really capable of. That skill set has been lacking in Toronto for awhile now, and could make all the difference for a lineup that still relies too heavily on the home run.
Adding Solarte and Diaz will give him more opportunity to rest on a regular basis, and everyone involved is hoping that’s the difference between another year wasted on the DL, and surpassing his career high of 101 games played. If he can achieve the latter, don’t be surprised if the Blue Jays offence returns to the feared group it used to be.