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Position/Role Battles: The Blue Jays' Left Fielder

As with any Blue Jays-related speculation, there is a threat that Alex Anthopoulos will pull off another of his signature out-of-nowhere blockbuster trades five minutes after this piece is posted, making the whole thing moot.  However, the Jays have seemingly enough outfield depth that (knock on wood) it's safe to presume that the club will choose from its present crop of outfielders to fill its left field gap.  Jose Bautista and Colby Rasmus are safely locked into the right and center field jobs in 2012, so the Jays are left with at least four outfielders battling for playing time next season.  Let's break down the candidates...

The Favorites

Travis Snider: The Blue Jays have kept the former first-round draft pick on a pretty short leash since his debut late in the 2008 campaign.  Snider has been Toronto's Opening Day left fielder in each of the last three seasons, but was sent down in 2009 after a batting slump, suffered a wrist injury in 2010 that sidelined him for two months and was sent down again in 2011 after another slow start, not to mention a late-season bout with wrist tendinitis. 

There have been whispers that the Jays are becoming frustrated with Snider, who reportedly retooled his swing during his 2011 demotion but still struggled (a .682 OPS in 103 plate appearances) after being recalled in July.  Snider's defenders have countered that the constant yo-yoing between Toronto and Triple-A isn't doing Snider any favors for getting himself adjusted to Major League pitching.  

While the Jays are no doubt a little worried that Snider is no closer to proving himself as a legitimate everyday player today than he was when he debuted in 2008, it's unlikely the team is anywhere close to giving up on him.  Snider will celebrate his 24th birthday next month, so he's far from the age where you could attach the 'bust' label to him.        

Snider is an intriguing late-round pickup for your fantasy draft.  You can stash him on your team's bench through Snider's seemingly traditional April slump, then perhaps reap the benefits if he turns things on in May.  Or, perhaps 2012 will be the season when Snider breaks out, giving both the Blue Jays (and your fantasy team) a nice offensive boost.  Be warned, however -- Snider still has an option remaining, so another stint in Triple-A wouldn't be a surprise.  If you've had Snider in a keeper league for years and are losing patience, wait at least a couple of months into 2012 before exploring a trade or a sell-off.

Eric Thames: After four paragraphs discusing Snider, let's focus on the player who, according to Anthopoulos during a recent interview on TheFan590 radio, "right now...would have the leg up" on the starting left field job.  Thames hit .262/.313/.456 in 394 plate appearances last year and established himself as Toronto's everyday left fielder over the last two months of the season.  It was a nice first impression for Thames, a rather unheralded seventh-round pick in the 2008 draft who quickly rose through the Jays' minor league system, including a 1.033 OPS at Triple-A Las Vegas in 2011 that earned him his call-up.

So is this a case where the hyped prospect (Snider) is overtaken by the underdog rookie (Thames)?  Not exactly.  Thames struggled in September as pitchers began to adjust to him.  While the rule of thumb for defensive stats is you need three years of data to make a firm judgement, Thames looked overmatched in the field last year and posted an overall -15.9 UZR/150 in left and right field.  There's certainly no reason Thames can't improve to "below-average" than his current "butcher" status, but it seems as if Thames' future as Major Leaguer might be as a DH.  Snider's superior fielding (a career 3.1 UZR/150 as an outfielder, though admittedly this is another small sample size) could end up being the factor that ultimately sends Thames to the bench.

If you're a Thames owner, you're not out of luck.  Thames could very well find himself some at-bats at DH after all, occasionally spelling the right-handed hitting Edwin Encarnacion when the Jays face a tough righty starter.  Thames' fortunes could also be tied to those of Adam Lind.  The Jays will give Lind a lot of rope in 2012 but if he posts another sub-.300 OBP, you could see Thames get some time at DH and Encarnacion would get a lot of playing time at first base.   

The Backup Options

Snider and Thames are both left-handed batters, leaving room for the right-handed Rajai Davis and Ben Francisco to snatch a few starts when a lefty starter is on the mound.  It seems likely that only one player will be needed for the backup outfield job, so let's look at what Davis and Francisco bring to the table.

Davis: Speed and lots of it.  Davis has 177 career steals (out of respectable 226 attempts) and is a valuable pinch-running asset on a Toronto club that doesn't have many viable base-running threats.  Davis has played all three outfield positions in his career and while he's not a great defender, he is at least capable of filling it anywhere in the outfield if needed.  Davis's career splits reveal an .829 OPS against lefties and a .551 OPS against righties.

Francisco: Acquired by the Jays in December from a trade with the Phillies, Francisco's career splits are quite even, though he's had far more plate appearances against righty pitching --- a .759 OPS in 1034 PAs against right-handers and a .768 OPS in 480 PAs against southpaws.  By this measure, Francisco is a more balanced pinch-hit threat, able to come off the bench no matter who is on the mound.  Like Davis, Francisco has experience everywhere in the outfield and provides little defensive value.

Davis' speed gives him both the edge over Francisco for a roster spot and also his fantasy value.  If Snider/Thames are injured or struggle enough that a platoon is required, Davis will get the call against lefties and provide your fantasy squad with some cheap steals and (in Toronto's solid lineup) some runs.  Davis' fantasy value could actually increase if he loses the battle with Francisco; the Jays might be inclined to trade or DFA Davis, and the speedster could become a regular elsewhere.  Keep on eye on Davis' status since he is worth a bench spot in an AL-only league. 

The Wild Cards

Edwin Encarnacion in left?  Kelly Johnson in left?  Either scenario could happen in 2012.  Encarnacion has been playing some outfield in the Dominican winter league, and if he can at least hold his own in left, his right-handed bat could play well in a platoon with Snider or Thames.  This said, Encarnacion is an infamously poor defender and teaching him to play the outfield for the first time in his Major League career seems counter-productive.  Encarnacion has a career .868 OPS as a designated hitter, which indicates that if freed from the burden of worrying about fielding, he is a much more valuable asset to a lineup. 

Johnson, likewise, hasn't played left since his rookie season with the Braves in 2005 and his bat plays much better at second base than it does in a corner outfield slot.  I see Johnson playing no more than a handful (if any) of appearances in left next season, and the Encarnacion experiment could be ended quickly before he ends up known as "E7."  For fantasy owners, though, a few games out-of-position wouldn't be a bad thing.  If your league only requires a few games for a player to qualify at a new position, you might find yourself with a bit more roster flexibility should either player get a few looks in left.

Fantasy Breakdown

The winner of the Snider/Thames battle is worth a bench spot in a standard mixed league.  The fluid situation at 1B/DH between Lind and Encarnacion also means that the loser of the battle could still find playing time, but probably not enough to justify keeping him on your fantasy roster.  Keep an eye to see how Snider and Thames perform in Spring Training and hope one player clearly steps up, as otherwise the secretive Jays might not name the starter until Opening Day itself, leaving you basically flipping a coin during your draft.

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