Travis Snider has been locked in a battle with Eric Thames for the final roster spot in the Jays’ outfield, but I don’t think this makes any sense. Not because I think Snider should be handed a job, or that Thames is terrible or anything. No, the reason is that I’m not sure why Ben Francisco has a guaranteed job with Toronto.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I know that Snider hasn’t performed optimally in the Majors the past three seasons, and that last season in particular was a bit of a disaster. But as bench options go, Ben Francisco simply isn’t a great fit for the Blue Jays. While Francisco does bring a decent stick to the table — his projected .327 wOBA ties him for 61st among outfielders — it’s not going to be terribly valuable for Toronto. Jose Bautista isn’t going to need or get a caddy in right field, and Francisco isn’t capable of playing center field. That leaves left field. And while both of the main candidates for the starting gig there — Snider and Thames — are worse at hitting southpaws than Elaine Benes is at ordering soup, Francisco isn’t the best candidate to carry the shallow half of a platoon with either of them.
Francisco is a nice little hitter, but against lefties, he’s not as good as Rajai Davis. Over the past three seasons, Davis has a better wOBA and wRC+ against lefties than does Francisco. The difference was even more pronounced last season, as Davis’ .362 wOBA left Francisco and the .301 mark he put up in a down year in the dust. The two hitters have different skill sets, but overall Davis has simply been more effective. It’s not just offensively that Francisco comes up short — Davis is also the much better baserunner and basestealer. Finally, Davis is probably the better defender as well. Over the past three seasons, Francisco comes in behind Davis in DRS, UZR and UZR/150. To be sure, Davis isn’t anyone’s idea of a Gold Glover, but he wins out here as well.
Francisco is a better hitter against right-handed pitchers than is Davis, but here again, Francisco isn’t the best option –Thames hit righties better than did Francisco last season. Francisco may be a better defender than Thames, but Thames is five years younger, already has more built-in knowledge of the Rogers Centre and is fleeter of foot. And while Francisco may or may not have an edge over Thames defensively, Snider is easily the best defender of the bunch. In fact, of the seven players most likely to see time in the outfield this year for the Jays — Bautista, Colby Rasmus, Thames, Davis, Francisco, Snider and Mike McCoy — only the latter two could be considered plus defenders, and most of McCoy’s time will likely be spent in the infield.
So, outside of Bautista and Rasmus, here are our best options among the four remaining outfield candidates:
– Hitting vs. LHP – Davis
– Hitting vs. RHP – Thames
– Defense – Snider
– Baserunning/stealing – Davis
If you subscribe to the theory, as I do, that a player on the bench should have one thing that he does better than everyone else, then Francisco is expendable. And while there is an argument that he could be the best pinch-hitter of the bunch, there are two mitigating factors there. One, he wasn’t any great shakes in the role last year (7-for-26, no homers in the regular season), and two, Blue Jays manager John Farrell didn’t pinch hit much last season — the Jays’ 59 pinch-hit at bats tied for 26th in the Majors last season.
There is another consideration here as well. While Snider has flailed at the Major League level since 2009, he has mashed in the Minors. Since his Major League debut, he has hit .322/.388/.542 in the Minors. There’s not much left that he can prove there. We frequently hear that young players need consistent at-bats to mature and find a groove in the Majors, but that doesn’t really seem to have helped Snider. Every time Snider has been in the Majors, it has been with heavy expectations — even if he has hit in the bottom of the order during much of that time — and he has failed to meet them. Perhaps if Snider was allowed to sit on the bench and learn for a bit in a low-pressure role, coming off the bench as a defensive sub and spot starting once-twice a week, it would help him get comfortable and allow him to produce, and then take on a larger role gradually. Not to mention it would allow the Jays to save his one remaining option.
While we can’t know exactly how Snider would react to such a situation, we can state that a platoon of Thames and Davis, with Snider serving as the fifth outfielder is going to align the Blue Jays’ talent more optimally, since Snider is a better defender than is Francisco. If the Blue Jays are serious about trying to make the playoffs this year, they are going to need every little edge, and having a plus defender off the bench to spell one of the Jays’ many subpar defenders is definitely an edge worth having.
Snider and Thames are dueling for the starting spot in left field, and it is a toss-up. Snider has played better in Spring Training, but Toronto general manager Alex Anthopoulos has maintained that Thames is the favorite. But the best option may be to roster both, at the expense of Francisco. Yes, Francisco’s homer in the 2011 postseason was awesome, and while he is coming off of a down year, he does have a good bat overall. But he offers Toronto less utility than he might another team, and they should explore trading him.