Bautista Returns to Hot Corner

Thursday night, Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos announced that the team’s star right fielder, Jose Bautista, will be moving to third base until top prospect Brett Lawrie fully recovers from a broken left hand, sustained on a HBP just days before the Jays were planning to give him the starting job at third. Lawrie was expected back late this month, but his timetable has been pushed back as he still can’t grip a bat without pain, so he’s now expected to be out until August.

In the meantime, the Jays needed a patch at third, and their selfless slugger stepped in to fill the void by returning to his original position, which he played until the end of the 2008 season. In 2009, Toronto relocated Bautista to the outfield, he went on a September tear to close out the season, and the rest, as they say, is history. He’s played 600 combined innings at the hot corner scattered over the past two years, although he hasn’t picked up his infield glove yet this season, so he’s not exactly starting from scratch. He started fielding grounders at third before the Jays’ Interleague contest in St. Louis last night, and could be starting at third by Monday.

Although switching a player’s position, especially when it’s your team’s best bat, is always a risky proposition, this was a move that needed to be made. Bautista has already fielded questions from reporters about whether the move will affect his swing, confidently asserting that he’ll maintain the same degree of offensive excellence. If he does lose any ground on offense, it’s more likely to be because it’s nearly impossible for anyone to keep up the level of production Bautista has given Toronto so far this season than because of his switch.

Of course, this move will alter the Blue Jays lineup in several other ways. Five Blue Jays third basemen have combined to be below replacement level this season, the primary culprit being Edwin Encarnacion and his -0.9 WAR. Encarnacion has put up an ugly but not completely unsightly (comparatively speaking) .250/.287/.364 triple-slash, but negated any value that might have had with an incredible -7.4 UZR in only 149 innings. Mark Reynolds and Chris Johnson have both cost their teams more at third, but both have done so in over 500 innings. The only possible explanation is that Encarnacion has been doing his shoe shopping with Jimmy Hoffa. The most valuable Blue Jays third baseman has been Jayson Nix, who has accrued a total of 0.4 WAR despite a pitcher-esque line of .173/.250/.316. Congratulations, Kroger. You’re at the top of the Delta pledge class.

Bautista won’t be fantastic defensively, but he wasn’t exactly a wizard in right, either. Over nearly 3000 career innings, Bautista has given up about 10 runs per 150 defensive games at the hot corner. In right, he’s been worth -4 runs per 150 games. Factor in the positional adjustment of +2.5 runs at third vs. -7.5 in right, and Bautista’s third base defense actually makes him more valuable, despite the fact that he’s further from being an average defensive right fielder than he is a third baseman. However, he may be rusty, as he hasn’t played the position yet this year, and there’s always the chance that having to put extra effort into his defensive shift will affect his bat. I think we can quite conservatively say it’s a wash in terms of Bautista’s overall value, although it’s likely to make him slightly more valuable.

However, add in the production they’ll get from their replacement right fielder to the fact that they’ll finally be getting something out of the hot corner, and it’ll be huge for the Jays lineup. Sliding into right field will likely be prospect Eric Thames, recently recalled after posting a .352/.423/.610 triple-slash for a wRC+ of 151 in Triple-A. Travis Snider was off to a poor start this season, but seemed like he was beginning to find his stroke before suffering a concussion after getting beaned a week ago in a Triple-A game. If Snider can continue to revive his season at the plate, he could also be a major beneficiary of the increased playing time for right fielders not named Bautista.

Though Lawrie’s extended injury timetable is certainly unfortunate, AA has done his best to turn the situation into a positive by deploying the best possible lineup given the players he had. He correctly diagnosed that that lineup did not include any of the players who had been manning third for the Blue Jays so far this year, and the team will benefit from giving regular playing time to any of several promising outfielders who will look to use this shot to get out from underneath the massive shadow of Bautista. Whichever of these outfielders does end up playing the field on an everyday basis, they’ll almost certainly provide more value than what the Blue Jays were getting from Encarnacion, Nix, and the rest of their ugly procession of third sackers.

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