What we have here is an old-fashioned fight for a starting job, and despite no pitches having yet been thrown in anger, already the Toronto Blue Jays’ brain trust is going back and forth between Maicer Izturis and Emilio Bonifacio as the second baseman.
Izturis was technically the first major-league free agent to sign this off-season, agreeing on Nov. 8 to a three-year contract for $9-million (all currency U.S.) with a club option for a fourth year at $3-million. Yet he is the forgotten newcomer compared to Bonifacio, who joined the Blue Jays in their massive 12-player trade with the Miami Marlins that was finalized 11 days after Izturis’s contract.
Which is fine with Izturis, because in eight years with mostly very good Los Angeles Angels teams, the diminutive Venezuelan played 759 games and had 2,792 plate appearances, splitting his time between third base (290 games), second base (246 games, including 49 as recently as 2011) and shortstop (194 games).
Both Izturis and Bonifacio are switch hitters. Bonifacio is five years younger than the 32-year-old Izturis and has stolen 70 bases in 84 attempts the past two seasons. But Bonifacio has also struck out 367 times in 476 games, compared to Izturis’s 313 strikeouts in 791 games, and for a team that lived through Kelly Johnson’s 159 whiffs in 2012, don’t think that isn’t a concern.
Plus, as manager John Gibbons noted Sunday: “Maicer played for Mike Scioscia.” Translation: Izturis is a professional, he plays the game the right way.
“People said and wondered the same thing when I was in Anaheim for eight years,” Izturis said Sunday, before the Blue Jays’ first official workout of spring training. “That team always had a lot of players and talent, but I’d still get 300, maybe 400 at-bats. One year, 500.
“I like this team,” Izturis added. “I will help this team wherever I can. This team, to me, is a lot like the 2005 Angels with Garret Anderson. Vlady [Vladimir Guerrero], a mix of so many good young and older players.”
Izturis agreed to terms with the Blue Jays in November on the eve of general managers’ meetings in Indian Wells, Calif.
“I told my agent, ‘Find me a team that will play me at one position,’” Izturis said, shrugging.
The Blue Jays said after acquiring Bonifacio that they viewed him as more of a utility player. Then Gibbons suggested he could be the starter at second. In his state-of-the-team address on Saturday, Jose Bautista mused that having Bonifacio batting ninth, or second behind Jose Reyes, would be “like having two leadoff hitters.”
So what now?
“Lately I’ve heard better things about Bonifacio,” Gibbons said. “But let’s see how it plays out. Izturis probably has the edge, but we’ll put the best guy out there.”
With Reyes and third baseman Brett Lawrie both competing in the World Baseball Classic, Izturis will get plenty of chances to show his versatility, or perhaps “flexibility,” the word chosen by fangraphs.com in an analysis of Izturis’s defence. The analysis showed that after 1,500 innings as a shortstop, almost 2,000 innings as a second baseman and more than 2,000 innings as a third baseman, his UZR (a rating that attaches run value to defence) is different degrees of quite adequate at all three spots. That explains in part how Izturis carved out his niche with an American League team, where the designated hitter presents hurdles to a bench player’s ability to get at-bats.
Marlins people are split on whether Bonifacio plays defence well enough to be at second base everyday. Some see him better suited as a superutility player because of his ability to handle the outfield.
There is a platoon possibility: Bonifacio’s career numbers are better as a right-handed batter, where he hits .290; Izturis’s numbers are better as a left-handed hitter, particularly after last season’s .231 slide as a righty.
General manager Alex Anthopoulos wondered on Sunday whether Izturis could have the type of late career being enjoyed by Marco Scutaro, but for now it’s enough that Izturis is in the middle of the position battle of the spring. As if it could be any other way.