Talk about a quick cautionary tale. It took one start and one bout of back pain – plus one lame throw from Emilio Bonifacio on Sunday – for the Toronto Blue Jays to do some deep thinking about moving Jose Bautista from right field to third base.
Bautista was sidelined for Monday's first game of a four-game series with back pain that manager John Gibbons and general manager Alex Anthopoulos both suggested might have resulted at least as much from added wear and tear following a start at third base as from a bout of the flu.
With shortstop Jose Reyes on the 15-day disabled list because of a severely sprained left ankle, the Blue Jays have decided to do some early season tinkering: Brett Lawrie, tabbed to be the third baseman of the immediate and long-term future, was activated off the DL after playing his second game at second base in Single-A Dunedin Monday, where he was rehabilitating from a rib injury. Emilio Bonifacio made his second start in right field, but on Tuesday Bautista is expected back in right with Lawrie at third base.
As Gibbons told reporters in his media session before a 4-3 win over the Chicago White Sox: "We were not dead set on doing that [moving Bautista to third] any way. I think the way we looked at it was we were putting Brett at second base to see if he can do it. We're in a jam, so let's see if it can make us stronger. We're not definitely locked in on it – and this doesn't help it."
Anthpoulos's take? "It does give you a little bit more comfort and opens things down the road. If ever there was a time to do it, this is certainly the time. It's a free chance to look when wins, losses or errors don't matter."
Anthopoulos suggested that had this been a normal spring, Lawrie would have taken some repetitions at second, a position he played in the minor leagues with the Milwaukee Brewers. But Lawrie hurt his side playing with Team Canada at the World Baseball Classic and effectively missed the rest of spring training. That's not entirely surprising, since despite all the Blue Jays' off-season moves, there were members of the Blue Jays brain trust who were skeptical of the contributions they'd get from left-handed hitters Adam Lind and Colby Rasmus.
Even in spring training, Anthopoulos was looking for another everyday bat and that might explain why the Blue Jays have claimed six players off the waiver wire since the middle of March, an unusually high number. Anthopoulos knows he will need to move multiple players to get an impact bat, and that's been made much tougher by the prospects and players already dealt this winter. Anthopoulos isn't only talking to his peers about a temporary, defence-first replacement for Reyes during his three-month absence; he's talking about a significant transaction that might require several moving pieces. What if, for example, his offensive concerns turn out to be best addressed by adding a particular right fielder? No way Bautista balks at a move to third base if it makes the team better able to achieve its ultimate goal; in fact, as he ages he might find third base less taxing on his legs than patrolling the outfield.
Lawrie will bring energy and another middle-of-the-order bat – Gibbons said he prefers Lawrie elsewhere than leading off – but this will still be a lineup without its leadoff hitter and with two players – Rasmus and J.P. Arencibia – who strike out a great deal and another hitter, Lind, who is no sure-fire thing. It is a lineup that needs Bonifacio to hit out of the leadoff spot, but also needs to find a place where his defensive deficiencies are mitigated. More than ever, it's apparent that even if Reyes was healthy, Anthopoulos would have reason to want to make the lineup better. Stay tuned.