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The Globe and Mail

Without Reyes, opponents exploiting Toronto’s middle-infield weakness

New York Yankees runner Ichiro Suzuki steals second base as the throw gets away from Toronto Blue Jays second baseman Maicer Izturis as shortstop Munenori Kawasaki looks on


Since the Blue Jays lost shortstop Jose Reyes to injury on April 12, the team had lost 10 games and won five going into a series finale with the New York Yankees on Sunday.

The Yankees and other teams have exploited the middle-infield defence, with either Munenori Kawasaki or Maicer Izturis at shortstop. Kawasaki lacks arm strength and quickness to play the position regularly, while Izturis is stronger at second than shortstop.

Infield hits/deflected balls or errors have led directly to opponents scoring 12 runs during the span of games without Reyes, with the overall run differential at 13 (through Friday), according to an analysis of Major League statistics, published in Gotham Hub Baseball.

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Manager John Gibbons, who's being criticized for the team's poor play in Toronto, indicated during the last homestand that potential trading partners had been trying to leverage too high a price, knowing they had the Jays over a barrel with Reyes out. GM Alex Anthopolous on Sunday said the team isn't presently shopping for a shortstop.

"I don't think I ever came out and said it was too high a price. I think prices are fair .. but ultimately it's who's out there," he said. "We have to decide, incrementally, with what you have you give up, is it that much better than what you currently have internally? So I don't think the prices are too high. They're just prices that don't make sense for us."

Given the team's 9-16 record, skittering toward 10 games under. 500, is any price too high to pay?

"I don't think the prices have been too high at all," Anthopolous said. "They just don't line up for us with what our alternatives are. If we didn't have any alternatives at all, it'd be totally different. But it doesn't line up with what we'd have to give up for us. There were some things that we could've done, probably things that we still could do. I just don't know if it's enough of an improvement overall over what we currently have."

For the record, the 2005 Houston Astros started 15-30 and won the National League pennant, losing to Mark Buehrle and the Chicago White Sox. The 1914 Boston Braves went 70-19 over their final 89 games.

When Brett Lawrie missed the first 14 games, the Jays used Maicer Izturis as third along with Mark DeRosa. Izturis has made more errors by percentage at third than second or short. DeRosa, 38, lacks range. When Izturis went to third, Emilio Bonifacio played second and committed four errors among other foibles.

Reyes got hurt before Lawrie came back and the club elevated Kawasaki from Buffalo.

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The top four Jays starting pitchers induce ground balls at least 30 per cent of the time and because of the infield's inability to get to ground balls, the Jays have allowed a relatively high batting average of balls put in play. Combine that with one of the league's worst fielding percentages, and you get pitchers with migraines.

R.A. Dickey, the starting pitcher on Sunday, has a ground ball rate of 41.4 per cent with a batting average on balls put in play of .298; Brandon Morrow, 32.6 per cent and.319; Buehrle, 39.2 per cent and.323; Josh Johnson 41.8 per cent and.379.

Offensively, the Jays rank last among 15 AL teams for batting average, 14th for on-base percentage, and 14th for hitting with runners in scoring position, at .190.

On Sunday, Gibbons moved Lawrie to leadoff for the first time this season. The manager says he doesn't like to "tinker" with the lineup but the absence of Reyes from the leadoff slot has forced experimentation. He's used 23 different batting orders as of Sunday, with Lawrie becoming the fifth hitter in the leadoff slot.

"It's going to get better and I still expect us to be a contending team," Anthopolous said. "I don't think any of that changes at all. I don't expect Jose Bautista to hit .190 or whatever it is over the course of the season. ... The same thing with our rotation: We've seen flashes of how good these guys can be, it's a matter of putting it all together. There's no question, we'll go on a run, we'll get hot and everyone is going to get excited again. But at the same time, when that happens, I'll still be the one to say, we're not going to play like this the entire year. You want to get on a roll, start to stabilize things a little bit and from that point, we still have a lot of games left, we'll have another slump at some point down the road."

For the record, two teams have come from 15 games under .500 to win a championship.

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