Monday, July 06, 2009

A Jay a Day: Free John McDonald (sort of)

John McDonald is actually starting a game today.

The non-use of McDonald is an entry point for discussing one of the more enigmatic aspects of how Blue Jays manage their 25-man roster. It's a bit dated, but Marc Hulet pointed out recently at FanGraphs that Cito seems to be playing a game of burnout with his regulars. Four Jays have started at least 78 of the team's 83 games. Marco Scutaro, who has been awesome at shortstop, has started every game (and yes, finding a picture from 2007 of McDonald and Scutaro together was deliberate). If you use 78 starts as the threshold, the Red Sox, Rays and AL Central-leading Detroit Tigers have each used two regulars that often. The Yankees have only one, second baseman Robinson Cano.

Hulet's point bears reiterating since it helps fill in the picture with the Jays, who are 15-27 since May 19 and will be at .500 for the first time all season if they lose vs. the Yankees today. The perfect storm of arm ailments, the equivalent of an entire starting rotation on the disabled list, has been a huge culprit, but Hulet raised a good point about the over-use of five players.
"As of June 20, the Jays club had played 78 games (41-37). Five regulars had played 76 games or more: Aaron Hill, Marco Scutaro, Adam Lind, Vernon Wells, and Alex Rios. Two of those players (Rios and Wells) have been terrible this season and were also left in the No. 3 and 4 holes in the lineup until mid-June.

"Two other players are obviously being over-worked by the manager. Hill appeared in just 55 games last year due to a concussion. Despite the time off, the manager has failed to ease the second baseman back into regular play. Scutaro, the club’s undisputed spark plug in the first two months, had never really been a full-time player until last year when he appeared in 145 games. At 33, he’s no spring chicken.

"... As a side note, I’d also like to point out the disappointing use of veteran back-up infielder John McDonald. The fifth-year Jay has been used in just 28 games this season with just 26 at-bats. That is the most embarrassing use of any player in the Majors this season ... That, ladies and gentlemen, is not the way to use you bench ... Or treat your veteran players. You know, the ones you’d have to turn to if your starting shortstop or second baseman suddenly got hurt."
Obviously, no right-thinking fan wishes Hill or Scutaro ill just so he can say, "Told you so." Hill, the all-star second baseman, has emerged as the Jays' best all-around player. Scutaro, by the numbers, has been the best-fielding shortstop in the American League. The fact remains is that, after leading off and playing short every game and batting a league-high 395 times (this is someone who's only had 500 plate appearances once in his career, and that was last season), Scutaro has dropped off with the stick.
April & May: .305/.408/.457
Since June 1: .244/.336/.350
The rub is John McDonald is still on the team, two seasons after a lot of bandwidth was burned up debating whether his combination of web gem-worthy fielding and hide-your-eyes hitting made him an acceptable as a No. 1 shortstop. It's not about whether he should get more starts at the expense of Hill and Scutaro. The point is that the Jays should have somebody who can spell off their starting middle infielders.

Today marks only the fourth start all season for McGlovin, three at second base and one at third (oddly enough, he had a rare two-hit game that day, both singles, in a 10-0 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies). The way McDonald has been utilized is tantamount to wasting the 25th spot on the roster.

The onus is not necessarily on Cito Gaston as the field manager. It could be that the front office has not stocked the team with viable options to spell off Hill, Scutaro, Rios and Wells (Jose Bautista has been a decent find, but he can only play the corner positions). Point being, overplaying the regulars too much tempts fate.

The Jays ought to make a decision on McDonald, who is in the back half of a two-year contract, before the end of the season. Give him his freedom to find another organization where he might actually get to start a game more than once a month.

(For point of comparison, Gaston does not like to use his bench much, but it was nothing like this back in the glory days. On the 1992 team, Devon White was the heaviest-used regular, starting 151 games in centrefield, while Roberto Alomar started 149. The following season, Alomar, Ed Sprague and Joe Carter, who shuffled between the corner outfield spots, each started at least 150 games.

The '93 World Series-winning Jays used the 25th spot on a Rule 5 draft pick named Willie Canate, who got 47 at-bats all season, got caught in a rundown during his only appearance in the World Series and never appeared in the majors again. They had nothing on the 1985 team, which carried two Rule 5 picks, Manuel Lee and Lou Thornton, meaning it played the whole season with 23 guys. That was obviously before Tony La Russa invented the 12-man pitching staff.)

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