Rather than start this one with some meandering preamble, let’s get straight to the nut:
I know you wrote it before, but getting Diaz probably takes them out of the running for Nunez?
— Danny Middaugh (@Middaughsome) December 4, 2017
This, I think, is a great question. Arden’s reply was that Núñez had probably been knocked “down a few spots on the Great List of Alternatives.” I don’t doubt that’s true, but actually… I wonder just how much.
Let’s think of the Jays’ main 2017 position players and where those positions have gone or are going.
C1 Russell Martin
1B Justin Smoak
2B Devon Travis
SS Troy Tulowitzki
3B Josh Donaldson
LF Steve Pearce
CF Kevin Pillar
RF José Bautista ==> TBA
DH Kendrys Morales
C2 Luke Maile ==> TBA
OF Ezequiel Carrera
IF Ryan Goins ==> Aledmys Diaz
IF Darwin Barney ==> TBA
I think that a lot of fans would look at that list and groan a bit about there not being a “TBA” next to Pearce or Carrera. I certainly get why it would be very satisfying to see them go and replaced by a Franken-leftfielder that seemed a little more able to avoid tripping over its own shoelaces, but there are a couple of reasons why in this thought experiment I’m going to leave them where they are.
For starters, I don’t think the Jays will necessarily want to replace Carrera with, say, Teoscar Hernández, because in addition to losing one of their very few left-handed hitters, it would mean having the youngster spend significant time on the bench rather than continuing to hone his craft (and his approach) in Triple-A. When the time comes for Hernández or Alford or Pompey to take his job, Zeke will be easy enough to jettison, but keeping him here as a placeholder makes some sense.
Secondly, Pearce can still be pretty useful. He’s not much of a defender in left field, but he was one of the better hitters on the team from his mid-June return from a DL stint until the end of the year — he slashed .270/.341/.461 from June 16th onward, which was good for a 112 wRC+ over that span. I don’t think they have to keep Pearce, and if they find someone who will trade them something useful for him — like a decent reliever, back-end starter, or an everyday right fielder — then they should do it. But on a roster that’s better setup to play him where he works best — as a lefty-mashing bench bat, only occasionally playing in the outfield, but more often pinch hitting or providing cover at DH or first — he’s certainly not a bad piece to have.
And the thing is, with the acquisition of Aledmys Diaz, the Jays are moving toward building just that kind of roster. They’re just not there yet.
Finding a pair of legitimate everyday-quality players to take the Goins and Barney spots will give the Jays options in left field that won’t require them to play Carrera or Pearce out there nearly as much as they did in 2017. Because he’s yet another right-handed hitter, Arden is probably correct that Núñez doesn’t really look like the best fit any longer (and it’s for that same reason that we maybe shouldn’t be holding our collective breath for Lourdes Gurriel to grab that spot either). But say the club adds a lefty bat who also has positional versatility, like a Dee Gordon?
With Gordon, Carrera, Pearce, and Diaz on the roster you have left field covered, you have second and short covered for when the inevitable happens, you’ve got your guy to play centre in a pinch, you can cover for third, and first, and DH. You can pick and choose what you want out of your left fielder on a matchup-by-matchup basis (at least when everybody’s healthy), and have some pretty good bench options for later on in games, depending on the situation. You’re pretty well set, really.
Granted, Gordon is a hefty ask here, given that he’ll cost prospects and dollars, and that in this scenario I still think the club needs to add a proper right fielder (ideally a left-handed hitter, too!), as well as a fifth starter and perhaps also some swingman-ish depth. But they’ve got some money to play with to do so, and someone with a similar shape I think would make a whole lot of sense. All of which is to say: I don’t think Diaz is the guy who Ross Atkins has long been talking about. Or, at least, he shouldn’t be. With Diaz as your third middle infielder, and someone like Gift Ngoepe or Richard Ureña behind him, that’s pretty meh. But if Diaz is your fourth middle infielder, that looks a whole lot more like the concept of “championship depth” the front office likes to talk about.
There are ways to do it, too. There’s Gordon. There’s free agent Neil Walker. Surely there are other trade options. And if you’re less worried than I am about left-right balance, there are guys like Zack Cozart, Howie Kendrick, or Brandon Phillips. Granted, either they or Devon Travis would have to be willing to spend some time in the outfield to make it all work, but there are options, at least. And if the Jays manage to do it, having Pearce and Carrera (and, frankly, Morales and Tulo and Travis) on the roster would feel like a significantly smaller problem.
Adding Diaz was a great first step, especially since the difference in cost between him and Goins is going to be negligible. But if his addition means that the club turns its attention to the right field and starting pitching markets exclusively, I don’t think it’s going to be enough. They shouldn’t be done fishing in the versatile infielder pool just yet.