An argument could be made that Rajai Davis has been the Toronto Blue Jays' most valuable player on the young season.
Let's set aside his .154 batting average and focus on the key roles he has played in three of the Jays' victories.
The fleet-footed outfielder pinch ran for Adam Lind in the ninth inning of the season opener and scored the game-tying run. For an encore, he pinch-hit for Eric Thames and drove in the winning run in the 12th inning the following day. And after a run-scoring triple in the third inning on April 11, he tallied the go-ahead run in a 3-1 win over Boston.
Davis's speed provides the Jays with a momentum-changing weapon off their bench. The lightning-legged Connecticut native, who has finished in the top 10 in the American League in stolen bases for three consecutive seasons, is also a productive hitter against left-handers and can play all three outfield positions.
But while Davis represents Jays manager John Farrell's most prized reserve, the rest of his 2012 non-starters are also athletic and versatile.
The days of a Jays' skipper peering down his bench to see lumbering, one-dimensional players like Kevin Millar, Randy Ruiz and Jose Molina appear to be over. And with this year's crop of bench players, Farrell shouldn't have to resort to pinch-hitting a light-hitting utility infielder in the John McDonald or Mike McCoy vein.
In my view, this season's group of bench players - although it doesn't include McDonald - should be a significant upgrade defensively and offensively from last season.
And when you employ a 12-man pitching staff and compete in a division where you're bound to participate in a large number of close and extra-inning contests, the Jays must select their bench players wisely. This is especially true for a dugout boss like Farrell, who, unlike his predecessor, Cito Gaston, uses his entire roster.
Davis's assets have been outlined above, but here's a rundown of what the Jays' other 2012 bench players bring to the table:
Acquired from the Phillies in December, Francisco is average offensively and defensively. The six-foot-one, 185-pound outfielder may never win a Gold Glove, but he does represent a defensive upgrade over Thames in the late innings. The 30-year-old California native has served as a reserve outfielder/pinch-hitter with the Phillies for the past two seasons and he hits both left-handers and right-handers reasonably well.
In Philadelphia, he's best known for his pinch-hit, three-run homer in the seventh inning of Game 3 of the National League Division Series that led the Phillies to a 3-2 win. His 15 homers for the Indians in 2008 are further evidence of his power, and he boasts above-average speed, so Farrell won't hesitate to use him as a pinch-runner.
Boasting a horrendous .194 batting average over seven seasons, Mathis is considered one of the worst hitters in major league history. That said, the offensively challenged catcher owns a .292 career batting average with the bases loaded, hit .583 in the 2009 American League Championship Series and had three hits in six at-bats in his first two games this season.
He has also finished in the top 10 in the AL in sacrifice hits twice in his career, so Farrell should be able to call on him to lay down a bunt in the late innings. But Mathis wasn't acquired for his offence. Though his numbers don't seem to support his reputation as an excellent defender,
Mathis is a catcher that pitchers love to throw to. Angels ace Jered Weaver credits Mathis for much of his success. The 28-year-old receiver is also an expert ball blocker, which is a crucial skill on a staff with pitchers like Brandon Morrow and Sergio Santos who throw hard sliders in the dirt.
Set to turn 45 on April 24, Vizquel is not the same elite defender that won 11 Gold Gloves earlier in his career. But in what's likely his final season, he remains capable and versatile, with the ability to play first base, second, shortstop and third. His versatility helped Farrell execute a five-man infield to perfection in the 12th inning of the season opener.
Having suited up for more games at shortstop than any other player in big league history, Vizquel should also be an important mentor for Yunel Escobar. Admittedly, Vizquel is not much of a threat at the plate anymore, but he did hit .395 in spring training and shouldn't be any worse than McDonald, McCoy or Jayson Nix were last season.
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