McDonald likely a lock for roster spot
Sporting stellar defensive skills, infielder has confidence of Jays' brass
DUNEDIN, Fla. -- John McDonald can do the math. The Blue Jays have four players in the running for three spots on the club's bench this spring. The shortstop knows that someone won't be heading north with the team come Opening Day.
"If you look at it and you break it down, somebody is not going to be here when camp breaks," McDonald said on Friday. "But, I'm playing like that's my spot and I want to earn more playing time. So I'm trying to impress them and maybe earn more time as a starter. That's my mindset."
There is ample reason to think McDonald's spot on the roster might not be secure. The Jays' pitching staff is surrounded by uncertainty, and that means the team needs to squeeze as much out of its offense as possible this season. McDonald isn't known for his skills at the plate, but instead for being one of the game's best defenders at short.
This spring, Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston has mentioned that he wants to try utility men Jose Bautista and Joe Inglett at shortstop. Along with McDonald, they could help provide a day off for Marco Scutaro, who is penciled in as the starter at that position. With Kevin Millar also vying for a bench job, McDonald could seem the odd man out.
But both Gaston and general manager J.P. Ricciardi say McDonald has nothing to worry about.
"He's got a spot, it's just, 'Which spot is it?'" Ricciardi said. "Is it a utility guy or an everyday guy? We tried to give him the everyday job before and it didn't work out, so we'll see. Right now, he's definitely on the team from a standpoint of his role. Where he goes from there is up to him."
Gaston added that the club would be hesitant to leave Florida with Scutaro as its only shortstop. Sure, Bautista and Inglett could help out there from time to time, but that is McDonald's position by trade, and one he's filled in at on a full-time basis in spurts during his four-year stint with Toronto.
"Johnny Mac is probably one of the better shortstops in this league," Gaston said. "We'd be breaking camp with one shortstop [if he wasn't on the roster], so I'd almost think he's on the team."
The fact remains that the Jays won't be able to carry McDonald, Inglett, Bautista and Millar on their roster unless the team breaks camp with an 11-man pitching staff. With Ricciardi and Gaston both backing McDonald, and Gaston seeming to favor keeping Inglett and Bautista in the fold, Millar -- added on a Minor League contract this past winter -- might be on the bubble at the moment.
McDonald said he hasn't felt like he's been competing for a job at short with Bautista and Inglett, even in light of Gaston's plan to play them more at the position. McDonald simply took that as an indication that Toronto is working on a contingency plan in case he or Scutaro were to suffer an injury. McDonald pointed to last May, when former shortstop David Eckstein and he were both sidelined.
"Look at last year," McDonald said. "David and I both got hurt in the same game. Who's going to play short? If you're not protected from an organizational standpoint, then you're not necessarily doing your job. I think they need to have backup plans."
At the same time, McDonald didn't want to make it sound like he was overly confident that his spot on the Opening Day roster was safe. He just hasn't been heading out to the field thinking he has to fight for his life to keep a job. More than anything, McDonald is hoping he can continue to show he's improving as a hitter and possibly convince the club to trust him with more playing time.
Still, McDonald knows that defense will always be his strongest asset.
"You don't really go into it and feel like you're fighting for a job," McDonald said. "I think mentally you'd be in a different place than where you need to be if you did that. I just want to focus on playing baseball. But, I'm not all of a sudden overnight going to be a completely different player than everyone has seen over the last 10 to 15 years."
That doesn't mean McDonald isn't trying.
Last season, McDonald -- a .231 hitter over his 10-year career -- finished the season hitting .210 with a .255 on-base percentage and a .269 slugging perctage, his worst overall showing since 2004. After Gaston took over as Toronto's manager on June 20, though, McDonald felt he made some positive strides at the plate.
Gaston preached a more aggressive approach, and McDonald hit at a .269 clip during a 25-game stretch from July 12-Aug. 17. Over that span, he raised his batting average to .231 from .173. McDonald slipped into some bad habits again down the stretch, but he's trying to focus on what was working for him during July and August.
"I was pulling the ball a lot more and being more aggressive at the plate," McDonald said. "At the beginning of spring, I just wanted to hit the ball everywhere, rather than just going up there and being aggressive. The other day I went up there and was aggressive, and I hit two balls pretty good to center field and I feel like I'm going to fall right back into that good approach."
If the 34-year-old McDonald wants to earn more playing time as a starter at shortstop, he's going to have to show he can maintain that approach in the batter's box. Toronto is on the verge of a youth movement on the mound, and the club will likely need its batters to carry more of the load this season.
"Personally, I want to be a better offensive player," McDonald said. "But, I still also believe there's a premium on defense. It's not just a game about pitchers. It's not just a game about hitters. If a team doesn't play good defense, if they don't hit, if they don't pitch, they're not going to be very successful. You need all three aspects of the game."
McDonald can certainly help with his glove, but he's not expecting that to guarantee him a job.
Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.