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Fielding just one thing going wrong for Blue Jays

Early-season injuries, poor execution contributing to Toronto's woes @matthewhleach

BALTIMORE -- The Blue Jays aren't in last place in the American League East because of defense. They didn't lose on Monday because of defense. But in both cases, it's safe to say that their fielding hasn't helped matters.

What looked, on paper, like quite a good defensive team has been the opposite so far in 2013. Thanks in part to a string of injuries that left key players either unavailable or out of position, and in part to simply not getting the job done, Toronto has struggled to record outs so far this season.

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It's only one part of why a ballyhooed team stands at 8-12 with the AL's third-worst run differential. But make no mistake, despite all the attention on the Jays' starting pitching and lineup, it is a part.

"The basics of baseball are that you've got to execute, whether it's routine plays or whatever fundamental it might be," manager John Gibbons said Monday.

The numbers are stark and unkind. Entering Monday's games, the Jays ranked 26th out of 30 Major League teams in defensive efficiency and park-adjusted defensive efficiency (the latter according to Baseball Prospectus), which are measures of how often balls in play are turned into outs. They were 22nd in team runs saved, according to the Fielding Bible, tied for the 10th-most errors, and tied for the fourth-most unearned runs allowed in the Majors.

That is to say: They're not making enough plays, they're making too many errors, and the errors they've made have turned out to be costly. That's pretty much the hat trick of defensive struggles.

And while some of it is, as Gibbons argued, simple execution, some of it is also the result of injuries. The Jays' spate of injuries has affected their offense, of course, but it's also played havoc with the defensive alignment.

Brett Lawrie's injury led to a string of alternatives at third, none of them up to Lawrie's skill at the position. That, in turn, had a cascade effects, with Maicer Izturis and Jose Bautista taking some time away from second base and right field, respectively. Jose Reyes is out, as well, and while Munenori Kawasaki has mostly filled in admirably, he's not Reyes.

Through 20 games, no Blue Jay has started more than 14 games at any one infield position. Only Edwin Encarnacion, with 14 starts at first, has started more than 11 times at any infield spot. That's a lot of shuffling.

"It affects you a little bit when guys are playing out of position," Gibbons said. "But I'm not so sure that's what happened early on [is a result of that]. Izturis, he's fully capable of playing those other spots. He has in his career. It wasn't like we put somebody in a spot they're not used to. Bonifacio's played all different spots. We just struggled early on catching the ball, but it wasn't because we were so desperate we had to put somebody out of place. We just weren't executing."

The good news is that it should get better. Lawrie, as he showed on Monday, is an excellent third baseman. And he's back playing regularly. Izturis is a solid second baseman, and he should be free to play there more often now that Lawrie is back. Reyes is out for a good while, and that's a loss, but Kawasaki has, thus far, been mostly fine.

The exception to that came on Monday, when Kawasaki's two-out error in the ninth allowed Nick Markakis to come to the plate and drive in the walk-off run. Sometimes those things happen. If Reyes is the only player Toronto is missing, it should be in decent shape defensively.

"I was in a hurry and should have thrown the ball more cautiously," Kawasaki said in Japanese. "This is all my mistake."

Monday's game showed both what the Jays are capable of, and what they still need to shore up. Lawrie showed the range and arm that mark him as one of the game's better defenders at the hot corner. Bonifacio made a slick play on Steve Pearce in the fifth, when he was shifted slightly up the middle and turned out to be perfectly placed. And the double play that ended the seventh was beautiful.

Yet in the sixth, it was a play not made that helped Baltimore get its first run. Following a pair of singles -- one on a missed diving catch attempt by Colby Rasmus that could have been even more costly -- starter J.A. Happ was charged with a wild pitch on a ball that got away from catcher J.P. Arencibia. The ball likely ought to have been corralled, but instead, both runners advanced. One batter later, a sacrifice fly put the Orioles ahead.

It wasn't a disastrous inning by any means. It wasn't a meltdown. But airtight defense might have made a difference in both of the innings in which Baltimore scored. Then again, when you only score one run, it's tough to blame anything on any part of the run-prevention apparatus.

And that gets back to the bigger issue with these Blue Jays so far in 2013. It hasn't been just one thing. They haven't hit enough. They haven't pitched enough. They haven't caught the ball enough. Some nights they've done one or two, but rarely all three.

They need their starting pitchers to settle in, and recent evidence suggests that has a chance to happen. They need the lineup to produce runs, and that's probably the safest bet about this team. And on top of all that, they need their defense to catch the ball. Defense usually matters, and it certainly matters to this Toronto team.

Matthew Leach is a writer for Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach.

Toronto Blue Jays