TORONTO - Brett Lawrie's on-field attributes are only part of the equation when determining the effects of his absence from the Blue Jays' lineup.
The trickle down has presented manager John Gibbons with a series of unexpected challenges the first week of the season, issues which are solved solely by the 23-year-old's return from a strained ribcage muscle.
Defensively, Lawrie's athleticism, range and arm are missed at third base. His replacements, Maicer Izturis (three games through Friday) and Mark DeRosa (one game,) have combined to make three errors.
Consider, too, that a healthy Lawrie moves Izturis to second base, the position for which he was signed and will share with Emilio Bonifacio. Bonifacio made two run-saving plays in the eighth inning of Thursday's 10-8 win over Cleveland but reverted back to his disconcerting play of the early spring with a three-error night in Friday's loss to Boston. If Lawrie's playing, maybe it's Izturis at second and the results are different.
When Lawrie was placed on the disabled list, general manager Alex Anthopoulos used the available roster spot to take an eight-man bullpen north. Brett Cecil and Jeremy Jeffress, either of whom could be lost to another club if demoted, made the team. Cecil earned his spot with a strong late-spring performance; Jeffress because the club is fascinated with an arm that can throw a baseball 99 miles per hour.
The decision to carry an extra reliever has been important through four games – the Blue Jays' bullpen has already thrown 14.2 innings – but it's left Gibbons with a short bench. When Adam Lind pinch hit for DeRosa in the sixth inning of Friday's ballgame, only backup catcher Henry Blanco was available in case of injury.
Offensively, Lawrie is a bigger threat than any other third base option available to Gibbons and his presence would solidify the back end of the middle of the order, providing the left-right-left-right (Lind-Lawrie-Rasmus-Arencibia) matchup-busting grouping the manager was counting on.
What's worrisome is the amount of time it's taking Lawrie to heal. He was injured on Mar. 6 in a Team Canada tune up game prior to the World Baseball Classic. Lawrie resumed baseball activities – hitting off a tee and taking ground balls – in the second-to-last week of spring training. He suffered a setback and was shut down to a regimen of rest and treatment shortly before the Blue Jays headed to Philadelphia. Lawrie resumed throwing on Wednesday but remains without a timetable for a return to minor league game action, the logical first step on his path back to Toronto.
Sure it's early, that's understood, but some teams realize with the benefit of hindsight that it got late a lot earlier than expected. The Blue Jays play two of their three home series against the division rival Red Sox the first month of the season. The results could matter later in the season.
The Blue Jays can only hope Lawrie is back in the lineup, healthy and contributing, by the time Boston returns to Toronto on April 30.