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John Jaso: DH, Outfielder, Leadoff Hitter

The Rays have a long and storied tradition of terrible designated hitters. Can John Jaso keep the tradition going?

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

It is April 8, 2011. The Tampa Bay Rays are on a six game losing streak to start the season. Earlier in the day, Manny Ramirez announced his retirement. The "B Sample" from his failed drug test has returned a positive result, and he decides to call it a career rather than appeal. It is about 2:00 in the afternoon, a bit cloudy and misty. Cold enough to merit my cozy winter Chicago Bears jacket.

The Rays are on the south side of Chicago, walking distance from my apartment at the time. I'm standing several feet from the visitor's dugout and I'm watching John Jaso signing baseballs for kids.

"Did you know this is your only trip to Chicago this year?" a young man asks.

"Is that so?" he says without looking up from the baseball he's currently signing. I think it funny he doesn't know his own team's schedule, or at least the cities he'll visit this season, but it's a long season with a lot of cities -- most of which he's probably already seen.

He is friendly and smiling. After fifteen minutes, he's back in the dugout or clubhouse. He doesn't know the Rays are going to score five unearned runs in the top of the ninth to break their losing streak. He doesn't know Dan Johnson will hit a game winning home run, or that White Sox fans will shout, "Take off that fucking Bears jacket!" as I leave the stadium in my Rays hat and shirt. He doesn't know the Rays will clinch their postseason in the most exciting final day in baseball history. He doesn't know he will be sent to Seattle for a middling reliever and a PTBNL.

This day in Chicago, Jaso is not in the starting lineup. But he's here, on this team, to take walks, to run the bases, to hit hit right handed pitchers, and to call it a day when all that's done. He's here to have fun.

I like Jaso. I like him a lot. From his time in the minors, when it looked like he could be a legit-hitting catcher for a Rays teams sorely in need of catching help to his time with the major league club, when he also seemed like an easy-going and friendly guy. I was bummed when the Rays sent him away, but at the time he was a bad defensive catcher with an 85 wRC+ and a nasty oblique strain. He was a catcher who couldn't catch or hit lefties, and he did not appear likely to resurrect his solid 115 wRC+ season in 2010.

Well, he not only returned to his 2010 hitting, he exceeded it, and Jaso became a capable platoon hitter for first Seattle then Oakland. Now, he has three great seasons out of his last three seasons:

Year PA wRC+
2012 361 143
2013 249 121
2014 344 121
Total 954 129

But he also missed 105 games in this time span, mostly due to concussion issues. That's a big deal. That's why he's John Jaso, DH and backup outfielder, not John Jaso, catcher and backup DH. And it's why we -- read: John Jaso fans -- need to temper our expectations with regards to Jaso's 2015 season.

Dude has serious medical red flags. He could be a concussion away from calling it a career. We could lose Jaso on an errant pitch in the first inning. He could join Manny Ramirez and Luke Scott and Pat Burrell as one of the many injury-ravaged, career-shortened DH disasters.

But until that errant pitch, there's reason to hope he could unseat the Johnny Damon / Jose Canseco duo atop our DH history board. These are the top five DH's in team history (according to offensive bWAR), given at least 70% playing time occurring at the DH position:

Rk          Player oWAR Year Age  PA   BA  OBP  SLG  OPS    Pos
1     Johnny Damon  2.8 2011  37 647 .261 .326 .418 .743 *D7/H3
2     Jose Canseco  2.8 1999  34 502 .279 .369 .563 .931  *D/7H
3     Jose Canseco  1.0 2000  35 264 .257 .383 .450 .832   *D/H
4      Cliff Floyd  0.9 2008  35 284 .268 .349 .455 .804   *D/H
5    David DeJesus  0.8 2014  34 273 .248 .344 .403 .748 *DH7/8

Provided by View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 4/6/2015.

It's not an illustrious list. It's a list of sadness. It's the Miley Cyrus of lists -- embarrassing in a spectacular way. It's topped with a guy the Rays had to sign so they could sign an aging Manny Ramirez. It's No. 2 and No. 3 spots contain a possibly psychotic member of the illustrious Hit Show. And No. 3 through No. 5 did not even get 300 PAs.

The prognosticators at FanGraphs think Jaso can make it to 500 PA, and his 50/50 Steamer/ZiPS projections forecast a .249/.339/.387 split (114 wRC+). Tragically, both would be awesome. Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA projections foresees an even better .255/.353/.382 line across 522 PA.

In other words, Jaso is expected to lead the team in OBP. He might slug like a mediocre outfielder, but his ability to work walks and resist strikeouts make him into a reliable on base guy.

So, if you're going to DH, then DH big. This is today's starting lineup:

In the top left picture, that's John Jaso markered into the leadoff spot. The former catcher. The current DH.

But, actually, that's not too crazy.

R.J. Anderson -- DRB and FanGraphs alum, now writing for Baseball Prospectus -- once noted that John Jaso is not just a patient hitter (which is good for leadoff hitters) but that he's pretty exceptional at navigating the basepaths.

If we discount his odd, -3.5 BsR (baserunning runs) in 2011 -- perhaps chalk it up to an oblique strain that may have made him cautious about sliding into bases), then we see a hitter who is consistently around league average as a base runner. Which is insane for a former catcher.

Here's Jaso looking wistful. (Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

Here's Jaso looking wistful. (Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

In 2014, catchers averaged -3 BsR per 500 PA. Designated hitters averaged -2.9. Jaso should essentially produce 3 runs above his position's average simply by doing what he does already: Steal a very occasional base, go first-to-third frequently, score from second frequently, and score from first on occasion. He makes smart decisions about outfielder's arms, and he tags and advances. He play fundamental baseball, and it's kind of beautiful.

In the end, maybe he is perfect. Maybe it's the only reasonable Rays solution: Take a catcher -- catchers being famous for their bad hitting -- then make him a DH and put him in the leadoff spot.

While other teams are stuffing first basemen and slow outfielders into their DH role, while other teams are batting their catchers 7th and 8th and 9th, while other teams are doing the respectable, expectable, defendable thing, the Rays are down there in St. Pete doing God knows what. They're putting a journeyman catcher, injury history and all, in the lineup spot you put slap-hitting infielders or fleet-footed outfielders and in the position you put no-position slugger.

It's April 6, 2015, and John Jaso is in the lineup.

He's hitting leadoff for the team that drafted him.

He doesn't know how the season will go, how he'll hit, how the Rays will land in the standings. And neither do we.

And that's kind of fun.