Each year, a major league roster extracts talent from every nook and cranny of its entire workforce. The architects— the Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion and Josh Donaldson's of the group—get the bulk of the attention for the beauty of the final product, the foreman—Aaron Sanchez, Marcus Stroman and Jason Grilli's—get recognition for seeing the plan follow through, but the workers don't always see the true light that they deserve.
They do the grunt work that's integral to the final product, but is by no means the sexy news that is making headlines and selling jerseys. This is the role of the bench player in the MLB—the role reserved for a player wiling and able to not play everyday and yet still be expected to be relied upon in high leverage situations to be at the top of their game.
For the 2016 Blue Jays, these ‘grunts,' if you will, were not numerous. With injuries to Jose Bautista and Devon Travis, while Michael Saunders nursed his knees and hamstrings, it required more of a flexible roster than in potential years past but was spread amongst only a few names. Stepping in for the Jays, in a big way, were Ezequiel Carrera and Darwin Barney, bearing a brunt of the workload while each playing more than 100 games.
It really is difficult to name one over the other as the "bench player of the year," or "the 10th man" considering that both had great seasons all things considered. That said, when you look at their production analytically, I think it would be safe to say that one had a more valuable season in a Jays' uniform than the other.
For clarity's sake, I have defined a bench player as someone who played less than 400 plate appearances on the season so as to include players like Justin Smoak but also exclude players like Travis who would have no doubt been a starter if he was healthy at the start of the season.
Looking at Carrera first, it's easy to be pleased with the work he's done as a 29-year-old fill-gap when a Jays outfielder needed a day off or was injured. He came up ‘clutch' in multiple situations for the Jays this season, filling in for Kevin Pillar and Bautista when injured, and even made his way onto the postseason roster for some high-leverage at bats. On the season he hit a respectable although not god-like .248/.323/.356 triple slash that is weighed down heavily by his .194 batting average in the second half.
As most good bench players though, Carrera did a good job in being a replacement rather than an upgrade in a time of need. Essentially, the job of a bench player is to, as Joe Maddon says, "Try not to suck." Carrera did that. He was worth 0.7 fWAR on the season and his 7 defensive runs saved were a colossal upgrade from his dismal 2015 season where he cost the Jays 10 runs with his defensive misgivings. Ezequiel Carrera was no Giancarlo Stanton out there, but he certainly didn't suck either.
In nearly the same number of plate appearances, Darwin Barney was the better bench player, though. Hitting .269/.322/.373 on the season, it's not like Barney's offence blew Carrera out of the water and made his production completely obsolete. Rather, it was a minor upgrade dovetailed with a minor upgrade on defence that made Barney the more valuable player for the Blue Jays.
The thing with Carrera is that, yes he was a strong presence off the bench but he was just that in the outfield. He could play three different positions, but really only in one section of the field. With Barney, he played three different positions and even made his presence felt in the outfield last season. Not only did Barney play four different positions, he was regarded as a plus defender at each position. In left field and third base, he saved the Jays a single run while up the middle he locked away another two runs at shortstop and five at second base. Nine runs on the season isn't going to win him a Gold Glove over that span, but it's not nothing and shouldn't be ignored either.
At the end of the day, Fangraphs gives Barney a sizeable advantage over Carrera at 1.5 fWAR. While I do think Barney was the more valuable addition over the season, I'm not sure how much more valuable he was and I certainly don't know how palpable 0.8 WAR is. On the field, both brought a comforting feeling to Blue Jays fans knowing that if someone was out or a substitution had to be made, their being there wouldn't mean they would suck.