Photo Credit: Kevin Sousa-USA TODAY Sports

Blue Jays Outfield Depth Gives The Team Multiple Possible Avenues To Explore

This is one part of an off-season series that reviews how the Blue Jays did position-by-position in 2017 and how they look heading into 2018. 

The outfield was one area in which the Blue Jays didn’t suffer through an overwhelming glut of injuries last season. Kevin Pillar did his thing in centre field, providing good defence while producing at a mediocre level with the stick, Jose Bautista flamed out and had a disappointing season, and Zeke Carrera was a decent fourth outfield option.

Teoscar Hernandez crushed it during his September call-up and looks poised to grab a spot on the team next season. With names like Hernandez, Anthony Alford, Dalton Pompey, and a strong free agent group, the Jays have a lot of options to improve their outfield.

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What went down last season

The Blue Jays went into the season with an outfield consisting of franchise legend Jose Bautista in right field, defensive stalwart Kevin Pillar in centre, and a platoon of Zeke Carrera and Steve Pearce in left. For the most part, that was that group they trotted out there during the season.

Pearce was the only one of the four of them to miss major time. He went on the disabled list in mid-May and missed a month of action then finished the season on the shelf after suffering an injury in mid-September. Otherwise, Pillar and Bautista played in 154 and 157 games respectively. Carrera had one short disabled list stint but otherwise got a lot of playing time, appearing in a career-high 131 games.

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We saw a little bit of Chris Coghlan in the outfield and a handful of call-ups, including Dwight Smith Jr., Anthony Alford, Darrell Ceciliani, and Ian Parmley. Alford got injured during his cup of coffee, effectively derailing a very strong season in the minors. Smith was pretty solid, adding an element of speed that endeared him to the fanbase. If you blinked, you probably missed Parmley. And Ceciliani managed to injure himself while clubbing a home run in Atlanta and was never heard from again.

Michael Saunders got 20 plate appearances with the Jays in September. He signed a one-year deal in Philadelphia but got released and re-joined the Jays organization on a minor league deal. Having him around in September was largely a favour to a familiar face in the organization, it seems.

There was also Nori Aoki, who was the salary dump taken on the Francisco Liriano trade that allowed the Jays to acquire Teoscar Hernandez. Aoki played well in his showing but was released in order to be given a chance to latch on elsewhere as the Jays were going to use younger players in September. Hernandez was at the forefront of that.

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So all told, the Jays had 12 different outfielders last season. Some, like Parmley, Alford, Smith, and Ceciliani didn’t play enough to bother talking about while others, like Coghlan, Aoki, and Saunders, just aren’t worth getting into detail about.

Pillar was the most valuable of the group. He was worth 1.9 wins above replacement largely because of his strong defence. That said, in 2015, he was worth 4.3 wins, and in 2016, he was worth 3.3. His offensive production has been the same the last two years, but he made up a lot more value in 2016 than 2017 with the glove. His 1.9 wins last year ranked 15th among the 18 qualified centre fielders in baseball.

Carrera was the best of the bunch offensively, which, uh, isn’t good. Zeke is a fine fourth outfielder who took more at bats than the team likely expected because of Pearce’s injury. He 0.7 wins and had a 107 wRC+ but predictably gave a bit of value back because of poor defence. Pearce was league average across the board, coming in with a 99 wRC+ and 0 wins above replacement. But he did hit two different walk-off grand slams in the same week, which is nuts.

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Bautista’s season was miserable, to say the least. It was thrilling when the team inked him to a one-year deal with multiple option years in the off-season because not only was there optimism that a healthy Bautista could be valuable, but it was also nice to have a franchise legend stick around. But Bautista’s 2017 was a slow burn out. He got off to a terrible start in April, heated up in May, then struggled down the stretch to a point where he ended up being worth -0.5 wins. He got the send off from Jays fans he deserved in his final game in Toronto, the season altogether was difficult to watch.

Hernandez had a pretty damn good showing. He played in 26 games in September and had a very strong performance offensively, mashing eight homers and producing a .907 OPS. He struck in 37.9 per cent of his at bats and walked in only 6.3 per cent of them, which is a little worrying, but when Hernandez connected, boy did he connect. Despite only played in 26 games, he was worth 0.7 wins, the second most among outfielders on the team.

What to expect next season

We know that Jose Bautista isn’t going to be back with the organization and that Steve Pearce is signed for one more year at $6.25 million. Beyond that, the team has a lot of options to potentially work with. Kevin Pillar is due for arbitration for the first time, Zeke Carrera for the second, and names like Teoscar Hernandez, Dwight Smith, Anthony Alford, Dalton Pompey, and Harold Ramirez are cheap and on the 40-man roster.

I would expect Carrera and Pearce to be back as the team’s left field platoon next season. Apparently one win above replacement is valued at $8 million on the open market making a combination of those two fairly reasonable. That leaves us with centre field, which has been Pillar’s Opening Day position the past two seasons, and right field, which needs and heir to Jose Bautista’s throne.

Going through the team position-by-position, the most obvious needs are another starting pitcher and another middle infielder. And I don’t mean just another Darwin Barney or Brett Anderson warm body, I mean like an actual upgrade. Then there’s the outfield, which could go either way. I mean, you could roll into the season with Pillar and centre field and Hernandez in right if you allocated a fair chunk of change to upgrade those other two positions.

But there’s a lot of interesting options on the free agent market for outfielders, which isn’t really the case for either the infield or starting pitching. J.D. Martinez is the creme of the crop after his ridiculously good showing in Arizona after the trade deadline, but is probably out of Toronto’s pay range. The Blue Jays are consistently linked with Jay Bruce, we’re all aware of how good Lorenzo Cain is, Austin Jackson had a strong season in Cleveland, Carlos Gonzalez could be an interesting reclamation project, and veteran names like Curtis Granderson, Andre Ethier, or Seth Smith could come fairly cheap.

Could the Jays pony up Pillar in a trade offer that fills a hole in the starting rotation or middle infield and then fill that hole by signing a free agent? I mean, yeah, they could. But it’s difficult to say how the team values Pillar, who’s been a key contributor on the team over the past three seasons. Also, are they ready to give someone like Hernandez a major role on the team after his strong September? Is Alford a legitimate option, or does he need a full season at Triple-A? How about Dalton Pompey? After an entire season derailed by injury, is there anything left there?

Who knows! Not me, that’s for sure. Regardless, the Jays have a lot of depth in the outfield. It isn’t sexy, but it’s depth. Couple that with the wealth of names on the free agent market and it makes sense, on paper at least, for the Jays to look to deal from a position of strength to fill an area of weakness.