Photo Credit: Butch Dill-USA TODAY Sports

20 Things: The outfield is a mess

Welcome to Blue Jays Nation’s Season In Review. Instead of doing boring-ass, standard player-by-player reviews or handing out some arbitrary report cards, I’m going to talk about 20 things that are on my mind heading into 2020. Today, we have the mess that is the Blue Jays’ outfield. 

I was going to save this topic for a little bit later in the off-season, but given the report yesterday about the Blue Jays being one of a few teams interested in free agent Marcell Ozuna, it seems like it’s time to talk about it. What’s going on with Toronto’s outfield? There are a lot of names in the mix but not many inspiring combinations.

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When the 2019 season began, Kevin Pillar was Toronto’s starting centre fielder, Randal Grichuk was slotted in right, and Teoscar Hernandez and Billy McKinney were expected to split time in left. A lot changed over the next six months.

A few days later, Pillar was traded to the Giants and Grichuk shifted to centre and Socrates Brito and Alen Hanson were added to the group. Throughout the season, we saw Grichuk sign a long-term contract and then switch spots with Hernandez, Jonathan Davis gets reps while Anthony Alford was seemingly forgotten, Derek Fisher let a ball hit him in the face, and Lourdes Gurriel randomly emerge as an elite left fielder.

When it was all said and done, the Blue Jays used 14 different players in the outfield. Some of those were Eric Sogard, Cavan Biggio, and Richard Urena getting emergency reps in the corners, but Toronto’s outfield was all over the grid. And it wasn’t good! All told, Toronto had one of the worst outfields in baseball last year. According to Baseball-Reference, they ranked 24th in MLB in terms of WAR, putting up a negative value of -4.8 wins.

So what can we expect from this group next season? Will they be this bad again? Do the Jays need to make an addition in free agency, such as Ozuna? As I said earlier, there are plenty of names in the mix to fill Toronto’s outfield, but are any of them good?

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First, there’s Randal Grichuk, who the team seems to really believe in. Early on in the season, Grichuk was inked to a five-year deal worth $52 million. If he’s playing as he did in 2018, slashing a .245/.301/.502 line while being worth two wins, it isn’t bad value. If he plays as he did in 2019, it’s, uh, not so good. The offence doesn’t matter quite so much if Grichuk is providing a good glove in centre field, but another issue is that he prefers playing in the corners, meaning his bat has to carry him more than it did last season.

There’s also Teoscar Hernandez, who really seems to be figuring as more of a designated hitter than an outfielder. Hernandez, who has consistently been a disaster in the corner outfield, was surprisingly given an opportunity to show what he could do in centre field. While the eye test looked a lot better, his underlying results were still ugly. FanGraphs had Hernandez at -7 defensive runs saved in centre, which is similar to what he did when playing left field in 2018.

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Still, Hernandez’s bat makes him an intriguing player no matter how bad his fielding is. After getting sent down to Triple-A in May, Hernandez came up a few weeks later and produced an .873 OPS the rest of the way. He should be a part of next year’s team, it just shouldn’t be as an everyday outfielder.

The best of the bunch last year was easily Lourdes Gurriel. Like Hernandez, Gurriel was sent to Triple-A due to early-season struggles at both the plate and in the field. When he returned, Gurriel was put in left field and everything clicked. Though his season was shortened due to injury, Gurriel posted a .919 OPS after getting called up from Triple-A and he also showed gold glove calibre play in left. The sample size isn’t huge, but you can probably lock Gurriel in as the starting left fielder next year.

Those three guys are sort of the precitable ones. We know, for the most part, what they are at this point. We know Grichuk can competently play all the positions in the outfield. We know Hernandez can’t. We know Gurriel can likely be a good corner outfielder. After them, though, things start to get really messy.

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In his first full year with the Blue Jays, Billy McKinney didn’t do much to show he can be an everyday player. He slashed a .215/.274/.422 line in 84 games, which isn’t great given he doesn’t play centre field. The team then went out and acquired Derek Fisher from the Astros, pushing McKinney further down the depth chart. Fisher, a former top prospect, has dominated Triple-A but has never been able to figure it out at the Major League level. Like McKinney, he didn’t show much last year, but given what the Jays paid to acquire him, this is a project they’re going to invest a lot of time into. Fisher doesn’t have any options left so you have to figure he’ll be on the team in 2020.

The last two outfielders on the 40-man roster are Jonathan Davis and Anthony Alford. Though Alford was once one of Toronto’s top prospects, Davis seemed to pass him on the depth chart last season. Davis, who had a good season in Triple-A, got playing time in September while Alford was stapled to the bench. Alford had some flashes of good play in Triple-A but he certainly didn’t kick the door down. He doesn’t have options left, so the Jays will either need to give him a shot or try to sneak him through waivers.

Where does that leave us? I think you can start putting Toronto’s outfield together with Gurriel in left field. The question then becomes what happens with Grichuk. Ideally, he plays centre, because his bat translated better to a premium defensive position. There also isn’t really another option for centre field, unless the team is willing to give Alford or Davis an extended opportunity. Playing Grichuk in right would also block Fisher from getting regular playing time, which would make paying a high price to acquire him very odd. They could give Fisher a chance in centre, but his metrics suggest he’s much better in the corner.

With all this mind, I find it hard to imagine the Jays making a major addition to their outfield this off-season. Long-term, there might be a need to go out and make a big splash to improve the outfield. But that time isn’t now. Grichuk and Gurriel already take up two of three everyday spots and both Fisher and Alford are players without options who need to be given a chance to show what they can do at the Major League level.

It’s certainly a mess right now, but giving the opportunity to the internal options should help clear things up.