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Blue Jays must avoid last winter’s dilemma with current outfield depth

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Photo credit:© Joe Rondone/The Republic / USA TODAY NETWORK
Thomas Hall
3 months ago
It’s time for the Toronto Blue Jays to begin augmenting its offence with much-needed reinforcements.
Entering this off-season, this franchise’s biggest priority was making significant improvements to a lineup that underperformed on almost every measure last season, particularly in the power department. And yet, with the calendar flipped to 2024, the same problems that existed last October are still prominent just a few days into January.
Since missing out on marquee free agent Shohei Ohtani, the Blue Jays have made two notable signings, bringing back centre fielder Kevin Kiermaier and further boosting their versatility with Isiah Kiner-Falefa. Neither of those moves, however, will move the needle forward for a group that finished middle of the pack in home runs (188, 16th), SLG (.417, 13th) and ISO (.161, 18th) a season ago.
As these most recent acquisitions have proven, run prevention remains a critical identity for Toronto’s front office, and understandably so. But unless they also acquire a bit more offensive force, none of it will likely matter much in the grand scheme.
In an ideal situation, the Blue Jays probably need to add at least two, possibly three, position players to their roster before spring training arrives in less than two months, addressing vacancies in the outfield, infield and at DH. And the positive news is there are still many different options available – both in free agency and via trade.
Even after re-acquiring Kiermaier, additional work is likely in store for the club’s outfield depth. Why is that? Well, as currently constructed, they’re set to endure a similar dilemma to last season’s starting trio, which, by not inserting another right-hander into the mix, saw them operate one outfielder short of a complete group.
In fairness, the Blue Jays probably expected more out of the 105 plate appearances Whit Merrifield spent in left field on days with a lefty on the mound, only for the opposite to transpire. Instead, of the 35 big-league left fielders to record 50 PAs or more against left-handed pitching in 2023, Merrifield’s 79 wRC+ ranked sixth-worst.
On top of that, Daulton Varsho and Kiermaier logged a combined 213 plate appearances versus lefties in 2023. While neither performed horribly, many of those opportunities could’ve been better utilized had management procured a reliable right-handed outfielder last off-season – like most believed they would.
Credit: Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports
Since the same outfield trio is set to return in 2024, Toronto’s coaching staff will face similar matchup gymnastics for a second consecutive season, or at least they will barring another addition. The only difference is that it’ll likely be Kiner-Falefa – who’s a career .259/.325/.348 hitter against lefties – shifting to left field and replacing Merrifield, who remains a free agent.
Given Kiner-Falefa’s less-than-desirable offensive track record, the former New York Yankee probably wouldn’t be much of an improvement over his predecessor, at the plate, that is. It’d surely be a different story in the field. Thus, it’ll be vital to avoid repeating last winter’s misstep regarding the club’s outfield makeup.
Not only should that lead to increased offence against left-handed pitching next season, but it should also allow for an elevated usage involving reserve players for a Blue Jays squad that rarely relied on its 26th roster spot in 2023.
So, which outfielders might be ideal targets for general manager Ross Atkins?
Cody Bellinger is undoubtedly the first name that comes to mind for most Blue Jays fans. Though he hits from the left side, the 28-year-old is coming off a sensational 2023 campaign where he excelled versus righties and lefties, whom he slashed .337/.388/.596 against while posting a career-best 164 wRC+ across 183 plate appearances.
The fit is, however, not as seamless as it once was following the recent signings of Kiermaier and Kiner-Falefa. With three players capable of playing centre field on the roster, four if you include George Springer, shelling out a lucrative deal that could surpass $200 million for a player that’d likely primarily operate as a corner outfielder or DH probably wouldn’t make much sense.
Plus, is it worth potentially paying that much for someone who appears destined to wait until a team matches his asking price and possesses red flags involving the sustainability of his offensive output and on-field availability? Maybe. But given the Blue Jays’ recent activity, they likely aren’t waiting to find out.
Rather than putting their eggs in one basket, that being Bellinger’s, the front office seems to be taking a spread-the-wealth approach and could benefit from doing the same regarding the rest of their roster construction. While the free-agent market for outfielders is slim, a few remain available that would provide upside against lefties.
Tommy Pham, someone the Blue Jays expressed interest in prior to last season’s trade deadline per multiple sources, is one potential option that’d likely be worth re-exploring. Among the standouts from his 2023 season, which he split between the New York Mets and Arizona Diamondbacks, was his remarkable showing versus southpaws, as he placed fourth in SLG (.640) and fifth in wRC+ (171) in the majors among right-handed outfielders with at least 60 plate appearances.
The 35-year-old corner outfielder, who helped usher Arizona to its first World Series appearance since 2001 last season, is considered a below-average defender in left and generates all of his value at the plate. But considering at least one of Varsho, Kiermaier, or IKF would be on the bench with a lefty starting, either of them could relieve him as a late-game defensive replacement.
A similar deployment could also transpire if the Blue Jays landed switch-hitting outfielder Robbie Grossman, a player they’ve admired as far back as the lead-up to the 2021 trade deadline. While his overall results have been uninspiring, the 34-year-old has thrived in matchups against lefties each year since 2021, producing a .300/.407/.483 slash line with a .385 wOBA and 148 wRC+ in that span.
Despite this trend, Grossman – whose 167 wRC+ and .603 SLG versus southpaws ranked sixth and seventh, respectively, in 2023 – compiled over twice as many plate appearances against righties (283) than lefties (137) with the Texas Rangers in 2023. If that usage was reversed, chances are he would’ve been worth more than 0.4 fWAR over 115 games.
Adam Duvall is another intriguing option, especially considering he’s a former Gold Glove winner and shined to a .531 SLG and .284 ISO in 92 games with the Boston Red Sox last season. It’s worth noting that most of his production occurred versus righties, although the 35-year-old boasted a .562 SLG and .329 ISO in right-on-left matchups with the Atlanta Braves in 2022.
For those wondering about a potential Teoscar Hernández reunion, the former Blue Jay would certainly add middle-of-the-order thump – but his concerning swing decisions (31.1% K rate in 2023, highest since ’19) and likely desire for an everyday role probably removes him from the conversation.
Beyond free agency, the trade market may also be a viable resource, as several clubs across the sport are looking to shed salary due to uncertain regional television contracts or are amidst a rebuild and looking to sell off valuable assets.
If the Blue Jays hope to swing big, they could take a shot at Chicago’s Luis Robert Jr., whose contract runs through 2025 and includes a pair of club options in ’26 and ’27. That may be wishful thinking, though, as they might not possess sufficient prospect capital to acquire the 26-year-old five-win player from a season ago.
Two players that’d likely be far more feasible trade targets could be Washington’s Lane Thomas (free agent after 2025) and Los Angeles’ Taylor Ward (free agent after 2026), who’s already garnered interest around the majors, per The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal. Both are considered bat-first contributors, and each enjoyed impressive performances versus lefties last season.
Outside of making a play for Bellinger or Robert, which seems unlikely, the Blue Jays are best served to covet a right-handed outfielder capable of platooning against left-handed pitching. The front office’s work, of course, won’t be finished there as this lineup will still require another middle-of-the-order presence – someone like J.D. Martinez, Jorge Soler, Rhys Hoskins or Joc Pederson.
But at least this way, with a more balanced outfield mix, Toronto’s run creation will be far more equipped to handle lefties next season.

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