SAN DIEGO — No matter where you look, the numbers are not flattering when it comes to the outfielders the Toronto Blue Jays employed in 2019.
In terms of overall production, the Jays were 27th out of 30 teams, getting a total of 1.6 fWAR from their outfield.
For context, the Los Angeles Dodgers led baseball with 17.7 Wins Above Replacement from their outfield group.
Fourteen teams had 10-plus fWAR of outfield production, which tells you exactly how far the Jays are from even being in the middle of the outfield pack.
Not a fan of the groovy, new-age stats? The traditional numbers paint just as ugly a picture: last in on-base percentage at .286, one of just two teams in baseball that couldn’t even get a .300 on-base percentage from its outfield group, last in batting average at .224, and second from the bottom in strikeout rate, with Blue Jays outfielders whiffing 28.8 per cent of the time.
An outfield that can’t hit or get on base at even a league-average clip is not a winning recipe.
So how does it change?
It’s going to take some creativity it seems, because there’s a slight chance it’s a very similar outfield group in 2020.
CURRENT 2020 OUTLOOK
LF Lourdes Gurriel Jr., 26
CF Teoscar Hernandez, 27
RF Randal Grichuk, 28
LF Derek Fisher, 26
OF Anthony Alford, 25
On the 40-man
LF/RF Billy McKinney, 25
CF Jonathan Davis, 28
If he can stay on the field for a full season, Gurriel Jr. could be on the verge of a major breakout.
A case of the yips at second base early on in 2019 forced the Jays to give up on the 26-year-old Cuban in the infield, but he quickly took to left field — he had dabbled there back in his home country — and showed a whole lot of pop, hitting 20 homers with a .277/.327/.541 slash line in only 84 games.
Two things have been noticeable during Gurriel’s 149 major-league games over his first two seasons: When he’s hot, he’s scorching; and when he’s cold, he’s ice cold. He’s also hit the injured list four times already, dealing with everything from a concussion and a severe ankle sprain in 2018 to a significant quad strain and a surprise appendectomy this year.
Over in right field, Grichuk seems to be entrenched for the foreseeable future after signing a five-year, $52-million contract extension in April – a front-loaded deal that will pay the 28-year-old $12 million in 2020, followed by a little more than $9.3 million yearly through 2023.
Grichuk then went out and authored a disappointing 0.5 fWAR season, with his on-base percentage falling to a putrid .280. He did hit a career-high 31 homers in 151 games, but Grichuk needs to do much more than just hit for power and play pretty good defence.
Centre field is where things get interesting because there’s really no obvious solution — on the roster or in free agency.
Hernandez was red-hot with the bat in the second half, but he isn’t viable defensively in the middle of the outfield and the fact he was used there for the majority of the season tells you everything you need to know about the other in-house options.
Roster depth includes trade acquisition Derek Fisher, who struck out 43 times in 93 at-bats with the Jays, Billy McKinney, defensive whiz Jonathan Davis, and former top prospect Anthony Alford, who’s out of options and needs to be kept on the roster to start the season or he’ll be exposed to waivers. The addition of the 26th man may buy Alford some more time to figure things out.
MOST PRESSING NEED
Well-rounded centre fielder
Similar to the 2019 free-agent class being a weak one at first base, it’s the same situation in centre field.
The only real chance at an everyday centre fielder is Japan’s Shogo Akiyama, who will be heading into his age-32 season, and the transition with the bat is no sure thing, either.
The trade market or shifting Grichuk to centre full time, a move the organization has been hesitant to make, are better bets.
That’s one of the reasons — potentially trading Gurriel for a starting pitcher is another — the next three names you’ll read are corner outfielders, because that’s where the depth is in free agency.
LF/1B Yoshitomo Tsutsugo
Already on the list of infield targets in this series, Tsutsugo has mostly played the outfield in Japan, and the ability to dabble at both would be attractive for a team looking to move pieces around on a daily basis, a la the Tampa Bay Rays, Charlie Montoyo’s former employer.
If you’re signing Tsutsugo, you’re signing him to hit and hit a lot, but experience at both positions helps, even if he’s still considered below average at both.
Posted by the Yokohama BayStars on Nov. 18, MLB teams have until Dec. 19 at 5 p.m. ET to negotiate with the left-handed power hitter, and the Jays have touched base.
RF/LF Avisail Garcia
As mentioned previously, centre field is the spot the Blue Jays need to upgrade, so any corner outfielder signing would involve other moves.
While he’s seen as a piece to the future puzzle, Gurriel Jr. is one of the more valuable trade chips they have and there’s a chance he could bring back a young, controllable starting pitcher.
If that happens, the Jays would likely be in the market for a left fielder, and Garcia is coming off a productive season with the Rays that saw him slash .282/.332/.464 with 20 home runs and 10 stolen bases. At the age of 28, teams can also dream that his .330/.380/.506 slash line that made him a 4.2 fWAR player in 2017 is attainable again in the future.
RF/LF Domingo Santana
Non-tendered by the Seattle Mariners last week, Santana is now two seasons removed from his 30-homer, 3.3-fWAR breakout in 2017.
Santana strikes out a ton — 32 per cent for his career — and the Jays aren’t have too many all-or-nothing bats in the lineup, but the key here is he’s going to be cheap (minor-league deal?) and doesn’t turn 28 until next August.
Even though he’s not going to solve any of the Jays’ problems, he could be a buy-low opportunity for a team still searching for some luck when it comes to breakouts.
PROSPECT TO WATCH
The fifth-overall pick next June
That’s how little impact there’s projected to be amongst the crop of outfielders the Blue Jays currently have in the high minors.
Sure, someone could surprise, because pedigree isn’t everything, but there’s a need throughout the organization for impact outfielders.
The Jays will employ a best-player-available strategy with their highest pick in more than two decades, and next year’s draft is considered deep on the college pitching side, but there’s usually a big-time college outfielder available around this pick and the draft board might align.
RF Griffin Conine, 2018 second-round pick (52nd overall)
The 22-year-old son of former MLBer Jeff Conine quickly got over an unfortunate 50-game suspension for ritalinic acid, an ADHD drug, by bashing 22 home runs in just 80 games with Low-A Lansing.
Unfortunately, the big power also came with big swing-and-miss as the left-handed hitter struck out 125 times in just 348 trips to the plate.
Cutting down on that as he moves to High-A in 2020 will be paramount, but there’s a base set of tools that works well in today’s game if he can polish them up over the next couple of seasons.