4 outfielders, 3 spots: What will Toronto do?

February 27th, 2021

DUNEDIN -- The Blue Jays’ outfield is a game of musical chairs, and with already comfortably reclining in one of those three spots, divvying up playing time in the corner outfield spots is emerging as one of the club’s most interesting questions in camp.

embodies this balancing act as well as anyone. Still squarely in his prime years at 29, and with three seasons remaining on his contract, Grichuk is the first piece to move in this picture with Springer unseating him in center.

Grichuk has been told he’ll see the majority of his playing time in right field this season, but how does that work? The Blue Jays have in right, who’s coming off a breakout season with a .919 OPS, good for his first Silver Slugger Award. Grichuk understands the realities here, but he expects this to develop as time goes on.

“I don't really know. I think a lot is going to depend on performance,” Grichuk said Saturday. “We’ve got four guys that need to play every day. Obviously, that [designated hitter] spot isn't going to be available every day, so you know there's gonna be someone that’s not playing every day. So I would imagine performance-based [decisions] are going to be key, and then, I guess, just moving guys around.”

The fourth piece to this puzzle, of course, is At 27, Gurriel has come into camp looking noticeably stronger and says that he’s sitting around 215 pounds. He’s also coming off an .882 OPS in 2020 and was a finalist for a Gold Glove Award. Gurriel is taking some ground balls at first and third this spring, but left field is clearly his comfort zone.

There’s simply no good argument to have Gurriel or Hernández out of the lineup. The DH spot will be key to this equation, too, but Grichuk is focusing on what he can control for the time being.

“I think I played a lot better last year than a lot of people think, if you want to look at the numbers, but I think right field is my best position anyways,” Grichuk said. “I think if the situation happens where Springer's in center and I'm in right every day -- obviously it probably won't happen every day -- but if it does, then I think that [would] make our ballclub better on the defensive side.”

Manager Charlie Montoyo has pointed to those DH reps since the Springer signing as one potential solution for this playing time crunch. Grichuk played a handful of games at DH in 2020, but that was just to get him off his feet for a day here and there. In '21, it would be a more active part of the Blue Jays’ strategy to maximize their lineup potential.

Some players are open to DH days while others aren’t as much. It can take a player out of the game mentally when they’re not trotting out into the field nine times a night, but there are ways around this. Grichuk says that he hasn’t been the DH enough in the past to need to really sink his teeth into these challenges, but he recognizes he’ll need to be more conscious of them going forward.

“You’ve got to keep up with not making your mind go to bad places, but then also keeping up with your body. You can't just sit on the bench,” Grichuk said. “You need to go either run down the line, go in the tunnel and run, go swing some, stay loose, but also be paying attention to the game and understand what pitchers are trying to do to hitters similar to yourself.”

This is the type of problem that good teams have. Instead of trying to find starters, the Blue Jays are trying to find enough reps for an excess of talent. It’s a good place to be, albeit a bit awkward at times.

The power potential of this group is impressive, too. Springer has the potential to hit 40-plus home runs and Hernández should be right there with him. Gurriel’s potential is enticing if he can stay on the field for a full season and Grichuk hit 31 home runs in the last full big league season, so this group has the potential to be one of the best in baseball from an offensive standpoint.

Gurriel, who has the talent to emerge as a legitimate star this season, loves the lineup he sees.

“Very dangerous, very dangerous,” Gurriel said through a club translator. “Not just from one to nine, I’ll say from one to 10, 11, because the people who will be on the bench, who aren’t playing that day, they’re dangerous too.”

Situations like these tend to work themselves out in baseball. The odds of all four outfielders making it through the season at full health are low, and when you factor in the DH spot and hot streaks, this picture won’t always be as unpredictable as it is today. Grichuk is the one to watch, though, as the Blue Jays try to find a regular -- or semi-regular -- spot for his bat.