TORONTO -- With a revamped rotation and three potential franchise cornerstones in their infield, the Blue Jays enter Spring Training with a multilayered outfield competition in the spotlight.
When camp opens in Dunedin, Fla., on Thursday, the Blue Jays will know which three outfielders will be trotting out on Opening Day against the Red Sox on March 26 at Rogers Centre: Lourdes Gurriel Jr., Teoscar Hernandez and Randal Grichuk. Still to be determined, though, is which order they’ll be standing in and who will win the depth roles behind them.
“We have the three outfielders who are in for sure,” manager Charlie Montoyo said in January. “Gurriel, Hernandez and Grichuk. Then, we’ll see out of [Derek] Fisher, [Anthony] Alford, [Billy] McKinney and [Jonathan] Davis. They’ll be competing for the other two spots.”
This outfield group is quietly one of the roster’s biggest variables -- and biggest opportunities. The Blue Jays have committed to Grichuk with last season’s five-year, $52 million extension, and they are perfectly comfortable with Gurriel Jr. and Hernandez in the other two spots, but who will play center field? As the post-Kevin Pillar era has shown in Toronto, playing a true center field takes more than just athleticism.
“We would be very open to adding in center field, as long as it’s a significant upgrade,” general manager Ross Atkins said back at the Winter Meetings in December. “What we don’t want to do is have a marginal upgrade at the expense of continued development and opportunity for young players.”
With a market that’s often busy with buyers but low on options at that position, the Blue Jays haven’t found their significant upgrade yet. Here’s what to watch for as Spring Training unfolds.
Stuck in the middle with … who?
Once Hernandez returned from Triple-A Buffalo in early June, he was handed the reins in center and looked more comfortable there compared to his time in left field.
The open space in center seemed to agree more with Hernandez’s physical tools -- he ranks as one of the game’s fastest players with a sprint speed in the 94th percentile -- saving the 27-year-old from some of the slicing or hooking balls that gave him trouble in left, especially when running up against the wall or into the corner. Hernandez posted -1 Outs Above Average over 635 2/3 innings in center compared to -4 OAA over 356 1/3 innings in left last season.
Internally, the Blue Jays are very high on Hernandez’s offensive potential. Strikeouts remain an issue, but his .873 OPS after returning to the big leagues in June lines up with what the front office has been waiting on. In fact, the Blue Jays still think he has more in him.
Grichuk’s metrics are more favorable, with positive Outs Above Average numbers in both center (+2) and right (+4) last season, so he’ll clearly be part of the picture. And Gurriel getting a taste in the middle of the outfield during Spring Training is not out of the question, either.
Prominent depth roles open
Being the fourth or fifth outfielder on Montoyo’s roster, especially with the potential of a revolving door at designated hitter, means you’ll still be busy.
The first factor to consider is option years. Fisher and Alford don’t have any remaining, while McKinney and Davis can be optioned to Buffalo. That won’t set the stage from Day 1, but if things are still tight on Day 45, it often comes into play as a tiebreaker.
Both McKinney and Davis appear to be more straightforward evaluations for the staff this spring, while Fisher and Alford -- both of whom have tremendous athletic upside but little consistency -- could immediately surge to the front or fade behind. Montoyo loves a good competition, and he’ll have a full camp to let this one play out.
The first-base/designated-hitter spot and outfield group will hold hands on this roster.
By cycling someone like Hernandez through the DH spot semi-regularly, more playing time opens up in the outfield -- especially for a defensive-minded center fielder, should there be a fly-ball pitcher on the mound. Rowdy Tellez will be given an opportunity to be a part of that 1B/DH mix, but if he does not take a step forward, the door will be wide open for Montoyo to experiment with lineup structures that include four outfielders in the batting order.