How the Toronto Blue Jays go about addressing their CF situation won’t be easy despite there being realistic options
Heading into the off-season, there were a few areas that the Blue Jays needed to address in order to have a decent shot at a .500 record in 2020. These upgrades would also help improve the team’s chances for true playoff contention in 2021.
The starting rotation was job one. After the additions of Hyun-Jin Ryu, Tanner Roark, Chase Anderson and Shun Yamaguchi, as well as the re-signing of Matt Shoemaker, that mission seems to have been accomplished (though there are good reasons to pursue a David Price trade, if the conditions are beneficial to the Jays).
With Justin Smoak‘s departure as a free agent, first base was another position of need, though the free agent market did not really provide any obvious high-quality candidates. Ultimately, the team opted to fill that hole by signing Travis Shaw, an outside-the-box upside move given his career as a strong defender at third base. If his skills translate to first base and his hitting rebounds to his Steamer projection (102 wRC+), it’s a solid signing at one-year, $4 million. If he rekindles his 2017-18 hitting (120 and 119 wRC+), he’d provide tons of surplus value. Plus, he remains arbitration eligible for 2021, meaning he also provides medium-term value.
The bullpen is an area where basically every MLB team in every off-season will look to make improvements. Given their prioritizing of making meaningful additions to the starting rotation, the Blue Jays have focused on low-risk relief signings so far. Anthony Bass was acquired from the Mariners in October via waivers, before agreeing to a one-year deal. A.J. Cole was signed to a minor-league deal with a Spring Training invite, a move I am optimistic will pay off. The ‘pen could also be bolstered by one or two of the starters who miss out on the last rotation spot, as well as by further signings.
The one area of need that has not been addressed to this point in the off-season is the outfield. It’s kind of an unusual area of need, as the 40-man roster currently has seven outfielders with MLB experience — Randal Grichuk, Teoscar Hernandez, Lourdes Gurriel Jr., Derek Fisher, Anthony Alford, Jonathan Davis and Billy McKinney — plus Brandon Drury, who started 23 games there in 2019.
The reason it’s an area of need is that none of them are projected by Steamer to produce 2+ WAR in 2020 (even when they are assumed to get 600 PA). Moreover, there aren’t yet any outfield prospects banging on the door — next in line are Forrest Wall and Josh Palacios, who have shown promise in Double-A, but were passed over by the rest of the MLB during the Rule 5 draft.
Internal CF options
A further wrinkle is the question of who will play centre field, specifically. From the group above, five — Grichuk, Hernandez, Alford, Fisher and Davis — have played the position in the majors.
The most straightforward option, based only on the public info I have, is Grichuk. He’s played almost 2000 innings out there and has been consistently average as a defender, in terms of both DRS and UZR. Plus, even in a down-season (90 wRC+ in 2019), his bat would’ve been middle-of the-pack among centre fielders. However, the fact that he was used there early on in 2019 before being shifted more permanently back to RF suggests that the team and/or Grichuk himself see him as a RF, not a CF.
Hernandez, his replacement from June 5th onwards, certainly hit like an everyday big-leaguer after getting the CF job — his 122 wRC+ as a CF ranked sixth among those with at least 250 PA. However, he didn’t field the position terribly well, producing the seventh-worst DRS (-7) and fourth-worst UZR (-7.3).
In the cases of Alford, Davis and Fisher, their poor hitting as major leaguers is the main thing keeping them out of the lineup. Alford has a career 11 wRC+ (59 PA), with his combination of low power (.073 ISO) and high strikeout rate (39% K rate) particularly concerning. Davis has a slightly better track record than his brother-in-law, posting a 44 wRC+ over 122 PA, but it’s still not terribly promising. Fisher has the best track record of the bunch (75 wRC+ over 419 MLB PA) and was the more heralded prospect of the three in terms of hitting, but struck out an alarming 40.2% of the time during his 107 PA cameo with the Jays in the second half of 2019.
Looking for an external option
One strong CF addition to this group might be enough to make this a good MLB outfield. This would allow the team to trot out two of Grichuk, Hernandez and Gurriel in the corners, with the other an option to DH (Hernandez being best suited for that role). One of Fisher, Alford and Davis could be the backup outfielder, as they are each capable of playing all three outfield positions, while the other two could keep working on their hitting approaches in Buffalo (Fisher and Alford no longer have MiLB options, so they would need to pass through waivers before heading to Buffalo).
The problem is that there are very few centre fielders out there for the Jays to acquire. Among the 2019-20 class of free agent centre fielders, none are projected by Steamer to produce 2 WAR and only two (Brett Gardner, since signed by the Yankees, and Kevin Pillar) are projected to crack 1 WAR.
It’s also not clear that any CF likely to be an improvement over Grichuk and Hernandez are available via trade. One big issue is the relatively low number of quality MLB centre fielders. Last season, nine players who spent at least 500 innings in CF cracked 2 WAR. Only LF had as few 2 WAR players last season. In contrast, 21 third basemen and 20 shortstops met that threshold.
There are 20 players listed as centre fielders who are projected by Steamer to produce at least 2 WAR if they end up getting 600 PA in 2020. However, virtually every one of these players are projected to have starting jobs on teams contending for a playoff spot, making it unlikely they would be moved. The only one of the 20 not on a contending team is Starling Marte, whose trade market has been thoroughly discussed this off-season (including here on the Couch).
Notably, the Jays haven’t really been among the teams mentioned as interested in Marte, which makes sense to me. While Marte would improve the Blue Jays in 2020 and 2021, it sounds like they would need to move a talented catching prospect with many more years of team control to acquire him. While the Jays will certainly need to move some of their young catchers at some point in the coming years, using one to acquire a guy projected to provide roughly 6 WAR over his two years of team control remaining seems like a sub-optimal use of resources. It wouldn’t be a terrible decision, but I’d prefer to use those assets to acquire someone who was likely to produce more WAR per season and/or had more years of control left.
Shogo Akiyama represents an interesting option, as Shaun Doyle examined a few days ago. He is available without a posting fee, effectively making him a free agent, and has been linked to the Jays (though it now seems the Reds and Padres are leading the chase). He’s been a strong performer in Japan, so while there are no guarantees he will be a good MLB hitter, between his past success and his likely affordable contract, he could be the best option available. As such, I think that if the Jays choose not to offer the high bid for Akiyama, which is unlikely to be prohibitively high, it would indicate that they won’t be adding to their outfield this off-season.
While it’s an area of improvement for the Blue Jays, there are not many good centre fielders available right now, with Shogo Akiyama potentially the beginning and the end of the list of options. As a result, the team will most likely enter the 2020 season relying on its current group of outfielders.
FanGraphs’ depth charts currently have Gurriel as the full-time LF, Grichuk splitting his workload between CF and RF, Hernandez splitting his time between CF and DH and Fisher as the primary backup outfielder. Collectively, the Blue Jays outfield projects to produce 4.7 WAR, which ranks 21st in the majors.
My guess is that they finish 2020 right around the middle of the pack in outfield fWAR, mainly because both Gurriel and Hernandez are projected to fall short of their 2019 and career production levels at the plate, an odd thing for guys still in their mid-20s. Gurriel is projected for a 102 wRC+ compared to his 124 mark in 2019 and 115 mark for his career. Similarly, while Hernandez is projected to be below-average in 2020 (94 wRC+), he was a little above-average last season (102) and over his career (106). Moreover, each was particularly effective after their recalls from Buffalo, with Gurriel posting a wRC+ of 137 from May 24th on and Hernandez posting a 126 wRC+ after June 5th.
A year from now, the team will likely be in a better position to decide on its long-term future in the outfield. For one thing, the MLB potential of guys like Alford, Fisher and Davis will be clearer, which will make clearer what kind of additions will be required. Moreover, in Mookie Betts and George Springer, there will be some top-level CF options available through free agency. Some other outfielders may end up being available via trade. In 2021, the goal will be an outfield that is better than just middle of the pack.
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I’m an economics professor in the GTA whose lifelong love for the Jays was reignited by that magical August of 2015 and the amazing moments since.