Blue Jays outfield for 2018 crowded with possibilities

Pat Tabler talks about the Blue Jays building their future around Josh Donaldson only if he signs a long-term deal, if he's asking for too much, it might be better to trade him and start the rebuild elsewhere.

There was a moment in the not-so-distant past where Blue Jays fans and management fretted over who might patrol the outfield on a regular basis. Some of the initial interest in acquiring Jay Bruce seemed predicated on his additional years of control as much as his on-field skills.

With this week’s trade-deadline deals, the unexpected arrivals of prospects, and the almost undeniable certainty that Jose Bautista’s time with the franchise is reaching its conclusion, the outfield has become crowded with possibilities, if not top-end talent. In the final two months of the season, it will bear watching who emerges from this crowded field, and how that might affect the way this shakes out for 2018.

In a trade season where many were prepared to receive lottery tickets from the low minors, Teoscar Hernandez was a pleasant surprise in the return for Francisco Liriano. A player with 100 credible big-league at-bats already under his belt, Hernandez is a legitimate option for the 2018 starting right-field job. Moreover, Hernandez has covered centre field more than occasionally throughout his minor-league career, and may be an option to play the position should the need arise.

The consensus on Nori Aoki is that vacating his contract and roster spot were more valuable to the Astros than his presence will be for the Jays. The Jays do acquire arbitration rights for Aoki for 2018, though he would likely be due a raise from his $5.5-million salary from this season, making him a likely non-tender candidate. Still, with the going rate for one win above replacement reaching close to $10 million dollars, and Aoki still having some marketable skills, it’s not completely out of the realm of possibility that the Jays could look to retain him.

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That decision would be guided by how the club feels about the other options at their disposal, notably Steve Pearce and Ezequiel Carrera. Pearce is under contract for another season, and while perhaps ill-cast as an everyday outfielder, his recent exploits with the bat underscore his potential value to the team. Assuming all-star/team MVP Justin Smoak will be entrenched at first base until he ceases to be this awesome, and Kendrys Morales’ remaining two-plus years on his contract aren’t overly attractive to another AL club, there are few other options for Pearce than left field.

Carrera, meanwhile, has quietly pulled together a season impressive enough to imagine the Jays offering him a raise in his arbitration year. Carrera’s 118 wRC+ so far this year ranks as the 13th best among individual seasons by Jays outfielders in the past 10 seasons with a minimum of 200 plate appearances. That likely sounds trivial, but it is far better than Kevin Pillar’s best season (93), and better than the 2009 campaign by Bautista (102) that was sufficient for the Jays to retain him.

Speaking of Pillar, he should sense the footsteps creeping in on him from other contenders for his spot in centre field. While his defence remains stellar (15 defensive runs saved, and likely as many spots on the year-end highlight reels), his offence continues to languish. There’s no question that the glove can make up for some of those deficiencies, but Pillar’s career trajectory may be careening towards that of Peter Bourjos: a respectable fourth outfielder who might bounce around the league. With Pillar anticipating his first arbitration raise this off-season, how the team deals with him will be worth watching.

As September call-ups arrive, we may also see Anthony Alford and Dwight Smith Jr. get semi-regular time in the outfield, perhaps making the case for their inclusion on the 2018 team. Alford seems like the most likely to challenge for regular playing time next year, and Smith’s mature approach at the plate could make him a solid bench player.

The team may also need to make a decision on Dalton Pompey’s role soon, though with his season-long injury issues, the Jays may retain an option on him for 2018. It’s an unfortunate situation for a player who held such promise, but with so much competition, Pompey will need to stand out for more than a few weeks here or there to hold on to one of these jobs.

Given those choices, one might also wonder if the outfield won’t need to be supplemented from a high-end veteran acquisition. J.D. Martinez, Lorenzo Cain and Bruce all stand out as free agents who could be an upgrade on the current options, though all will be over 30 years old and in a slim market, will be costly.

The Pittsburgh Pirates’ resurgent Andrew McCutchen has an option for 2018, and could be floated once more on the trade market, but such a deal would require lots of high-end prospects to go the other way, which seems antithetical to the current front office’s approach.

A situation which bears monitoring is the club’s approach to Devon Travis. There have been rumblings since his most recent injury that the team could look to move him to the outfield to preserve his body. Jays GM Ross Atkins fed that speculation further this week by affirming the club’s openness to considering playing him in other positions.

Such a move could be facilitated by the emergence of Lourdes Gurriel Jr., who has been used primarily at second base since his promotion to double-A New Hampshire last month. Gurriel is already drawing more than twice the MLB-minimum salary ($1.429 million in 2018), which could be enough encouragement for the Jays to give added consideration to promoting him sooner rather than later.

And if Travis were to stick at second, Gurriel has positional flexibility. Including plenty of experience… as an outfielder.