TORONTO – The distinction between creativity and desperation blurs quickly amid the ongoing throes of a rebuild, muddied by the sometimes conflicting demands of immediate need, developmental goals and the bigger picture. Things change quickly. Best-laid plans go awry. Better options aren’t always unavailable.
As a result, teams doing the chucking-stuff-at-the-wall-to-see-what-sticks thing often end up being forced to make things up on the fly, which brings us to the Toronto Blue Jays and their outfield, the newest area of improvisation (you already know what’s happening with the pitching staff – still barf).
Now, you probably know this, but as a reminder just in case, there are three defensive positions in the outfield – right, centre and left. Currently, the Blue Jays are carrying two outfielders on their big-league roster, Randal Grichuk and Jonathan Davis, along with three infielders who can play the outfield, Lourdes Gurriel Jr., Brandon Drury and Cavan Biggio.
They’re doing this because two of the outfielders they started the season with, Teoscar Hernandez and Billy McKinney, are in triple-A Buffalo finding their bearings, which happens with young players. Their top outfield prospect, Anthony Alford, struggled badly after being brought to Toronto for opening day only to be returned to the minors without playing, but has picked things up lately and is positioned to be the next call-up.
In the interim, Gurriel is being made the de facto left-fielder (he homered for the second straight game Saturday) while the Blue Jays try to develop his defence up the middle. Drury is to get the bulk of the work in right field with Biggio at second base and capable of moving out to the outfield if needed.
Davis, the only true centre-fielder in the bunch and the only difference-maker defensively, is the bench guy.
As a way to try and get more offence into the lineup, sure, it makes sense. But is everyone supposed to be a super-utility player in the baseball utopia the Blue Jays are trying to create? On days when Drury and Gurriel are in the corners and Grichuk is in centre, should they punt that much defence in search of a decent plate appearance? Do they hate their pitchers that much?
“It’s more about giving our kids at-bats, wherever that can be,” manager Charlie Montoyo explained before the San Diego Padres, riding six strong innings from Canadian Cal Quantrill, blitzed his club 19-4 on Saturday. “That’s why I’m hoping Biggio becomes a great second baseman, but I know he can play other places, which is always good for us. Gurriel the same way. I want him to be comfortable where he is. But for now it’s going to be in left.”
Save for Alford, who’s been better the past two weeks and deserves an extended look in the majors, the Blue Jays aren’t exactly flush with options and alternatives at the moment.
The front-office fixation on middle infielders has meant the club’s prospect base is dense with shortstop and second base types, but lacking in outfielders with thump. Chavez Young and Cal Stevenson are both intriguing but are at single-A Dunedin, so they’re far away on the horizon, if they make it at all.
With third base belonging to Vladimir Guerrero Jr., and shortstop in the trust of Freddy Galvis until Bo Bichette arrives, only second base is left for Biggio, Drury and Gurriel, whose throwing troubles at the keystone cost him the starting job there.
Hence, infielders in the outfield, in part to find out which bats are going to play in the big-leagues, in part because it’s the best the Blue Jays can do right now.
On days like Saturday, when the Padres bludgeoned Blue Jays pitchers as if they knew what was coming, having guys who can go get it in the field may seem like a moot point.
But on days the Blue Jays aren’t starting Edwin Jackson or some other disposable placeholder to simply sop up innings, brilliant catches like the one Davis made in the fourth inning Saturday, tracking back to the wall and leaping to rob Hunter Refroe of at least an RBI double, change innings, change games.
In this one, Davis’ grab simply delayed the inevitable, as it was followed by a walk, a hit batter and an Austin Hedges grand slam that blew open what had been a 3-1 game. Canadian slugger Josh Naylor collected the first two hits of his big-league career, including a laser beam RBI double in the first that opened the scoring.
“I wasn’t getting anxious but I really wanted it to come soon,” the Mississauga, Ont., native said of the milestone. “I couldn’t do it for my big crowd (Friday) night, I had to do it for me semi-big crowd today. Just thankful I’m able to be here right now … and get that first one out of the way.”
The Padres proceeded to pummel Thomas Pannone, Derek Law, Zac Rosscup and Sam Gaviglio, too, en route to a franchise-record seven home runs. Desperate to stem the bleeding, Montoyo ended up calling on Joe Biagini, one of his top set-up men, with two out in the eighth.
That’s one way today’s loss impacts tomorrow’s chances of winning.
Really though, survival is the primary concern for the Blue Jays, be it for a starting rotation struggling to simply eat innings, a thin bullpen under so much duress catcher Luke Maile made his second appearance on the mound this season, or a makeshift outfield.
In that vein, Maile’s 18 pitches during a scoreless ninth – one of only two innings in which the Padres didn’t score – becomes a major contribution.
“A lot and even more when he was (already) catching,” Montoyo replied when asked how much he appreciated the inning from Maile. “I asked him, ‘Do you mind?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, anything.’ That tells you the kind of people we have in there. He could have said no easily, he just caught eight innings. He did a great job. He saved another arm in the bullpen by doing that.”
Call that creativity. Call it desperation. Right now, they are one and the same