Blue Jays Notebook: Shortened season could benefit Lourdes Gurriel Jr.

Nikki Reyes and Arden Zwelling discuss the latest around the Blue Jays' pitchers, with Nate Pearson getting a lot of attention and Ryan Borucki in great shape, ready to put 2019 behind him.

TORONTO — If one thing’s certain about this shortened MLB season, it’s that we’re going to see some pretty weird stats. An everyday player could finish the year with a single-digit walk total. Another could hit .350. Cy Young winners probably won’t reach 90 innings. There might not be a 20 home-run hitter. We almost certainly won’t see a player collect 20 stolen bases, nor a closer reach 20 saves.

Hot streaks will make seasons; deep funks will submarine others. What’s a small sample when the entire sample’s this small?

Consider a guy like Teoscar Hernandez. His career’s been extremely volatile. But over his final 60 games of 2019, Hernandez put up a .952 OPS with 18 homers and 30 extra-base hits. Marcus Semien, DJ LeMahieu, and Xander Bogaerts finished third through fifth in American League MVP voting last season. And none of them had a .952 OPS.

Or what about Lourdes Gurriel Jr.? The free-swinging Toronto Blue Jays outfielder who can get the barrel of his bat to pitches all over the zone and was an 82nd percentile hard-hit rate batter in 2019? Say he starts seeing the ball well, gets some pitches to hit, and puts them in play at extremely high rates of speed?

Something crazy could happen. This 60-game season will provide an interesting opportunity for players capable of putting up big numbers in short timeframes like Hernandez and Gurriel. The volatility of their results swings two ways. You could get the valley, in which they’re chasing, making outs, and putting up 0-for’s. Or you could get the peak — when the guy can’t miss.

“You don’t want to take that aggressiveness away from him. That’s how he does it and he does pretty well like that, so I don’t want to take that away from him,” Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo said of Gurriel’s approach. “I think the older he gets, he’s going to be more selective. But right now, the way he swings the bat, I think it works for him.”

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Gurriel’s 2019 was certainly erratic. He began the season as Toronto’s every day second baseman but struggles at the plate and a baffling inability to make consistent throws to first led to a mid-April demotion to triple-A Buffalo. There, Gurriel feasted on minor-league pitching, putting up 26 hits — half of them for extra bases — over his first 19 games. But the mental roadblock impeding his throwing mechanics on the infield remained, and by mid-May, he started playing left field.

Suddenly, something clicked. Gurriel wasn’t only getting by at a position he hadn’t played since he was a 22-year-old in the Cuban National Series — he was thriving. He forced his way back to Toronto, went deep in his first three games, and never looked back. From the day he returned through Aug. 8, he hit .295/.344/.591 with 35 extra-base hits in 66 games. And he piled up nine outfield assists in that span, good enough to lead all MLB left fielders for the season.

That early August end point is significant as it’s the day Gurriel strained his quad legging out an infield single. That sidelined him until mid-September, when he returned and went 5-for-12 in his first three games. But more calamity awaited two days later when Gurriel came down with appendicitis and had his appendix removed, ending his season.

It’s been the story of Gurriel’s young career — bursts of tantalizing productivity interrupted by injury, generally of the soft tissue variety. In 2018, he tied an American League record with 11 consecutive multi-hit games the same day he sprained his left ankle and knee sliding into second base. Later that season, amidst a 10-game stretch in which he had a dozen hits including four home runs, Gurriel strained his hamstring and sat out the rest of the year.

Piece together Gurriel’s last two years and you get a rather impressive full-season sample of .279/.310/.499 with 31 home runs over 149 games. Of course, baseball doesn’t work like that. Health is a big-league skill — perhaps the most important one because a player can’t take advantage of any other attributes without it.

“For all athletes, injuries are one of the more difficult things,” Gurriel said. “But this is a new year — fresh. I’m turning the page.

“It’s a big responsibility that Charlie’s giving me this year — just like last year. But I’m very prepared for this year. I worked very hard in the off-season. And I think the lineup is going to be great this year.”

Montoyo envisions Gurriel batting third in his lineup most days, behind Bo Bichette and Cavan Biggio, and ahead of Vladimir Guerrero Jr., and Travis Shaw. And considering he’s one of the best conditioned athletes on the team, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Gurriel play practically every day. Last season, he missed only two of Toronto’s 68 games from his mid-May recall through to his quad injury in August.

Remember, at 26, Gurriel is still on the upward trajectory of his career. He’s by no means a finished product, and every game he gets is an opportunity to continue improving. For a variety of reasons, Gurriel has played only 316 games since he defected from Cuba along with his brother, Yulieski, in early 2016. By way of comparison, Yulieski’s played nearly 500 since that point, plus 44 more in the post-season with the Houston Astros.

“I think the main thing that Gurriel needs right now is at-bats,” Montoyo said. “More games. Keep playing. That’s why I didn’t want to lose this year. I think our young kids need to keep playing so they can develop experience and know how to play in the big leagues. That’s why I think it’s good for us to be playing this year. We’re one of the teams that were going to be affected by not playing this year so I’m glad we’re playing. It’s going to be good for the kids.”

Ben Nicholson-Smith is Sportsnet’s baseball editor. Arden Zwelling is a senior writer. Together, they bring you the most in-depth Blue Jays podcast in the league, covering off all the latest news with opinion and analysis, as well as interviews with other insiders and team members.

Pearson and Borucki get their work in

The Blue Jays took a day off from intrasquad scrimmages Thursday, opting instead to run a series of live at-bats between pitchers and hitters.

All eyes were on Nate Pearson, as they are whenever the top Blue Jays prospect is on the mound. And he delivered with another dominant outing against big-league hitters. Pearson struck out six of the 11 batters he faced, walking two (Billy McKinney and Derek Fisher), getting a pair of soft groundballs, and allowing a line drive single to Hernandez.

Through his first two outings of camp, Pearson has continued to flash the front-of-the-rotation potential that made him the talk of spring training four months ago. The next step for him will be an outing next week in Boston when the Blue Jays go to Fenway Park for a pair of exhibition contests with the Red Sox.

“It’s the way the schedule works,” Montoyo said, when asked why Pearson was selected to pitch in one of those two games. “And, also, it’d be good to see him pitch in Boston. That’s not a secret.”

Meanwhile, Ryan Borucki threw somewhere between three and four innings, depending on how you were scoring an afternoon with no defenders in the field. He generated plenty of groundball contact as he continues to refine his approach and grow accustomed to a new pitch mix.

The Blue Jays shortened Borucki’s slider into a cutter during the MLB shutdown, making these live reps particularly useful as the 26-year-old learns how to play the new pitch off his fastball in service of setting up his swing-and-miss changeup. He’s also pitching with 15 less pounds of his frame, after losing some weight over the last few months in order to feel better on the mound.

“I always pitched in to hitters, but I feel like I’ll pitch more in to righties especially and just throw the cutter off of that,” Borucki said. “I just think it’ s going to open up a lot of opportunities for me to throw those changeups, throw those arm-side, and get a lot of grounders. I think overall that cutter is just going to make my stuff better.”

Borucki will be budgeted for 75 pitches in his next outing, which suggests the Blue Jays plan to keep him stretched out as a starter going forward. This team has a rotation spot up for grabs, of course, as Chase Anderson isn’t expected to be over an oblique injury in time for the opening week of the season. And Borucki’s firmly in the mix.

Even if Borucki doesn’t win that rotation job — Anthony Kay may be just a hair ahead of him as things currently stand — the club could still carry him to begin the season as an emergency bulk arm in the bullpen. He could possibly piggyback off a starter if needed. Or he could go to the club’s Alternate Training Site when the season begins to stay ready for a spot start down the line.

“I’ll do any role, to be honest. I just want to help out as much as I can,” he said. “I felt like I could’ve thrown seven, eight innings today. I felt that good. It’s just so nice to just pitch a game and not worry about my arm hurting.”

The back end trio of Toronto’s bullpen — Ken Giles, Anthony Bass, and Rafael Dolis — each got an inning of work in Thursday, as well. Intrasquad games will resume Friday night, with Trent Thornton looking to get stretched out to five innings, while TJ Zeuch and Shun Yamaguchi take the mound for the opposition.

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