Blue Jays reap rewards of meritocracy with tough decisions looming

Lourdes Gurriel Jr. had 3 RBIs in his major league debut to help the Blue Jays top the Yankees 8-5.

NEW YORK — The beauty of organizational depth is in the options it creates for the roster, not only in the form of backups to cover when injuries strike, but also in offering productive alternatives to struggling regulars.

Any team playing to win must operate as a meritocracy, and in continuing to run with Teoscar Hernández over Randal Grichuk now that Kendrys Morales is back at DH, the Toronto Blue Jays showed a willingness to employ a best-man-wins approach to their machinations.

Hernandez, who hit a two-run homer and worked a bases-loaded walk in Friday night’s 8-5 victory over the New York Yankees, has earned the right to keep playing every day, even if keeping him up means an untenable roster logjam with five outfielders and a dedicated DH.

The gains he’s made since an eight-homer September that also featured 36 strikeouts in 88 at-bats have been on display in his six games since being recalled when Josh Donaldson was placed on the disabled list last week, perhaps most impressively so in the fifth with some strong takes leading to his run-scoring walk.

“I saw a different guy at spring training, a lot more disciplined where last year he was just up there swinging,” said manager John Gibbons. “That’s helped him quite a bit, similar to what (Justin Smoak) did last year. That will take a long way in this game, if you don’t offer at those out pitches, you can draw a big walk or force them over the plate, that’s when you get them. It’s one thing to be aggressive, it’s another to be smart aggressive.”

Still, the current logjam is why a demotion to triple-A Buffalo when Morales was activated Friday wasn’t out of the question, as the struggling Grichuk is out of options and can’t be sent to the minors without passing through waivers first.

Given that Grichuk is drastically underperforming to his talent-level and the price paid to acquire him—reliable set-up man Dominic Leone and prospect Conner Greene—cutting bait on him after three weeks would be ridiculous. He’s a controllable player who plays plus defence with ample power capable of contributing to a winner.

But once Josh Donaldson is ready for activation from the disabled list—there’s no defined timeline for his return yet—things get complicated because of the roster redundancies in both the outfield and at first base/DH.

Aside from Hernandez, it’s also clear that versatile Yangervis Solarte, who hit his fifth homer in the sixth inning, must play every day, something that will be even more challenging once Donaldson is back doing the heavy lifting at third base and Morales locked in at DH.

Factor in that the left-field platoon of Steve Pearce and Curtis Granderson, who walked three times Friday, is working well and the impressive debut of infielder Lourdes Gurriel Jr., who delivered a two-run single in the fourth and added another RBI single in the fifth, and there are no obvious dead spots that make simple subtractions from on the roster.
By and large things are working.

“You look at our lineup and it’s a great contrast of different styles of players and we’re all playing together right now,” said Marco Estrada, who grinded through five innings while allowing five runs. “We have a lot of guys who can hit homers, we have guys who go the other way, try to move guys over. We’re just doing the little things right now and we’ve got to keep doing them. It’s a tough division, it’s not going to be easy but we have a team that can definitely compete with everybody and we’re doing so.”

An even more difficult matter before playing time gets addressed is who gets sent out to make room for Donaldson.

Unless an injury comes up to resolve the issue, a lack of roster flexibility means the Blue Jays will be left with a difficult decision to make as Hernandez is the only player in the surplus areas with options.

At that point, if Hernandez is still tearing things up, will the Blue Jays option him to protect Grichuk, who is in the nearly impossible position of straightening out his game without a clear path to playing time? Can they find a way to keep Grichuk and everyone else?

Designating him for assignment means, in all likelihood, giving him away to a team collecting assets and able to carry him while he works through his troubles.

Moving Morales would ease the bottleneck and open up DH at-bats, but he’s still due most of his $11 million salary this season along with another $12 million next year and doesn’t have a defensive position. Good luck creating a trade market there.

Pearce, making $6.25 million this year before becoming a free agent, could also be moved and has drawn some interest but he’s been productive and can help the Blue Jays win.

So unless the bottom falls out of Hernandez’s performance, the Blue Jays in some way, shape or form are going to have to choose between what’s best for the team versus what’s most sensible in terms of asset management.

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.

“(Hernandez) was great last year, he’s been great this year. We need him, we’re going to need him all year,” Estrada said when asked what he’s liked about the outfielder this season. “It’s fun to watch. Some of these guys have a lot of energy. I think it’s helping everybody else out, the team chemistry is through the roof. We’re having fun out there and it shows.

“We’re playing really well, even when we’re down we’re not letting it get us down, and it’s because of the high energy some of these guys bring to this team. We’ve got a pretty close group and we’re playing like it.”

With the Blue Jays off to a strong start—they’re now 13-6 after whipping around the 9-9 Yankees—they have make sure they leverage the opportunity before them. They haven’t had an April like this in recent memory, and they must keep running out their best players, whomever they are at any given time.

They did that Friday in keeping Hernandez and adding Gurriel, who looked far more like an established player than a rookie making his debut, even though there are sure to be growing pains along the way.

“I feel like every at-bat here is really hard, really competitive, really important,” Gurriel said through interpreter Josue Peley. “I feel like in Cuba and in the minors, it was (adjusting) at-bat to at-bat, here it’s more pitch-to-pitch. You have to be more in the game, more concentrated. That’s the biggest difference between all the levels I’ve played and being here now.”

The looming question for the Blue Jays to resolve between now and when Donaldson returns is how their best team lines up once he’s back.

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