Blue Jays still seeking solutions for regular lead-off spot

Arash Madani and Jeff Blair talk about why it looks like manager Charlie Montoyo may have found his lead-off hitter and the battle for the final roster spot likely between Richard Urena and Eric Sogard.

DUNEDIN, Fla. — And so it continues – the search for a lead-off hitter that goes all the way back to Ben Revere striking out against Wade Davis in Game 6 of the 2015 American League Championship Series.

He was hardly an All-Star, but Revere became the Toronto Blue Jays lead-off hitter after his trade-deadline arrival from the Philadelphia Phillies, his superior ability to make contact in the zone a strong component of the Blue Jays’ high-powered offence. Since Revere was traded to the Washington Nationals for Drew Storen, the lead-off spot has become a default position in the lineup, with Devon Travis’ inability to stay on the field a complicating factor.

So now it’s down to some kind of job-share between Randal Grichuk and Billy McKinney. Grichuk is another player with fundamental offensive flaws: a 15 per-cent swinging-strike rate that was one of the highest in baseball last year and a walk rate of 5.8 per cent that was among baseball’s worst. Those numbers put the fault in default.

Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo was his usual enthusiastic self Saturday after telling the media he was going to find Grichuk on the field to sound him out about leading off, taking a short stroll to where Grichuk was tossing a ball, chatting with him, hugging him, and then walking past the awaiting media with both thumbs up. All that was needed was a video scoreboard flashing ‘HE SAID YES!,’ like some kind of in-stadium marriage proposal.

Grichuk is one of those “anywhere in the lineup as long as I play,” guys. And while he was hardly reluctant about the lead-off spot when he chatted later, he did stress that he needed to talk more to Montoyo and hitting coach Guillermo Martinez about their expectations of the spot, stressing the need for “open communication,” and hinting he had some doubts about how patient the staff would be with him.

No wonder: Grichuk knows the kind of hitter he is, and while he believes he’s as locked in now as he was in the last three months of the regular season, he noted that the last time he led off consistently was “for over half a season in 2013.”

Back then he was a 21-year-old, former first-round pick and outfield prospect with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim playing at Double-A Arkansas.

“That was more a matter of who the team wanted to give the most at bats to,” he said, suggesting it was more a matter of development than strategy.

Grichuk was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals at the end of that season, along with Peter Bourjos, for David Freese and Fernando Salas. The Blue Jays acquired him last January in a deal that sent pitchers Connor Greene and Dominic Leone to the Cardinals.

The outfielder did hit .324 last season in 15 games atop the order. With the Cardinals, he was utilized in the bottom third of the lineup, with a brief flirtation as a No. 2 hitter.

Montoyo made clear that left-hand-hitting McKinney will lead off whenever he’s in the lineup, but here’s the quandary with that approach: unless a trade is made, Kevin Pillar will be the Blue Jays’ centre fielder and Grichuk will be in right. McKinney has looked comfortable filling in at first base this spring, but unless Justin Smoak (another lefty hitter) is moved, it might be hard to squeeze in at bats.

Teoscar Hernandez has made good strides and seems to be on the verge of winning the left-field job outright, although if his second-lowest contact rate in the Majors in 2018 manifests itself again, along with his sometimes sleepy approach defensively, it could hurt his case.

So there you are: the Blue Jays will see more right-handers than lefties, but their lefty lead-off hitter might have trouble squeezing into the lineup.

It’s complicated, eh?

“It’s just who we’ve got,” Montoyo said of his plans for the lead-off spot. “We don’t have many guys who are patient, which is fine. I just want the guy to be comfortable, whoever he is.”

Grichuk has been brought along slowly by the Blue Jays, due to a history of knee issues. He has 13 at bats in spring training with the team — which is due to break camp next weekend for a pair of exhibition games in Montreal — homering and doubling, and stressing “process.” Grichuk is one of the Blue Jays hitters who have taken to the new emphasis on technology — no surprise, since one of his stocks in trade is hard contact and squaring balls up, and he’s had nice numbers in terms of balls off barrels in 2018.

“It’s pretty fun being able to get some of that data and play games within batting practice: who hit the ball the hardest, who had the better launch angle,” he said. “Any way you can get a better swing or plate coverage it’s a positive.”

Grichuk used an at bat Friday against Phillies’ Nick Pivetta as an example of what he wants to accomplish, barreling up a 3-2 pitch after falling behind 0-2.

“That means I’m not far from being ready,” he said. “I know I’m almost there when I’m hitting the ball hard, and when I’m comfortable enough that I’m not swinging at bad pitches.”

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Like all other Blue Jays outfielders, Grichuk is getting used to Montoyo’s experimenting with a four-man outfield. The Blue Jays sent a split squad to Tampa to play the New York Yankees Saturday and ran out the four-man outfield in the first inning against Aaron Judge. Rumour has it that Judge’s monstrous home run over the four outfielders will land some time Sunday afternoon.

Montoyo is serious about this, so much so that Saturday he admitted Eric Sogard’s ability to move into the outfield from the infield could be the determining factor in whether Sogard, who is in camp on a minor-league contract and would need to be added to the 40-man roster, beats Richard Urena for the 25th roster spot. Brandon Drury, the Opening Day third baseman, has played the outfield on a regular basis, seeing 93 games in right and left with the 2017 Arizona Diamondbacks.

“It is what it is,” Grichuk said with a smile when asked about the four-man outfield. “If they feel analytics show it’s a way to get a guy out, I’m all for it. It’s fun. Changes the game up a little bit. You have to be aware, because it means me and KP (Pillar) are going to be slightly closer than normal and the last thing you want to do is have a collision in spring training. So if it’s hit hard and he’s on it, I’ll let him go.”

No area of the diamond shows the disparity between the top teams in the American League East and the Blue Jays more than their outfield. There isn’t a complete outfielder among them. In fact, you can make the case that the Blue Jays’ starting outfield is composed of three guys who would be fourth outfielders on any good team. Shoot … other than Pillar, that has in fact been the case, and there are people in the Blue Jays organization who will tell you Grichuk is a superior centre-fielder than Pillar.

The minor leagues don’t offer much help, either: Dalton Pompey is out of options and his baseball sense hasn’t yet caught up to his athleticism. Anthony Alford has had a strong spring and the organization would love to see him force the issue, because he has a combination ceiling of speed and power that stands out, but health has not always been his friend and another half-year of seasoning seems to be on the horizon.

Minor-league rankings are only worth so much, of course, but even those aren’t much comfort, as Cavan Biggio is the only outfield prospect in the Top 10 and he was playing second base Saturday in Dunedin. Alford and McKinney are ranked behind him. If there is a weakness in the minor-league system, this is it. Like his lineup, Montoyo right now is simply making do with what he has. As Grichuk might say: it is what it is.

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