Blue Jays take search for position player versatility to next level

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Lourdes Gurriel Jr. of the Toronto Blue Jays (Nam Y. Huh/AP)

TORONTO – It’s no secret that the Toronto Blue Jays are attempting to build a more versatile roster that provides manager Charlie Montoyo with additional flexibility from game to game and inning to inning.

In recent years, general manager Ross Atkins has acquired versatile players such as Lourdes Gurriel Jr. and Brandon Drury for that very reason. Behind the scenes, the Blue Jays’ player development people have tasked the likes of Cavan Biggio and Kevin Smith with playing multiple positions. Even Bo Bichette has spent time at second base in each of the last two seasons.

Lately, the Blue Jays have been taking positionless baseball to another level, playing some infielders in the outfield regularly while rotating those remaining on the infield from position to position. At times it feels a little experimental – contenders probably wouldn’t throw Teoscar Hernandez in centre and Brandon Drury at short – but rebuilding teams don’t need to maximize their wins in the short term. They can try things out and see what works.

Of all the ongoing experiments, the one working best is undoubtedly Gurriel Jr. in left field. After struggling with throws from second base during the early part of the season, Gurriel Jr. prioritized his outfield play at triple-A, working with former Blue Jays Gold Glover Devon White, among others.

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Not only does Gurriel Jr. have five home runs since returning to the majors, he has looked comfortable in left field. His sprawling catch along the left field line Saturday offered the latest indication that he can handle the position thanks to his work in Buffalo. At some point, the Blue Jays may even try him in centre.

“He was working really hard,” Montoyo said. “He’s been so good in the outfield that I don’t even want to move him back to the infield for now.”

Some hesitation is understandable here. Earlier this year, a combination of mental and mechanical issues led to a series of poor throws from second. Those at field level are tasked with competing daily and right now the Blue Jays’ best lineup features Gurriel Jr. in left, not on the infield.

At the same time, the front office isn’t about to give up on Gurriel Jr.’s potential as an infielder. He offers far more long-term value if he can slot in at shortstop and second base, so there will likely come a time that the Blue Jays try him on the infield again. If it’s not going to work, better to find out when you’re rebuilding.

Gurriel Jr. isn’t the only one moving around the diamond these days. Consider the different ways in which Montoyo used his position players on the last homestand alone.

Randal Grichuk played both centre and right while Biggio started at three positions: first, second and right field. Drury moved around just as much, starting at short and third plus right field.

And with so many options in the corner outfield, Hernandez became the starting centre fielder (considering how badly he struggled in left field last year, that’s pretty remarkable but his play in centre has been solid so far).

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That’s a lot of moving pieces, even before you account for Billy McKinney, who played first and right before being sent to the minors. Some of it’s by necessity, and much of it’s by design.

After all, baseball’s best teams have typically had versatile players like Ben Zobrist or Marwin Gonzalez in recent years. The flexibility allows teams to weather injuries more easily and move players around in-game. With bullpens expanding and benches shrinking, versatile players are at a premium.

This year’s edition of the Los Angeles Dodgers takes that model to the extreme. Max Muncy plays first, second and third. Chris Taylor plays four positions. Kike Hernandez plays five. Even Cody Bellinger, the National League MVP frontrunner, splits time between right field and first base. Through 66 games, the Dodgers have an MLB-best 45-21 record.

Of course, versatility doesn’t solve problems on its own. If it did, the 23-42 Blue Jays would be off to a much better start. The problem is, their versatile players aren’t hitting like Muncy, let alone Bellinger.

Gurriel Jr. has come the closest, but the Blue Jays don’t appear comfortable using him on the infield just yet. Biggio and Drury have intriguing offensive potential, but they aren’t hitting much. Perhaps one or more of those players will put it all together, giving the Blue Jays the super-utility player they’ve coveted for years. Until then, expect the positional shuffling to continue.

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