Blue Jays Takeaways: Alford deserves meaningful look to close out 2019

Toronto Blue Jays left fielder Anthony Alford makes the catch on a foul pop fly by Tampa Bay Rays' Eric Sogard during the second inning of a baseball game Friday, Sept. 6, 2019, in St. Petersburg, Fla. (Chris O'Meara/AP)

The Toronto Blue Jays are currently carrying six active outfielders on the roster, with another joining the mix whenever Lourdes Gurriel Jr., returns from a left quad injury, which now looks set for some time next week.

That’s a lot of dudes for three spots, perhaps four depending on how the DH spot is allocated on a given day, leaving manager Charlie Montoyo to not only juggle the desires of each to play, but also the competing organizational interests in divvying up the season’s remaining at-bats.

Do they employ a strict meritocracy when making up the lineup based on 2019 production thus far? Let matchups rule the day? Run the hot hand? Or do they prioritize the two players who will be out of options next spring and will factor into their off-season planning before then?

Derek Fisher is one of those players and he’s played regularly since his deadline acquisition from the Houston Astros. Expect him to continue getting some run. Anthony Alford is the other, and how the Blue Jays handle him in the coming weeks is a far more intriguing question.

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The 25-year-old started for the first time since his recall earlier this week in Friday’s 5-0 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays, going 1-for-3 with a ninth-inning single that was one of only two Blue Jays hits on a night they struck out 13 times and put just seven balls in play at 90 m.p.h. or higher.

Alford also flashed some of the tools that have long made him a prospect to dream on in the Blue Jays system, running a long way from left field into foul territory to chase down an Eric Sogard popper in the second.

Playing him once every three or four days isn’t going to offer much meaningful information to help in the club’s evaluation of Alford. That’s not really fair to the player or the club’s decision-makers. Given the limited sample size, even a steadier run of play is too prone to random outcomes, although it’s at least more of a look at the player.

Still, at who’s expense would those at-bats come?

The $52-million, five-year extension Randal Grichuk signed back in April guarantees that he’s not being sidelined, especially with his salary set to jump to $13 million next year.

Teoscar Hernandez has endured through struggles and worked relentlessly to get level, his intriguing power coming through during a resurgent second half that deserves to be rewarded.

With 1.6 WAR in 321 plate appearances as calculated by Baseball Reference, Gurriel has been the fifth most valuable Blue Jays hitter this season.

Then there’s Fisher, Billy McKinney, who’s already grinding to get at-bats, and Jonathan Davis, the beloved centre fielder who’s the best defender in the bunch and made some adjustments at triple-A Buffalo after a June demotion the Blue Jays are eager to test out in the majors.

Opening the door for one closes the door on another.

Alford has fought through a star-crossed year in which he was brought to Toronto for opening day only to be left off the roster at the last minute, struggled out of the gate while Alen Hanson and Socrates Brito were given a run, and just as he turned a corner suffered an oblique injury.

Though he finished with an .831 OPS in 82 games at triple-A Buffalo, he didn’t totally force the Blue Jays’ hand at any point. Given the way they’ve handled him, it certainly seems like that’s what he would have to do to get a shot.

As GM Ross Atkins said late in August, “Mostly we’re going to give the at-bats to guys who have earned them, whether that’s someone more veteran or who has earned them at triple-A.”

Realistically, carrying seven outfielders isn’t ideal 40-man roster construction. As things stand now, they’d have to carry both Fisher and Alford out of camp next spring to avoid exposing one of them to waivers, which wouldn’t be ideal if Grichuk, Gurriel and Hernandez are all still on the team.

The Blue Jays will no doubt try to consolidate their outfield talent over the winter, using it perhaps to get more pitching. Unless they’re absolutely convinced that they already know what they have in the uber-talented Alford, they’d be best served by giving him the most meaningful look they can over the coming weeks before decision-time arrives.

Offence runs dry

If not for Avisail Garcia’s sketchy route to Randal Grichuk’s smash to right field in the first inning, the Rays may very well have been carrying a combined perfect game into the ninth inning Friday night.

Grichuk reached third base on that drive, was stranded there and the Blue Jays didn’t manage another base-runner until the ninth inning, when Danny Jansen led off with a walk against Cole Sulser. Anthony Alford followed with a single through the 5-6 hole and after Bo Bichette walked to load the bases, Rays manager Kevin Cash didn’t mess around, calling on closer Emilio Pagan.

Suddenly in business, the Blue Jays came up empty as Teoscar Hernandez popped out, Grichuk struck out and Guerrero just missed a grand slam, barely getting under an 87.8 m.p.h. cutter.

Top pitching prospect Brendan McKay, impressive with seven strikeouts in 3.2 innings, Peter Fairbanks, Andrew Kittredge, Sulser and Pagan sent the Blue Jays to their fifth double-digit strikeout game in their past seven outings.

Battling Buchholz

Prospect Anthony Kay, part of the return from the New York Mets for Marcus Stroman, will make his big-league debut Saturday against the Rays and to the great delight of colleague Jeff Blair, he’ll do so without an opener.

On Friday, it was Clay Buchholz on the mound and despite eight balls in play at 99.3 m.p.h. or harder, he managed to grind his way through six innings, allowing four runs, three earned on seven hits with three strikeouts.

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