Shortened season complicates uncertain outfield mix for Blue Jays

Blue Jays reporter Hazel Mae joins Lead Off on the morning of what was supposed to be opening day for the club, to discuss what she was most looking forward to.

Although every MLB club will lose the same number of games to the COVID-19 pandemic, a truncated 2020 season will affect each of them in different ways. The effects we’ll see will vary across the sport depending on each team’s financial and competitive situation, or even the health of their players.

For example, small-market organizations like the Tampa Bay Rays or Oakland Athletics may feel more strain on their pocket books than usual. Dominant outfits like the Los Angeles Dodgers will see their playoff and World Series odds tumble a bit as a small-sample season opens the door for more surprises. Groups like the New York Yankees will have more time to get stars like Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton ready for Opening Day — whenever it comes.

Similarly, the Toronto Blue Jays will have a shortened season impact them in a few ways that differ from their competition. The issue of top prospect Nate Pearson’s workload, for instance, becomes more complicated depending on how many competitive innings he’s able to log. The idea was for 2020 to be a buildup year so that he could really be unleashed in 2021. Depending on how severely the beginning of affiliated baseball is delayed, that may not be possible.

Because the Blue Jays are on the fringe of contention, they are one of the teams with the most radical shifts in their playoff odds in the event of a short season. Dan Szymborski at FanGraphs calculated last Tuesday that the club would experience the fourth-biggest jump in their playoff odds in the majors if the seasons were cut from 162 to 81 games — the most dire scenario he calculated.

To be clear, no one is trying to draw a positive from COVID-19, but it’s worth acknowledging potential shifts in the competitive landscape.

Perhaps the biggest effect that’s particular to the Blue Jays — and other teams trying to ascend to true competitor status — is the difficulty that an abbreviated season could present for the evaluation of their in-house talent. While this team has their primary building blocks in the Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette, and Cavan Biggio trio, and has supplemented their rotation with veterans, there are still a number of players they are weighing as possible future pieces.

This rings true loudly in the outfield, where they have a foursome of Randal Grichuk, Lourdes Gurriel Jr., Teoscar Hernandez, and Derek Fisher that all come with significant questions the Blue Jays would love to answer in 2020.

It’s particularly important to the club to know what they have in this group considering their top outfield prospects by MLB Pipeline — Griffin Conine and Dasan Brown — rank 14th and 16th in the team’s farm system. Conine played with the Single-A Lansing Lugnuts last year and Brown is 18 with 63 pro plate appearances to his name. Help is not on the way in the immediate term.

For Grichuk, the one member of the group the Blue Jays have committed to long term, it’s the glove that needs closer examination. In order to maximize his $52 million contract, and make his approximately-average bat play, the team has opted to set him up in centre field.

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However, the 28-year-old has only topped 100 games at that position once (back in 2016) and the metrics on him are all over the place. UZR has him a career -1.4 run centre fielder and Statcast’s Out Above Average pegs him at exactly average since those numbers became available in 2016. Meanwhile DRS puts him at an impressive +13 runs. Those numbers may be deceiving, though, because most of them come from when he was significantly younger.

Since 2015, Grichuk’s sprint speed has dropped from 90th percentile to 76th percentile and he’s not going to find another gear as he approaches 30. Combine that with an Outfield Jump that has generally hovered around average (but slotted in at 40th percentile last year) and there are reasons for pessimism. Even a full season’s worth of defensive data and film probably wouldn’t have been enough to determine his current true talent as a centre fielder, but in an incomplete season the Blue Jays may be left pondering his best position again next year.

Gurriel Jr. might have the most trustworthy bat of the quartet, but like Grichuk, his defence needs more scrutiny. The 26-year-old looked great at times in left field, but we just don’t know the totality of what he brings to that position after just 63 games out there. His metrics ranged from -4 (OAA) to +0.2 (UZR) with his DZR sitting at -2. The sample is too small to take all that much from those numbers, but they tell us that despite the highlight-reel plays he probably wasn’t a Gold Glove candidate out there.

This was supposed to be the season we learned more — and we likely still will to some extent — but the lack of full information will hurt. Considering Vladdy’s struggles at third, and Gurriel Jr.’s ability to throw from the left side of the infield, there may still be a scenario wherein the Cuban import ends up at third as well. His bat seems to play, but settling on the perfect position may take longer than anticipated.

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.

On the offensive side, it’s Fisher and Hernandez who could benefit from the most thorough evaluation possible. Fisher’s case is relatively simple. He projects pretty well thanks to a strong triple-A track record, but he simply hasn’t gotten it done at the MLB-level. He still could in 2020, but it would be harder to trust in a smaller sample.

Grichuk’s 2018 season is instructive here. From June 1 on he hit .271/.319/.553 for a 134 wRC+ and 2.6 WAR in 99 games. The assumption was that despite a difficult transition to the Blue Jays (he’d hit .106/.208/.227 to that point) he’d found his groove. It was that performance that guaranteed him a job in 2019 and played a huge role in earning a five-year extension just five games into that season.

We’re less than a year from that deal being signed and it already looks dubious because Grichuk had a subpar 2019, and hasn’t appeared to progress.

Similarly, if Fisher were to excel over a shorter period of time, it might be tempting to assume he’d arrived (especially considering his athletic gifts) and give him a 2021 job that he may have proven himself unfit for over the course of a full 2020. It could also happen the other way if he struggled this season, causing the Blue Jays to pull the plug a year too soon — a concern the club has continued to struggle with in Hernandez’s case.

In 2019, Hernandez had a second-half rally that re-framed his 2020 prospects. By hitting .248/.325/.548 after returning from the minors on June 5, he re-ignited belief in his bat and earned the right to prove himself once again this year. The problem is that the Blue Jays already know his bat can catch fire in relatively long spurts.

Last year’s strong finish came in 86 games and the year prior he had a sturdy first half, hitting .257/.308/.510 line in 76 contests (that was good for a 118 wRC+ in a less homer-happy season). If he were to put up a similarly strong, but not truly elite, offensive performance in a shortened season it would be hard for the Blue Jays to say they’d learned anything with much confidence.

As it stands, the Blue Jays have a pretty solid infield, a rotation filled with veterans and young depth and a bullpen ready to be reinforced when the team is making a push. The biggest organizational question mark is the outfield, and question mark may be putting it gently. This was the season the club was hoping to determine who goes and who stays in that position group and a compressed 2020 could make that task extremely difficult.

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