TORONTO – Late last month, during the wild week in which the Blue Jays signed George Springer and showed serious interest in Michael Brantley, Randal Grichuk started to wonder what it all meant for him.
As the off-season progressed, Grichuk would check Twitter for the latest free agent news, not only because the Blue Jays were one of the most active teams around but also because many of his friends were on the open market. This time was different, though.
By signing Springer to a six-year, $150 million deal, the Blue Jays bumped Grichuk from centre field, the lone position he played during the shortened 2020 season. But if they were to add Brantley, too, that would be five outfielders for three spots. At that point, a deal would have started to seem inevitable.
“Everybody kind of thought they were going to get traded,” Grichuk recalled in a Zoom media session Saturday. “I was talking to Teo and Gurriel a little bit in the off-season and it was kind of crazy. Obviously, that figured itself out, but you obviously have it in the back of your head that if you’re going after outfielders and understanding who we have here in the moment, there might have to be some moves.”
At certain points in the winter, the rumours were a challenge for Loudes Gurriel Jr., too.
“To be honest with you, it was complicated,” Gurriel Jr. explained via interpreter Hector Lebron. “A lot of people were calling me and asking me about those trade rumours. It wasn’t easy, but in the off-season I concentrated on myself and prepared myself to play baseball. That’s what I love to do.”
Ultimately, no further moves were required as Brantley signed in Houston, but there’s still a roster crunch in Toronto with four starting outfielders for three spots. It’s the kind of challenge baseball’s deepest teams navigate regularly, but one that’s unfamiliar in Toronto and potentially challenging for the likes of Grichuk and Gurriel Jr.
In 2021, both will face more competition for at bats while taking on different defensive responsibilities than they did last year.
"It didn't upset me. I'm a professional, so I'm going to handle it professionally," said Grichuk, who heard from GM Ross Atkins at times that the rumours intensified. "I understand if they thought centre field was their major priority where we needed help, then so be it. I think I played a lot better last year than a lot of people think if you want to look at the numbers, but I think right field's my best position anyways."
Springer will obviously play nearly every day when healthy, and his primary position will be centre field. With 39 home runs over his last 136 games, Teoscar Hernandez belongs in the lineup every day, too. At times, the designated hitter spot will allow all four outfielders to start at once, but Rowdy Tellez needs at bats, too, and the DH spot is often used for players nursing minor injuries.
As such, there will be days when Grichuk (12 home runs, .793 OPS in 2020) or Gurriel Jr. (11 home runs, .882 OPS) is on the bench.
“We’ve got four guys that need to play every day,” Grichuk said. “Obviously that DH spot isn’t going to be available every day, so there’s going to be somebody that’s not playing every day. I would imagine performance-based is going to be key and I guess just moving guys around.”
From Charlie Montoyo’s perspective, that’s a good problem to have, and certainly preferable to the days in his first season when the Blue Jays’ lineup thinned out after three or four hitters.
"It will take care of itself," Montoyo said. "It's 162 games ... hopefully they're all hot and it's tough to say who's not playing. That would be the best-case scenario."
The addition of Springer means Grichuk returns to right field, which he considers his best defensive position. While Gurriel Jr. will still play lots of left, Montoyo has also asked him to prepare at two infield positions he has yet to play much of at the MLB level.
After rising through the Blue Jays’ minor-league system as a middle infielder, Gurriel Jr. debuted in that role only to have trouble making throws. That led to a shift to left, where the 27-year-old’s arm has been an asset. But to preserve as many options as possible, the Blue Jays are now asking Gurriel Jr. to take ground balls at third base just in case and prepare for game action at first, where he has 11 career big-league innings.
"I've got the ability to come back to the infield again. I have no doubts about myself on that,” Gurriel Jr. said. “But I'm not going to lie. The transition is going to be a little bit hard. It's kind of like before, from the infield to the outfield. It took me basically two years for that, but the desire's there."
Viewed from the perspective of Grichuk or Gurriel Jr., having more position players than lineup spots threatens to cut into their playing time. But from the team standpoint, this is a good problem to have. By and large, these playing time crunches resolve themselves because of injuries.
And the teams that find themselves in this position are typically the ones that score the most runs when it counts. Consider which other MLB teams will regularly have starting-calibre players on their bench and a trend emerges quickly. The Yankees (Brett Gardner), Padres (Ha-Seong Kim, Jurickson Profar), Dodgers (Gavin Lux) and Rays (Yandy Diaz) are among baseball’s deepest and most talented clubs.
So while the off-season rumours were a source of stress and the outfield mix remains crowded even now, there’s no denying that the Blue Jays are a better team now than they were this time last year.
"Some guys were happy to be here (in 2020) and it was one of those 'we have a chance to be good' kind of things," Grichuk said. "This year everybody knows we are good and we're going to be good as long as we put the work in and play hard. And that's what guys are doing.”