FA Corey Dickerson waits out lockout limbo after time with Blue Jays ‘lit my fire again’

Toronto Blue Jays' Corey Dickerson, right, is greeted at home by Vladimir Guerrero Jr. after both scored by a double by Alejandro Kirk against the Seattle Mariners. (AP)

TORONTO – In the days that followed the abrupt and disappointing end to the Toronto Blue Jays’ season, Corey Dickerson went to Disney World.

It was his son’s birthday and without a wild-card game to play in, he was suddenly available for a special family celebration. During his downtime, though, he couldn’t help but reflect on all the grief he’d been carrying, on how his time with the Blue Jays had helped free him and all that he wanted to work on over the winter.

“I was grateful for where I ended up,” Dickerson said. “I lost my grandfather in 2020. I lost my dad last year during All-Star break, right after I got traded, and in between that, my dad was going through a rough time. That, with my broken foot, being away from my family, I just feel like the last two years really, really weighed on me. I’m very service-oriented and treating others well and being around a good environment is what it’s all about. And when I came to Toronto, it lit my fire again.”

The 32-year-old outfielder credits what the Blue Jays have created for that rebound. He enjoyed bouncing ideas off GM Ross Atkins. He liked how manager Charlie Montoyo ran the team. Most of all, the way his young teammates carried themselves and played the game really resonated.

“The freedom that those young guys have of letting it eat, like I used to when I was really young, it freed me up and got me out of my shell a little bit,” he explained. “I was able to let loose with them. We grew pretty close as a team and it was tough when we missed the post-season. And after those first few days when you’re done, you’re running scenarios through your head of what you want to accomplish.”

To that end, Dickerson focused on meticulously planned and targeted strength increases, especially in his legs, while refining his approach at plate to restore past aggressiveness, and feels confident in the work he’s done.

But like so many other players, he’s in limbo due to the off-season’s bizarre, lockout-interrupted free agency. Dickerson figured he’d be among the group of players forced to wait until after a new collective bargaining agreement is reached to sign his next deal, which is why “I have zero anxiety about it,” he said. Sure, he’d like to get his family situated for the season, whenever it begins, but he’s following his usual progression, maintaining the “urgency to get more baseball skill under your belt because there’s a spring training game in a month.”

Whether he’s playing that with the Blue Jays is an interesting question. Their focal points once the game resumes are adding an infielder, a starter and another leverage-reliever, but in an ideal world, they’d like to add a left-handed hitting outfielder as well, especially if Randal Grichuk gets moved.

The free-agent market for left-handed hitting corner outfielders includes Michael Conforto and Kyle Schwarber at the top end, followed by a tier that includes post-season stars Eddie Rosario and Joc Pederson, seemingly ageless veteran Brett Gardner and Dickerson. Jarrod Dyson, who also finished last season with the Blue Jays, Gerardo Parra and Travis Jankowski, among others, are also in play. A true centre-fielder such as Odubel Herrera is an interesting option, but that may very well require a shift to more corner usage for George Springer.

Given their other needs, then – an infielder, ideally one who hits left-handed, in particular – a lefty outfielder who plays 3-4 times a week could end up being the last piece to fall in place for them. While in theory they could prioritize someone such as Conforto, more likely is the majority of their resources are allocated toward the other areas, likely ruling out the top of the market and perhaps even Rosario and Pederson, who may have played their way into multiyear deals.

Barring a trade, extending the continuity with Dickerson makes some sense, as his projected WAR of 0.8 as calculated by FanGraphs, is a tick ahead of Gardner (0.7) and behind Pederson (1.5) and Rosario (1.3). Of that group, Dickerson far outpaced the others in defensive metrics last year, with an outs above average of two, a catch-percentage added of two per cent and a feet-versus-average jump of 1.2, all while logging 10 games in centre.

Offensively, he posted a .282/.329/.450 batting line in 140 plate appearances over 46 games with the Blue Jays and, combined with his career .845 OPS against right-handed pitchers, that’s the type of piece the club needs for the part-time outfielder/weapon off the bench role.

Dickerson, of course, isn’t content with that production and his off-season work was meant to address that.

Ever since a down 2016 with the Tampa Bay Rays, Dickerson has taken a deliberate and holistic approach to his body. Inspired after reading “Becoming a Supple Leopard” by Kelly Starrett, he shed 30 pounds and took an analytical approach to his training.

An All-Star season in 2017 and a Gold Glove in 2018 followed, and he’s continued to seek gains since.

“Instead of trying to be bigger, faster, stronger, showing up for spring training and thinking you’re Mike Trout, I dug into the details of how I move,” he said. “My footwork. The way I brace my core. Things to make me move better incrementally and a better player, incrementally.”

This off-season he focused on leg strength to keep his running speed up – coming off the broken foot he was at 27.2 feet-per-second, down a tick from 27.0 in 2020 but still well down from his 27.9 in 2018 – and on the core work that helps him get strong jumps in the outfield.

At the same time, he’s shifted back to more weights from his usual resistance-band work “to have more fun trying to gain some strength and not being too worried about getting a little too strong, because I can back down at any time.”

He feels there could be a payoff there at the plate, where “I already have it in my mind that I want to let loose.”

When the Rays designated him for assignment in the spring of 2018, he remembers hearing whispers about his inability to hit high fastballs and make enough contact to survive in the AL East, so he made adjustments that led to .300 averages the next two years.

Still, he sacrificed a bit of power to make it happen, and his plan now is “to go back to doing damage and then let the situations come into play when I need contact or to move the guy over. Play the scoreboard. Not let somebody put me in a shell again. Being myself again.”

The Blue Jays, he feels, helped him start getting there. Where that process continues is a question dependent on a new CBA for an answer.

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