As we count down to spring training, if the Toronto Blue Jays add players, it will likely be to their pitching depth. To me, this means that the personnel who will man their outfield are already in the organization but the lineup is yet to be set.
There are two groups of outfielders who populate the Jays’ depth charts. The first group is of the “establishment.” These are players who have spent some time in the big leagues and have likely shown their ceilings. The second group is of the potential “usurpers,” those who have shown talent (some at the big leagues) who have not had the opportunity yet to demonstrate that they can play a full season or more at a high enough level to be productive major leaguers.
In the “establishment” category (from left to right) are Teoscar Hernandez, Kevin Pillar and Randal Grichuk. Hernandez, still ineligible for arbitration for likely two more years, played almost every day in 2018, showing some positive offensive contributions, particularly through his ability to hit the ball out of the park (22 home runs in 523 plate appearances with a .468 SLG) but he proved to be a defensive liability generating a lot of negative WAR for his defense. While his OBP leaves a lot to be desired (although 20 more points would go a long way to help) and his strikeout rate was above 31% last year, there’s room for the 26-year-old to improve a bit.
Looking up the middle to Kevin Pillar, he received a big pay increase, agreeing to a $5.8 million contract to avoid arbitration. Pillar has two more years until free agency and actually had a pretty stable season in terms of what he did at the plate. He regressed in his OBP (down to a paltry .282) but hit 40 doubles (a career high) and 15 home runs (one off his career high) to finish with a .708 OPS and a 93 OPS+ (just seven percent lower than league average). wRC+ (weighted runs created plus, a Fangraphs stat) is less kind, putting him at 89 (11 percent below league average) while he had a 2.0 WAR, much of it generated from defense, which has been regressing. Now 30, Pillar will continue to be a regular . . . until the Jays can find something better.
Playing most of the year in right field last year was Randal Grichuk. Like Pillar, Grichuk is two years from free agency and got a big raise to avoid arbitration and will make $5 million in 2019. Unlike Pillar, Grichuk’s numbers are on the rise as the 27 year old posted an .803 OPS with a career-high 25 home runs despite playing in just 124 games thanks to some injuries throughout the year. The fact that Grichuk could finish the season with such good numbers overall (118 OPS+, 115 wRC+) is pretty incredible considering his putrid April in which he hit just .106 with a .435 OPS. Grichuk has also shown the ability to play center field.
The next group of outfielders looking to grab playing time include the “usurpers” Billy McKinney, Dalton Pompey and Dwight Smith Jr. These three outfielders have all had a chance to play in the past but have not been able to perform for extended periods of time or have not been given the opportunity to take an every day role.
McKinney is the best shot to usurp Hernandez’s role. With a better defensive profile and (in a small sample size) a greater penchant to take a walk and lesser tendency to strike out, McKinney could end up 2019 as the every day left fielder. McKinney impressed in August, going 15/38 with five doubles and three home runs but faltered in September, hitting .182/.232/.325 in 77 at bats. I think that the true Billy McKinney lies somewhere in between but he’ll almost certainly have to force his way to the major leagues unless his spring is so good that the Jays have no choice but to try him out.
Dalton Pompey is now out of options. It was a little surprising to see the Jays keep him on the 40-man roster this November as many (including me) felt that he would be a little expendable in the search for roster space for players to be protected before the Rule 5 draft. After missing most of 2018 due to injuries, Pompey had an altercation with Buffalo manager Bobby Meacham and was suspended for a few days from the Bisons. He was just 2/10 in the major leagues and didn’t get a call up in September. He played in 43 games in Buffalo and hit a respectable .255/.325/.393 with eight doubles and four home runs, swiping eight of 10 bases but he’s likely going to have to do more in spring training to line up a spot on the big club. He’s out of options so I think the Jays will give him the opportunity to win a spot, at least the fourth outfielder position, and if he can do that and perform at the major league level, he could work his way into usurping an outfield position thanks to his ability to play all three spots well.
Dwight Smith Jr. is a wildcard. Smith has done nothing but hit at the major league level despite the limited opportunities he’s had. He had an .858 OPS in 29 plate appearances in 2017 and followed that with an .824 OPS in a larger, 75-plate-appearance, sample size in 2018, hitting his first two big league home runs. Smith can take a walk and his left-handed swing offers the Jays a lefty bat on the bench in 2019 if he earns a fourth-outfielder role. Smith’s tools don’t stand out the way others’ do, but he has always performed at every level he’s played at and could be a sleeper who could fit an Ezequiel-Carrera-like role with more pop in his bat.
Also on the 40-man roster are Anthony Alford and Jonathan Davis. Both are outsiders to usurp an every day outfield spot although Alford would have the inside track. Taking a step back in his development in 2018, Alford needs to stay healthy and put together a solid year in Buffalo. If he does that through half a season and there are either injuries or poor performance at the big league level, Alford could definitely play a role in Toronto’s outfield.
For Jonathan Davis, it will take several injuries for him to get more than a smattering of at bats. The Blue Jays love his attitude and work ethic and he’ll get a chance to play every day in Buffalo. If he continues to improve, he could be an emergency replacement for a few games here and there and could get some time on the bases in September. That said, Davis is going to be 27 in May and he’s already older than all the outfielders on the 40-man roster save for Pillar and Grichuk.
Who do you think will make up the Blue Jays’ outfield in 2019? Who’s the prime usurper for playing time?
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