The Toronto Blue Jays go into the 2019 season battered, bereft of several of the “name” position players who were on the club last year, and not expected to do much of anything in the standings. But that’s not to say that there isn’t going to be interest and intrigue in the ballclub. Here is the third of five storylines to watch in the first month or so of the season.
3. Playing the Field
The Blue Jays are entering 2019 striving for a more malleable lineup and defensive arrangement than they have had previously. There’s lots of talk about not keeping the lineup or defensive positions the same from day to day and there’s talk about (now) rotating players through the DH position while also having someone like Lourdes Gurriel play left field and Billy McKinney play first base.
To wit, Gurriel played first base, second base, third base, shortstop and left field back in Cuba and, although he’s never played left field in the minor leagues, he has played three positions (first, second and short). Brandon Drury has experience playing every position outside of center field, pitcher and catcher in his years in the major leagues. The Blue Jays are also grooming minor leaguers to play multiple positions like Cavan Biggio who played both infield and outfield positions for New Hampshire last year and Kevin Smith, who has regularly played third base and shortstop with some second base in his two years in the Jays’ system.
Having players who are capable of performing well at multiple positions is one thing but how is this going to play out at the major league level? Are we going to see an ongoing game of “musical chairs” throughout the major league season as a way of improving defensive flexiblity and spreading around the at bats and defensive reps? Or is this all just lip service?
I’ve heard Charlie Montoyo described as a mix of “old school” and “new school” but will he prefer to set the same lineup and defensive array game after game like “old-school” manager John Gibbons would have liked to (had everyone been healthy)?
It’s hard to predict, given that Montoyo has a grand total of one major league game as a manager at the time of this writing (the same number as Russell Martin does). Looking over the 2018 Tampa Bay Rays, where he was the bench coach, there are really only two players who played multiple positions regularly. Joey Wendle started 85 games at second base, but also started 17 at third base, 13 in left field, seven at shortstop and one at second base. In the outfield, only Mallex Smith really moved around, starting 62 games in center field, 42 games in right and 23 in left, and had Kevin Kiermaier been healthy all year, he likely would have started far fewer games in center.
Which Blue Jays head out to the eight non-pitching defensive positions on any given day is going to be determined by a number of factors. Who’s healthy, who needs a day off, who’s going to DH, the handedness of the pitcher and generally, how the players themselves perform defensively when they’re put out there.
Will Lourdes Gurriel look fantastic at second base all the time? Will he have major deficiencies at a certain position, making Montoyo less inclined to have him play multiple positions? How about Brandon Drury, once Vladimir Guerrero Jr. arrives? What about Richard Urena, who will likely be called upon to play three infield positions? How is Teoscar Hernandez looking in left field? Does he need to be hidden more at the DH position?
The interesting thing is that the Blue Jays are actually likely more flexible in their defensive alignment now than they will be once players return from injury. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. isn’t going to play anywhere other than third base. Devon Travis (bless his heart) can really only play second base. While the Kendrys Morales trade helped the Jays get younger and gave Rowdy Tellez an opportunity to see what he can do, he’s also a positionally limited player in the same way as Morales (although he can probably acquit himself better at first base). So, the way I see it, the Blue Jays are probably going to get less positionally flexible as reinforcements arrive.
When Vlad arrives, I can see one of two scenarios, depending on Brandon Drury’s performance. If he’s hitting, he moves to second base and will likely play five or six games a week there. They’ll find Gurriel maybe four games a week spelling Galvis at short and Drury at second and maybe a game in left field or DH once a week or so.
If Gurriel is hitting and Drury isn’t, I can see Gurriel staying mostly at second with Drury taking occasional games at second with Gurriel moving to short once in a while and possibly Drury moving to left field with either McKinney, Tellez or Teoscar (if it’s a lefthanded pitcher) at DH.
But once Vlad arrives, the lineup is probably going to get a whole lot less flexible than what all the broadcasters have been talking about and if Devon Travis comes back and starts to hit like we had hoped he could when he first arrived, then things get locked in even more.
So positional flexibility? I have a feeling that we’re going to still see “old school” despite the new regime.
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