In the last few weeks, we’ve examined most parts of the Blue Jays roster, with needs highlighted and potential solutions. Today, we look at the last part of the roster, the outfield. It’s an area that all agree needs to improve if the team is going to compete any time soon. While it has a busload of potential players to fill the spots, unlike the infield, it lacks any real hot prospects of “sure things.” The minor league system is also far from loaded with talent in positions “7-8-9”. Ross Atkins has said it’s an area he’s focused on, for what that’s worth.
The Jays used any number of outfielders in ’19, including Jonathan Davis, Anthony Alford and Derek Fisher, but the core trio for most of the season consisted of Randal Grichuk, Teoscar Hernandez and Lourdes Gurriel. Individually, none of them is a bad player. Problem is, all things considered, probably only Gurriel is even league average and collectively that makes for a bad outfield. Weak fielding, weak hitting. An upgrade is necessary, preferably two.
Of the three, Gurriel is the one I’d most like to keep as an everyday player for ’20. He’ll only be 26 next spring, and has shown slow but steady improvement over his two seasons in Toronto. He’s also had his share of injuries, making his two year total a one-year like total of 149 games played, over which he hit .279 with 31 homers and 85 RBI, and a .499 slugging percentage. However, the latter jumped up noticeably in ’19 from .446 to .541. He’s been a negative defensive WAR both seasons, but seemed to be rounding into shape as an OK-ish left fielder after being moved out from the middle infield where he began his major league career. If he could stay healthy he could probably become an average left fielder who could shine with 25-30 homers and a close to .300 average. I’m OK with him being the opening day LF… but wouldn’t turn down a good offer for him if another team wanted him as part of a package to part with a starting pitcher or star outfielder.
Outfield help could come in the usual manner of ways – trade or free agency. This year’s crop of MLB free agents in the outfield is a little sub-par, but not without any hope. Marcell Ozuna is interesting, but with a combination of A) his subpar defense, B) his drop-off in numbers in St. Louis compared to his early career in Miami and C) his standout star performance in the post-season, one has to think his salary might not end up close to his actual value to the team. I’d check in on him, but assuming he’s not going to go for something like three years and $30-36M, I’d move along. I expect I’d be moving along.
More viable options would be Alex Gordon or Corey Dickerson. Both would improve the outfield “D” with their gloves and throwing arms – Gordon’s won Gold Gloves the last three years and Dickerson took one home in 2018. Both hit left-handed too, something of a weakness in the 2019 Jays lineup. Of the two, I’d focus more on Dickerson, being younger (31 to Gordon’s 36 by spring), earning less than half of what Gordon did last year and thus perhaps looking for a little less to sign, and seeming to offer more of an offensive upside. Indeed, Gordon’s hitting isn’t anything special at all – he has a .258 career average and his .266 last year was highest since 2015, but he’s come in below league average OPS for the last 4-straight seasons. However, his great glove still makes him a “+” WAR player annually.
Dickerson on the other hand, is perhaps still on the ascent of his career. It’s noteworthy his numbers didn’t drop off after leaving Colorado as many expected. Last year in Pennsy (splitting the year between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia before having his season ended prematurely with a fractured foot), he got in half a year’s worth of games – 78 – and hit .304 with a great .906 OPS and 12 homers, 59 RBI. His career average is .286.
Another name we’ve heard is Kevin Pillar . Pillar is like a younger Gordon… sort of a Gordon-lite. He’s popular in Toronto,where he spent his first six seasons (and got in 5 games last year before being traded to SF) and has made some of the most spectacular catches seen in the Rogers Centre this century. He did hit career highs with 21 homers and 88 RBI last year, and averages 38 doubles per year over the past three. The downside though is his speed is starting to leave, and his hitting has always been below league-average due to his impatience. Last year he managed only 18 walks against 89 strikeouts and the best on base of his career was a middling .314 in 2015. That was the year his WAR peaked, at 4.9; since it’s dropped by the year to 3.5, 3, 2.5 and just 1 last year. I wouldn’t rule out signing Kevin again if demand for him is low enough to keep the money low, as he’s popular, a good clubhouse guy and still a bit better than average in the field. But I wouldn’t look to him to be an everyday CF anymore and wouldn’t break the bank to bring him back.
However, just because the crop of free agent major league outfielders is a bit weak doesn’t mean the total field is a bust. This winter two Japanese stars are wanting to come on over – Shogo Akiyama and Yushitomo Tsutsugo. Both hit left-handed. Come spring time, Akiyama will be 32, Tsutsogo 28. Of the two, Akiyama is speedier and a better defensive outfielder, being a star CF for the Seibu Lions. Tsutsogo is a big-time power hitter with weak defensive skills but the ability to play the infield corners as well as left field. Akiyama also comes with the bonus of being an unrestricted free agent whereas the younger player will require posting fees be paid to his old club, Yokohama.
Akiyama is durable and a 9-year Nippon league veteran with a .301 career average which has risen to .323/.322 and .303 through the past three. He also averages over 70 walks a year and has 10+ steals seven of his nine campaigns. In 2016,he hit a Suzuki-like .359 with 216 hits in 143 games. He’s a five-time All Star there with great outfield speed. The Cubs are said to be hot in pursuit of him.
The Jays (as well as the Twins) have been heavily linked to the younger Tsutsogo in rumors. If so, they’d better strike soon – the odd international rules mean he’ll have to sign in North America in the next 10 days or play another year in Japan – I don’t make the rules, so don’t ask me why. He’s played 130+ games every year from 2014 on (remember, their season is about a month shorter than ours) and posts a .284 career average with a .525 career slugging percentage. Even though his OPS last year fell to a 6-year low of .899, he still hit .272 with 29 homers. Over the past four years, he averages 87 walks a season (about what Kevin Pillar would get cumulatively in four) and 35 homers. One unnamed exec has said (according to Jon Paul Morosi at mlb.com) that he questions if he has the skills to be a major league left fielder, but his bat makes it worth the while for an AL team to take a chance on it. They could always DH him or put him on first base if he flops in the outfield.
Based on past performance of hitters coming over from Japan, we should expect a drop-off but not a terrible one when they hit the MLB. It’s not unreasonable to expect Akiyama to perhaps be a .280 hitter with 10-15 steals and a good on-base over here; Tsutsogo could potentially be a 30-35 home run guy here with the longer season – particularly in the AL East with our parks.
I’d take serious run at bringing in Akiyama but also be in touch with Tsutsogo. If Akiyama seemed to want too much, or was too focused on going to the Windy city, I’d make a quick offer to Tsutsogo of three years and about $30M (they would also need to pay the Japanese team several million if successful.) A side-effect of the Cubs interest would be if they sign Akiyama, they’re expected to trade Albert Almora Jr., another Kevin Pillar-like player (great person, very good fielder, weak hitter) who might be of use to Toronto. Badfinger 20 mentions that the Dodgers might well trade Joc Pederson, another lefty who never quite became the superstar he was expected to be in his 2015 rookie season but still is a solid hitter (36 homers last year) who at least will take a walk – 50 last year meaning a .339 on base.
Options aplenty, we have to hope Ross Atkins will shuffle the deck and bring on at least one star-quality everyday outfielder, another backup-type one (as in Pillar, maybe speedy Rajai Davis) and be willing to thin out the crop of existing Jays to make roster room for them.
Next time, we’ll have an overview of what the 2020 roster could look like … and start to look at the Hall of Fame and who should be getting in next year.