When the Blue Jays were at their peak in 2015-16, the outfield wasn’t much of an issue. Jose Bautista was holding down right field as one of MLB’s most feared hitters — the brash owner of a .243/.372/.499 slash line that underscored his patience at the plate and his thunderous power. In center field, Kevin Pillar was a staple on highlight reels thanks to a superhuman defensive prowess that led to his gaudy 38 Defensive Runs Saved in that two-year stretch. Pillar’s .272/.309/.388 slash wasn’t particularly impressive, but paired with his world-beating defense, that made him a plenty valuable player on the whole.
Left field was a bit shakier, if only because of persistent injury troubles for the since-retired Michael Saunders. More often than not, Saunders was in the lineup, though the Jays also trotted out Ben Revere, Ezequiel Carrera and Danny Valencia at times. That was the closest they’ve come to any real inconsistency in that time.
That continuity feels like a distant memory now, as the Jays have since turned over their entire outfield mix on multiple occasions and yet still don’t have much certainty. It appears likely that 2019 breakout slugger Lourdes Gurriel Jr. will get the first look in left field whenever play resumes. His 2019 season at the plate was undeniably impressive — .277/.327/.541, 20 homers in 343 PAs — but it also came in a season that was skewed by a juiced ball. Gurriel’s glovework didn’t rate well, either, though he’s a converted infielder so perhaps there’ll be an uptick with more experience.
Center field seems likely to go to Randal Grichuk, though at this point that’s because of his contract more than his recent play. The Jays signed Grichuk to a surprising extension last spring, and Grichuk responded with a career-worst .232/.280/.457 slash. That .280 OBP was the worst in baseball among qualified hitters. Even without a 2020 season, Grichuk would still be owed $29MM from 2021-23, so he’s sure to get a chance (or multiple chances) at redemption — but a replacement-level showing in year one of the deal isn’t what the Jays had in mind.
The remaining outfield options (in alphabetical order):
- Anthony Alford, drafted in third round (2012): A two-sport star who could’ve pursued a career in football as well, Alford has received just 59 plate appearances in the past three seasons and now finds himself out of minor league options. Alford was a top 100 prospect each year from 2016-18, but he’s yet to even hit in Triple-A and now has no clear path to playing time in such a crowded mix.
- Jonathan Davis, drafted in the 15th round (2013): Davis will turn 28 in a few weeks and has just 122 MLB plate appearances to his credit (with a .185/.264/.259 slash). Davis runs well and has shown a patient eye at the plate in the upper minors, but he’s been a roughly average bat in Triple-A and seems more like a fourth outfielder than a big league regular.
- Brandon Drury, acquired from Yankees in exchange for J.A. Happ: As recently as 2016-17, Drury looked like a solid multi-positional piece with the D-backs. Since hitting .275/.323/.453 in that stretch, though, he’s been traded to the Yankees and then the Jays, hitting just .210/.261/.362 in 533 plate appearances along the way. Drury popped up an astonishing 21 times in just 447 plate appearances this past season, and his strikeout rate has risen from 20 percent in ’16 to 25.3 percent in ’19.
- Derek Fisher, acquired from the Astros in exchange for Aaron Sanchez, Joe Biagini: With George Springer, Josh Reddick, Michael Brantley, Jake Marisnick and Kyle Tucker all ahead of him during his time with Houston, Fisher never got much of a chance. Like McKinney, he’s not fooled by Triple-A pitching (career .289/.379/.520), but Fisher has whiffed in nearly 37 percent of his 419 Major League plate appearances — including a 40.2 percent mark in 107 PAs with Toronto. He, too, is out of minor league options.
- Teoscar Hernandez, acquired from the Astros in exchange for Francisco Liriano: Hernandez came to the Jays as an exit-velocity darling and still makes plenty of good contact, but his hard-hit rate and average exit velo did trend in the wrong direction last year. His strikeout issues aren’t as pronounced as those of Fisher, but Hernandez has punched out at a 32 percent clip in just shy of 1000 Blue Jays plate appearances.
- Billy McKinney, acquired from Yankees in exchange for J.A. Happ: A former first-round pick (Athletics, 2013), McKinney has been traded from Oakland to Chicago to New York to Toronto — never receiving a real big league opportunity prior to Toronto. He’s since appeared in 120 games and taken 404 plate appearances with the Jays, but he’s mustered a tepid .227/.289/.437 slash in that stretch. McKinney has consistently hit Triple-A pitching, but that hasn’t stopped the Jays from acquiring new outfield options to join the competition.
The Jays have a potential breakout candidate in left field (Gurriel), a rebound candidate in center (Grichuk) and what seems competition brewing in a make-or-break year for many of their remaining players. The DH spot will give them some extra opportunities to evaluate all of their options from an offensive standpoint, but they’ll also want to get a look at Rowdy Tellez in that spot.
Both Alford and Fisher need to remain on the big league roster or else be exposed to waiver, while Hernandez and McKinney each have just one option year remaining. Drury is more of a utility option than an everyday piece in the outfield, but he was already in danger of being non-tendered this winter and is down to his final option year as well.
On the whole, it’s a rather underwhelming cast of characters despite the club’s considerable efforts to bring together a mix of intriguing, often post-hype outfield candidates. Between this group’s eroding minor league options and talk of Cavan Biggio eventually moving to the outfield — although defensive metrics thought his work at second base was plenty good in ’19 — it’s possible that no one from this set of players will be a part of the next contending outfield unit in Toronto.
The Jays already made one aggressive, win-now move this winter when they signed Hyun-Jin Ryu, and team president Mark Shapiro recently indicated that the Jays could use a center field upgrade. If this group can’t get it done whenever play resumes, it seems likely that Shapiro, GM Ross Atkins and the rest of the front office will be left with little choice other than pursuing more established options now that the club is moving away from its rebuilding phase.