Just over one year ago, the Toronto Blue Jays signed George Springer to a six-year, $150MM contract, the largest deal in franchise history. After that signing, it was speculated by many that a trade could follow, given that they already had three other capable outfielders in Lourdes Gurriel Jr., Teoscar Hernandez and Randal Grichuk. Instead, they ended up hanging onto all four players, which may have been the wise choice, as Springer spent significant time on the IL, appearing in just 78 games and only playing center field in 40 of those.
In his absence, center field was largely manned by Grichuk, who spent parts of 96 games there, including 87 starts. Unfortunately, he had arguably the worst season of his career. He’s never been an on-base guy, with a 6.3% walk rate back in 2015 marking his career high. But he slipped even lower in 2021, landing at 5.0%, his lowest since his debut season in 2014. On the positive side, he dropped his strikeout rate to 20.9%, a career best. He also still showed some power by hitting 22 home runs. His center field defense was passable, being rated as just below average by all three of DRS, UZR and OAA. But in the end, his line for the season was .241/.281/.423. His wRC+ of 85 was five points lower than his previous career low, and his 0.4 fWAR was his lowest since his 47-game debut in 2014.
Back in early December, it was reported that the Blue Jays and Brewers had discussions on a trade centered around Grichuk and Jackie Bradley Jr., before the Brewers and Red Sox agreed to a deal with a framework of Bradley and Hunter Renfroe. This suggests the Jays have at least some openness to moving on from the two years and $20.67MM remaining on the extension they inked with Grichuk in April of 2019.
Trading Grichuk now is awkward for a couple reasons, even beyond the lockout. His value is surely at a low ebb, given the disappointing season he just had in 2021. There’s also the fact that the club would be lacking in outfield depth without him. Outside of the aforementioned group of Springer, Gurriel and Hernandez, the only other regular outfielder on the 40-man roster is Josh Palacios, who also missed significant time with injury last year and has only played 16 career Triple-A games and 13 MLB games. Cavan Biggio has seen a bit of time in the outfield, but he’s still pencilled in for significant infield time at the moment. He also dealt with injuries last year, appearing in just 79 games. However, the team could also add some outfield depth after a Grichuk trade, perhaps by bringing back Corey Dickerson, who recently spoke highly of his time with the Jays last year.
One thing that could potentially work in the Jays’ favour is the lack of available free agent center fielders, with the best remaining options being bench/platoon types like Brett Gardner or Kevin Pillar. Grichuk’s poor 2021 notwithstanding, center fielders who play cromulent defense and reliably hit 20-plus home runs per season don’t grow on trees. Teams with designs on competing and questions in center field could perhaps take a chance on him, especially considering he isn’t likely to demand much of a return. The Phillies need help in the outfield and elsewhere, but likely don’t have a ton of money or young talent to trade. The Rockies have designs on competing and need outfield upgrades, having been connected to Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber this offseason. If they fail to lure in one of those high profile options, they’ll have to consider alternatives. The Marlins are known to be looking for center field help and don’t usually throw around big bucks in free agency, making them theoretical suitors for a lower-cost option like Grichuk.
Given Grichuk’s contract and mediocre 2021 season, it’s unlikely the Jays are able to line up a trade during what will surely be a frenzy of transactions between the theoretical end of the lockout and the beginning of the season. However, if they can, it would free up some payroll space for them to upgrade their infield and pitching staff, as they look to build off a 91-win campaign in 2021.