Players Blue Jays should target to improve outfield defence

The Blue Jays and Cardinals could be good trading partners this winter, with outfielders Dylan Carlson or Lars Nootbar being the focal point for Toronto. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
The Blue Jays and Cardinals could be good trading partners this winter, with outfielders Dylan Carlson or Lars Nootbar being the focal point for Toronto. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

The phrase “run prevention” should sound familiar if you’ve heard Mark Shapiro or Ross Atkins speak to the media. And while the Toronto Blue Jays have improved in that department recently, they’re still far from being a finished product.

Pitching is likely one of the first things that will stand out when thinking about run prevention, as it should. Though, preventing the opposition from scoring runs deeper than just being effective on the mound.

Excelling in that area also requires a team to feature enough quality defenders in the infield and outfield. But that hasn’t always been the case for the Blue Jays throughout their competitive window, especially prior to the 2022 season.

Last offseason’s addition of Matt Chapman was a step forward as it filled a significant void at third base, which the front office had struggled to address following the Josh Donaldson era. That move also allowed Santiago Espinal to slide over to second base, where he provided Gold Glove-calibre defence.

The midseason acquisition of versatile defender Whit Merrifield improved Toronto’s fielding even further, particularly at second base, as he registered +2 OAA (Outs Above Average) across 157.0 innings. He was also serviceable in left field, centre, right and at first base.

In the outfield, however, the club’s defence remained a liability as it ranked 18th in Defensive Runs Saved (-3) and OAA (-3) among all 30 MLB franchises, according to Fangraphs. They also finished 27th in UZR (-17.1), which quantifies how many runs a player saved or gave up through their fielding prowess

So it’s usually not an encouraging sign when your total value is in the negatives — or when it ranks well below league average.

Progress has already been made this offseason following the departures of Teoscar Hernández (-2 DRS, -4 OAA in 2022) and Raimel Tapia (-4 DRS, -5 OAA). And with George Springer likely to spend additional reps in right field, where he owns +12 DRS and +5 OAA in his career, Toronto’s outfield defence should take a step forward next season.

But, while replacing Hernández’s offensive output will be crucial, it’ll be just as vital to locate someone who can provide a defensive upgrade, preferably in centre and right field. The same goes for the team’s fourth outfielder position, as well.

Brandon Nimmo, the second-best outfielder on the open market behind superstar Aaron Judge, is the player that best matches that description in free agency. It’s unclear if the Blue Jays are willing to pay top dollar for the 29-year-old, though, as he’s sure to command at least $100 million on a long-term deal, but they have reportedly expressed interest.

There is no denying that Nimmo would be a perfect fit for the franchise’s right-handed-heavy lineup. Despite his previous injury concerns, the left-hander hit .274/.367/.433 with a .353 wOBA and a 134 wRC+ over 151 games with the New York Mets last season.

The 6-foot-3 outfielder also provided plenty of defensive value as his OAA (+6) and arm strength (88.1 mph per throw) ranked in the 90th and 72nd percentiles, respectively. And with his sprint speed (28.7 feet per second) placing in 84th, his range remains at its peak.

Beyond Nimmo, unfortunately, the talent level in free agency drops off considerably, but there is a small pool of intriguing outfielders, albeit ones that come with serious red flags.

Joey Gallo, a two-time Gold Glove winner, could draw interest from the Blue Jays because of his stellar defensive abilities. He’s no spring chicken anymore, though he is still considered a plus defender in all three outfield positions.

The 29-year-old would provide far more defensive upside than Hernández’s previous value in right field, as he’s posted +31 DRS, +9 OAA and a 12.5 UZR over 1,663.0 career innings. He probably wouldn’t move the needle for the team’s offence, though.

Gallo is a true three-outcome hitter — someone who either walks, strikes out or hits a home run — but does bat from the left side. So he would bring some much-needed offensive balance, although after slashing .160/.280/.357 last season, it’d likely be as a fourth outfielder.

The Blue Jays have also reportedly looked into Japan’s Masataka Yoshida, who profiles as an everyday power-hitting corner outfielder. The 29-year-old finished with a career-best .557 slugging percentage in 2022, however, defence isn’t one of his strong suits.

If Nimmo proves overly expensive, the trade market could be Toronto’s next-best alternative, with St. Louis’ Lars Nootbaar and Dylan Carlson as two logical targets. Both outfielders are under team control through at least 2026 and are considered plus defenders in centre field.

With long-time Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina retired, the front office is currently searching for a new everyday backstop. And since the Blue Jays feature a surplus of options behind the plate, the two sides could potentially locate common ground toward a deal.

Along those same lines, the Arizona Diamondbacks might be another viable trade partner if either Alek Thomas or Daulton Varsho becomes available. They’d each likely provide more defensive value than offensive but would join the club’s young core, as they’re also under team control through at least 2026.

Additional trade targets who could be featured on the front office’s wish list include Pittsburgh’s Bryan Reynolds, Chicago’s Ian Happ and Minnesota’s Max Kepler. There is plenty of uncertainty about whether any of these players will be traded, though.

This year’s offseason hasn’t delivered the same intensity as last winter, but how could it? It’s not like the sport is facing an impending lockout this time, so the pace was destined to slow down in comparison.

But with the first in-person winter meetings since 2019 beginning in San Diego on Sunday, things could escalate quickly when all the top baseball executives gather on the west coast. Maybe that’ll be when the Blue Jays add to their rather thin outfield depth.

If they do, chances are they’ll be acquiring someone who can improve their roster defensively and offensively.

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