DUNEDIN, Fla. – The last time Randal Grichuk played centre field regularly for a full season, irritation and a clicking sensation in his left knee made the experience miserable.
In hindsight, he figures that on most of those nights with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2016, he shouldn’t have taken the field. One of those games, however, right out of the all-star break in Miami after he had a shot to alleviate his pain, came in handy last year when he and David Phelps became teammates on the Toronto Blue Jays.
“I had an injection and I was like, ‘There’s no way I’m going to play Friday after the break,’” said Grichuk. “I should not have played, I played, and I homered off Phelpsie. I joked with him, ‘I shouldn’t have even played that day.’ And he said, ‘I wish you wouldn’t have because I’d have one less homer given up.’
“I’ve battled a lot of stuff when I’ve been in centre,” he continued, “so I’m kind of excited to get a chance to play every day. Obviously I know, six months, things can change. But I’m going to work out there as if I’m going to be out there until they tell me different.”
The Blue Jays seem determined to give Grichuk that chance this season, with GM Ross Atkins unexpectedly declaring that the 28-year-old starting in centre on opening day was the club’s “most likely scenario,” during a newsy Friday. Manager Charlie Montoyo also revealed that Ryan Borucki is shut down with left elbow tightness — a troubling development given that he had essentially his entire 2019 wiped out by elbow troubles.
An MRI revealed that the discomfort “is just tightness,” said Atkins, but caution will be of the first order for the 25-year-old coming off surgery to clean up some bone spurs.
Grichuk underwent surgery to remove loose cartilage in his left knee after that 2016 season, and the next season he split time between left and right field after the Cardinals signed Dexter Fowler in free agency. The Blue Jays acquired him after the 2017 season and installed him in right field, although he played 26 games in centre, and then slid him over last year following the sudden trade of Kevin Pillar to the San Francisco Giants a week into the campaign.
This winter, the Blue Jays kicked tires on trade candidates like Joc Pederson and Jackie Bradley Jr., and considered free agents like Jarrod Dyson, and if the overall program was a bit further along, perhaps they would have pulled the trigger.
Instead, Grichuk said Atkins floated the possibility of playing centre field over the winter, and given where the roster is at, doing so lets the Blue Jays give Teoscar Hernandez more run in the hopes he can more consistently be like the second-half player who posted a .939 OPS.
Hernandez played 79 games in centre last year, but the thinking now is that allowing him to settle into right field might provide him some more comfort. With Lourdes Gurriel Jr., locked into left field, the current plan is to rejig the incumbent trio from last year — although big springs from the out-of-options duo of Derek Fisher and Anthony Alford could change things.
“There are several scenarios and we don’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves but we have a lot of options,” said Atkins. “Obviously Lourdes established himself really well in left field and we feel good about Teoscar Hernandez running around in different positions.
“He’s continuing to work very hard on his defence. He’s passionate about it. And then we have some other alternatives to be in the mix for our team. Those are the three that are probably the most established and as we sit today, would get the bulk of the playing time.”
The Blue Jays expect such an alignment to deliver better defence, as well. Grichuk has played 250 games in centre over his six big-league seasons, 62 of them coming last year. Under the Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) metric — which aims to establish how many runs a player saves with his glovework relative to others at the same position — he’s a plus-14 over 1,988.1 innings, including plus-2 last season.
Most of Grichuk’s work in the majors is in right field where DRS rates him as a minus-7 over 2,196.2 career innings, although Statcast’s Outs Above Average points to him making four per cent more catches than expected in 2018 and two per cent more than last year.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that if I’m [in centre] all year the numbers will be better than they’ve been,” said Grichuk. “Honestly, I don’t mind either way. Last year, it was last second, Pillar is going, you’re in there. Knowing I can get reps in at spring training workouts and then in games, I’ll feel comfortable out there.”
Borucki’s path to that same comfort on the field right now starts with eliminating the tightness in his elbow, which started two weeks ago during his throwing program. He stressed that the shutdown is strictly precautionary, but so too was the one last spring, when he was only supposed to miss a start or two.
Instead, he made only two big-league starts all year.
“It’s nothing like last year,” said Borucki. “I know the difference between those kinds of things and it’s just going to be one of those things where it’s just going to be five, six days rest and ramp back up. It should be pretty minor.”
Ben Nicholson-Smith is Sportsnet’s baseball editor. Arden Zwelling is a senior writer. Together, they bring you the most in-depth Blue Jays podcast in the league, covering off all the latest news with opinion and analysis, as well as interviews with other insiders and team members.
Minor or not, there are implications on the race for the fifth starter’s spot, which also includes Trent Thornton and Shun Yamaguchi, who’ll need to impress this spring to dislodge the former. Camp is two days old and Borucki is already playing catchup.
“I’m more worried about staying healthy for the entire year,” he said. “If I’m not ready by the end of spring training it is what it is, I’ll have to go where I have to go. But I just want to be healthy for the whole season.
“I’m not going to rush to try to get back and end up hurting myself again. I’m no good on the training table. I’m better on the field.”
• Ross Atkins all but officially anointed Hyun-Jin Ryu as the opening day starter, stopping just short of formalizing the obvious.
“It’s going to be hard to see a scenario where it’s not Ryu,” he said. “That’s health dependent obviously, and breaking camp, that would be the most likely scenario.”
• Starter Tanner Roark and reliever Rafael Dolis are the only pitchers yet to report. Roark’s arrival was delayed for personal reasons, while Dolis is awaiting his visa but is expected Sunday or Monday.
• Shun Yamaguchi on his approach to camp: “I obviously have the mentality of going in as a starter. I’m looking to win the competition there.”