Without what I see as an obvious candidate to hit lead off for the Blue Jays, Lourdes Gurriel Jr. makes as much sense as anyone in the role for 2019.
The Blue Jays have had plenty of offensive weapons in the last four seasons, even if the results have been mixed. Power hitters like Jose Bautista, Josh Donaldson, Edwin Encarnacion, Justin Smoak, and many more have intimidated pitchers in the AL East for a few years now, but the team has consistently lacked one thing: a lead off hitter.
Devon Travis had some success as the guy earlier in his career, and the Jays acquired Ben Revere in 2015 to add some speed to the lineup, but even he wasn’t an ideal guy. Really, it’s hard to say what that “ideal” guy is in baseball these days, other than an above average ability to get on base. We don’t see exactly the same profile that we have throughout baseball history, but speed also helps too.
For the Blue Jays, 2019 will be another year without an obvious candidate for the role. I’ve noticed several fans and writers suggest that Billy McKinney could be the guy in Toronto next guy, but I’m not sure I’m ready to assume he’ll be given a starting job, or an every day role. For me, I’d like to see someone who is going to handle the duty on a pretty regular basis, and if I had my choice the job would be given to Lourdes Gurriel Jr.
The 24 year old has some polishing left to do on his MLB game, but he showed us plenty of reasons to get excited last year in his short 65 game stint at the highest level. He broke a rookie record for multi-hit games, showed plenty of skill at the plate, and flashed potential with a strong throwing arm that should eventually make him a defensive asset. And at least for the short term, he showed me that the Blue Jays should be counting on him, and pushing him offensively.
You’d like to see his on base percentage a little higher at the top of the lineup, but Gurriel’s .281/.309/.446 slash line was definitely serviceable as a rookie, and he also added 11 home runs, eight doubles, and 35 RBI in 249 at bats. The numbers didn’t tell the full story for me though, as he looks like a guy with a lot of unlocked potential at the plate, and someone who should only continue to improve with more experience against big league pitching.
I like him at the top of the lineup for a couple of reasons. As I mentioned earlier, I’d like to see the Blue Jays push him to hit the highest potential he can at the plate. There are several elite names that are still “just prospects”, but their young core should include plus hitters like Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette, Danny Jansen, Cavan Biggio, and potentially more. Gurriel’s defensive versatility is already a tremendous asset, but if he can become either an every day infielder, or the Blue Jays’ version of Marwin Gonzalez, that would go a long way toward lengthening the lineup.
Secondly, I don’t see there being another great fit for the role on the Blue Jays. I don’t think Devon Travis or Billy McKinney are necessarily better options, and I don’t expect either to play every day. Not that an everyday player at the top of the lineup is as important as it used to be, but it doesn’t hurt either. Beyond those two though, you’d have to be going outside of the box for someone like a high OBP option like Smoak, or others like Randal Grichuk and Teoscar Hernandez who were tried out last year.
Most importantly, Gurriel Jr. will get a ton of at bats, and hopefully the experience will bring out the most in his ability. From the limited opportunity we’ve had to watch him so far it seems like the sky could be the limit for the talented Cuban, and hopefully 2019 brings a fully healthy season, and a chance to witness what he’s fully capable of.