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Blue Jays: When Lourdes Gurriel Jr. changed his future in Toronto

Sep 18, 2021; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Blue Jays left fielder Lourdes Gurriel Jr. (left) laughs with first baseman Vladimir Guerrero Jr (right) during the seventh inning against the Minnesota Twins at Rogers Centre. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 18, 2021; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Blue Jays left fielder Lourdes Gurriel Jr. (left) laughs with first baseman Vladimir Guerrero Jr (right) during the seventh inning against the Minnesota Twins at Rogers Centre. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports /
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Lourdes Gurriel Jr‘s season wasn’t going so well with the Blue Jays in 2021, but the 28 year old had a breakthrough at the beginning of August, and may have changed his future in the process.

It’s easy to forget about after the way he finished the 2021 campaign, but Gurriel Jr. really struggled at the plate for the first two months of the season. He was hitting just .195/.215/.276 at the conclusion of their mid-May series with Atlanta on May 13th, and was still slashing just .260/.292/.414 at the end of July after a solid June to bring his numbers back up to a respectable range. He hadn’t found his power stroke at that point either, as he had collected just 11 home runs and 42 RBI over more than four months of the season.

It wasn’t until the calendar flipped to August that the popular outfielder got things going at the plate, and he finished the regular season as one of the team’s hottest and most important hitters over the last two months. He made a crucial impact on the Blue Jays’ playoff chances, and without him they likely weren’t playing meaningful baseball right up until Game 162.

And in my mind, that’s exactly what Gurriel Jr. had to do to secure a future in Toronto with the Blue Jays.

There’s no doubt that he’s a popular player in the clubhouse, but prior to figuring things out halfway through the summer Gurriel Jr. really wasn’t bringing a lot to the table on the field. He was a below average hitter as a corner outfielder, and other than a cannon for an arm, all too often he was a liability in the outfield on defence as well.

It’s clear that confidence plays a huge part in the Cuban-born player’s game, because as soon as his batting improved then so did his glove work. He finished the season as a 0.2 dWAR defender according to Baseball Reference, which is not only a career high, but it’s also the first time he’s finished in the positives by that measure.

The more important part was the contribution he brought with his bat, and the difference was night and day. He slashed .316/.381/.487 in August and then hit a new gear in September when he slashed .301/.359/.634 with seven home runs, six doubles, and 30 RBI over just 103 plate appearances. Again, the Blue Jays are likely eliminated a lot earlier if not for the tear that Gurriel Jr. went on, and it made up for a slow start to the season. His totals for the year ended up looking pretty solid as he slashed .276/.319/.466 with 21 home runs, 84 RBI, and 28 doubles, good for 2.8 bWAR overall.

As I said, things were in a very different place back at the end of July, and at that point I was starting to question Gurriel Jr’s place with the Blue Jays over the long-term. He’s still on a team-friendly deal for two more seasons at 4.5 and 5.4 million according to Spotrac, and then has a third year of control for the Blue Jays through the arbitration process. That said, I started to wonder if the Jays wouldn’t try to use him as a trade chip over the winter before another year went by on his bargain contract and he lost some of that trade value. His hitting wasn’t enough to make up for his shaky defence, and I understood why his name came up in trade rumours so often.

Looking ahead I don’t expect that to be the case any longer. When he’s performing to his potential there’s no doubt that Gurriel Jr. is a lethal weapon in the Blue Jays’ lineup, and he’s shown that he can be at least a serviceable corner outfielder. And as important as anything else, he’s clearly a close friend to franchise cornerstone Vladimir Guerrero Jr., and a beloved figure among his teammates and even the fan base.

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If you’d asked me three months ago if I thought Gurriel Jr. would be traded this offseason, I would have said yes. After the way he finished up the 2021 campaign, and also the way we saw this young core gel over the stretch run, I don’t think there’s any chance he’ll be moved now.

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