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Battle brewing for third base this Spring Training amongst internal candidates

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Tyson Shushkewich
3 months ago
Yesterday morning, Toronto Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins answered questions from the media and addressed some of the lingering topics from the offseason. This included the Shohei Ohtani free agency saga, the moves the Jays had made so far this winter, and what the fanbase could be expecting from the front office over the next couple of months.
While the meeting wasn’t made available for the public, the Jays beat summarized his points well, with fans gravitating to a few particular comments made by the executive regarding remaining free agency moves.
“The things I think we’re missing aren’t people… The [thing] we were missing was our ability to help the players, which we feel like we’ve worked to offset and put ourselves in a much better position… I think we have plenty of power to drive in runs, it doesn’t mean we’re not open to adding another power bat, but if you just name off the four or five guys at the top of our lineup, they all drive in runs and they all hit home runs. We have plenty of power. We project to score runs again and feel optimistic we will.”
There was more to the conference than the quotes above, but it does signal that the Jays are potentially looking at adding another bat or two, but most likely in the outfield or DH spot as opposed to another infielder.
This does make sense in that a majority of the remaining bat-first free-agent targets (Rhys Hoskins, J.D. Martinez, Joc Pederson, and Jorge Soler to name a few) are likely spending most of their time in the DH role or in a limited capacity on the field, whether that is first base or in the outfield. Cody Bellinger is the obvious outlier for the scenario mentioned above but after the signing of Kevin Kiermaier, the idea of Bellinger coming to Canada seems a little out of reach compared to earlier this winter.
Considering the idea that the Jays seem keen on working with the pieces that they have, there is the glaring hole over at third base that needs to be addressed. Matt Chapman is likely not coming back, given the recent comments by Atkins (although that could be a tactic, who knows), but in any given sense, the Jays currently have to prepare for Spring Training like he won’t be returning. If Chapman truly doesn’t return and the Jays do follow through and find players who aren’t keen on third base, the competition for regular reps at the spot will be at an all-time high come March.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as competition in the spring can weed out the worthy from the weak, especially since the Blue Jays are in a competitive window to contend again this upcoming season. There is some inherent risk with a move such as this, as we saw with Cavan Biggio struggling with the hot corner back in 2021 (.935 fielding percentage with nine errors through 411 innings) and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. being moved across the diamond to play first base early in his pro career. That’s not to say times aren’t different now compared to three years ago and both players would likely fare better with more experience under their belt now, it’s just the risk one has to assume with internal options compared to a veteran like Chapman in regards to defensive stability.
Looking at the current roster, assuming all players make it into Blue Jays camp this spring barring any trades, the likes of Biggio and Santiago Espinal likely have the inside track for most of the reps at third base alongside newly acquired utility player Isiah Kiner-Falefa.
Of the three, Kiner-Falefa has the most reps at third with 1207 1/3 innings, although both Espinal and Biggio are not too far behind at 802 2/3 and 557 2/3, respectively. The former Yankee also boasts the highest DRS of the trio at 19, outpacing both Espinal (six) and Biggio (-1) by a wide margin while also boasting a .961 fielding percentage, which is bested only by Espinal who narrowly overtakes his new teammate at .971 although through 400+ fewer innings.
If we look at recent history, the Yankees employed IKF at third base and in the outfield for most of last year’s campaign, with the Hawaii product committing just three errors through 31 games on the left side of the diamond. From an outs above-average perspective, he ranked in the 78th percentile with a +2 OAA and featured an arm that averaged 85.7 MPH per throw. A majority of his OAA total came from third base (+3), while his play in left field dragged him down (-3), with his stints in centre field and shortstop bringing him above the zero line.
With Kiner-Falefa, the Jays are employing an athletic glove-first player who sits in the middle of the road with his bat from a contact standpoint (.306 OBP with 26 home runs through 647 games) but features as a career below-average hitter (81 OPS+).
For Biggio, the left-handed Notre Dame product featured across the diamond and into right field but saw just 57 innings at third base with Matt Chapman taking regular reps at the spot. While he played sparingly through the first few months of the year, Biggio featured in the lineup regularly towards August and hardly missed any action in September. This increase in playing time saw Biggio put forth a .261/.388/.358 slash line through the last two months, finishing with two home runs, 21 RBIs, and a .746 OPS to round out the season. Regular reps saw a better bat out of Biggio as the season wore on. Lastly, there is Espinal, who has struggled to find the early success he had after making the All-Star squad back in 2022.
He posted career lows across his slash line since becoming a regular feature on the Jays roster in 2020. His 80 OPS+ was the lowest mark out of any of the Jays players who spent the entire year on the roster and he also took a step back defensively, posting negative DRS values at both third and second base (-1 each) while committing nine errors (another career high albeit through fewer games than the 2022 season). Because of these struggles, Espinal saw his playing time diminish as the season wore on, working mostly off the bench with a few spot starts throughout the last two months of the year.

An overview of all the internal third base options for the Blue Jays this year

History aside, each one of these players could see some action at third base this season and it will be interesting to see how the rest of the offseason plays out in regards to where manager John Schneider will employ Biggio and IKF. Both players can work in a utility role in the corner outfield spots and across the infield while Epsinal can slot at third, shortstop, or second base and hasn’t set foot in the outfield. Davis Schneider could enter the mix as well at third base, but with Whit Merrifield departing via free agency, I think he will get a shot to lock down second compared to the left side of the infield (Biggio could also enter that competition as well, given his infield history).
While these three likely have the inside track, there are a few other contenders who could shake things up as well.
Ernie Clement had a solid showing when called upon by the Jays last year and boasts 316 2/3 innings at the hot corner through his big league career, authoring a 5 DRS through that time. Clement could easily play his way onto the roster to start the year and if his bat can continue to play across a bigger sample size next year, he could play his way into regular rotations.
Joining Clement is top prospect Orelvis Martinez, who split his time at second base and third last year between double-A and triple-A within the Jays farm system.
While his defensive metrics are a bit lower compared to the other options (career .919 fielding percentage at third), his bat is his calling card, as the Dominican product clubbed 28 home runs and 94 RBIs between both squads and saw a slight decrease in his strikeouts as well, a step in the right direction for the 22-year-old. Martinez likely doesn’t crack the Opening Day roster but could be a midseason callup if the bat continues to play well, which can be said for the likes of Damiano Palmegiani, who like Martinez will start the year in triple-A but could play his way onto the big league squad if the Jays need some life in the lineup.
The possibilities are endless, and for a squad looking for some power in the lineup, there should be no guaranteed third baseman heading into Spring Training, barring a trade or veteran signing.
Let the internal candidates compete for the outright regular spot or potentially platoon the likes of IKF, Biggio, and Espinal around and play the matchups as the club sees fit, as there is more than one way to fill out a lineup with these versatile athletes on the big league roster. I prefer someone wins the job outright after Spring but I guess we will have to wait and see.

ARTICLE PRESENTED BY BETANO

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