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Maintaining lineup flexibility may impact Blue Jays’ DH search
By Thomas Hall1 month ago
While the Toronto Blue Jays have yet to acquire a bat-first free agent thus far, that highly-anticipated move(s) will occur before spring training arrives next month, and it’ll likely come in the form of a designated hitter.
With free agent Brandon Belt unlikely to return in 2024, GM Ross Atkins will be looking to fill the 404 plate appearances – 278 of which were spent as the DH – he consumed a season ago. That’s the easy part, though. The challenging part is locating a suitable replacement for the veteran lefty, who excelled to a 138 wRC+ and was a two-win player in his age-35 campaign.
That productivity will be difficult to replicate, especially at a cost-effective $9.3 million on a one-year deal.
The good news is several impact DHs remain available in free agency, including Jorge Soler, Joc Pederson, J.D. Martinez, Rhys Hoskins and Justin Turner – all of whom would be viable replacements for Belt. At the moment, however, each of their asking prices appears outside management’s comfort zone.
As everyone waits for those markets to cool, Toronto’s front office can sit comfortably, knowing it’s well-positioned to ultimately land one of those five hitters. One factor that should weigh heavily in their DH search is lineup flexibility, particularly maintaining it.
Everyday DHs have become a rare oddity in this current era, as most teams have shifted away from the previous model of committing 400-500 plate appearances to a single player at a bat-only position. And the Blue Jays were no exception to this in 2023, as Belt’s DH reps accounted for 40 per cent of the team’s 696 total plate appearances at that spot.
The Blue Jays almost certainly aren’t interested in raising that figure any higher next season. If anything, they’ll likely be aiming to reduce it. But that’d be nearly impossible to accomplish if they signed Martinez or Hoskins, two sluggers capable of creating damage against both left-handed and right-handed pitching.
Martinez slashed .274/.343/.581 versus lefties and .270/.312/.568 against righties while posting a 130 wRC+ or better in both matchups during his resurgent performance with the Los Angeles Dodgers last season. Despite missing all of 2023 after tearing the ACL in his left knee, Hoskins featured a career 146 wRC+ versus lefties and 118 wRC+ against righties over six seasons with the Philadelphia Phillies.
If you’re the Blue Jays, you probably aren’t going to sign Martinez or Hoskins and not deploy them regularly in situations against both lefties and righties. And since they each carry such little defensive value, they’re best suited for everyday DH roles, limiting the club’s ability to rotate other players – like George Springer and Vladimir Guerrero Jr., among others – through that position.
Springer, in particular, would undoubtedly feel the weight of that less-than-ideal lineup construction. At 34, he’s coming off an underwhelming offensive showing that saw him log the second-most plate appearances (683) of his career while also playing 1,139.2 innings in the outfield, with both trailing only his 2016 campaign in terms of workload.
That was largely the result of circumstances, as the former Houston Astro was virtually guaranteed to be starting in right field if both Guerrero and Belt were also in the lineup with a righty on the mound. Even with Cavan Biggio as an option off the bench, he still ranked 27th out of 111 big-league outfielders (min. 500 innings) in total innings – and was older than all 26 that finished above him.
With that in mind, Springer could probably benefit from having more days off his feet in 2024.
One aspect, however, the Blue Jays don’t want to remove from the equation is his defence in right field, which showcased numerous web gems in 2023 – like his leaping catch versus Cleveland’s José Ramírez on Aug. 27, robbing him of extra bases on a liner that featured a .330 xAVG and a 24 per cent catch probability.
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The full-time move from centre to right field was a tremendous success for all involved, as Springer was the healthiest he’s been as a Blue Jay and served as an above-average defender, posting plus-two DRS and plus-one OAA. But he wasn’t signed to a six-year, $150-million contract for his defence – it was for his top-of-the-order bat.
Keeping the veteran righty in the lineup as often as possible remains the priority. That being said, the club needs to do a better job maximizing his offensive potential, especially after he registered a career-worst 104 wRC+ last season. Additional days as Toronto’s DH would likely help in that regard, considering he spent just 13.8 per cent of his 683 plate appearances in that role a season ago.
To achieve this, however, the Blue Jays would need to target DH types with more defensive versatility than what Martinez, Hoskins and even Turner would provide, which may usher them toward Pederson and Soler – each of whom features prior experience in both corner outfield positions.
Neither would likely execute any jaw-dropping catches next season, as they’re each considered below-average defenders. But they wouldn’t be expected to do so, either. With several reliable defenders already rostered, skipper John Schneider could substitute his bat-first outfielder for a late-game defensive replacement on days when Springer’s the DH.
And the Blue Jays manager could do the same with a platoon right-handed outfielder, too.
This would also ensure Schneider maintains the option of having Alejandro Kirk and Danny Jansen in the starting lineup at catcher and DH – a combination that’d become less frequent next season if multiple external additions occur – rather than having to scrap that strategy altogether.
At an ideal price point, the Blue Jays would surely welcome the opportunity to add an experienced power bat like Martinez or Turner. Or bet on Hoskins returning to his All-Star-calibre form post-surgery, similar to how they did with Marcus Semien in 2021 and Belt last year.
Still, given how much the organization has valued roster flexibility over the years, ending up with Pederson or Soler would be a far more predictable outcome for this team.
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