Taking our first crack at projecting the Blue Jays’ 2023 Opening Day roster
Photo credit:John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
8 months ago
As December is nearing an end, 2023 is right around the corner, meaning Spring Training and another Blue Jays season is on the horizon.
While the front office didn’t make any crazy moves out of the gate this winter, they have been involved in two of the biggest trades this offseason (so far). Ross Atkins and co. moved fan favourite Teoscar Hernández to the Seattle Mariners in mid-November, acquiring reliever Erik Swanson and prospect Adam Macko, and then following that move by trading away catcher Gabriel Moreno and outfielder Lourdes Gurriel Jr. to the Arizona Diamondbacks and acquiring one of the top defensive outfielders in the game in Daulton Varsho.
Factor in that the Jays have also made two notable free agent signings in starter Chris Bassitt and outfielder Kevin Kiermaier, and the Blue Jays have a pretty set roster heading into the 2023 season. A few areas leave some decisions to be made come spring, but overall, a majority of the everyday lineup is set in stone for the time being. Let’s take a look at how this is shaping up.
For this scenario, I am going with the idea that the Blue Jays will head into Opening Day with five starters and eight bullpen arms (max 13) with 13 bench players. MLB teams were allowed to carry 14 pitchers to begin the year last season because of the lockout but this campaign does not appear to have the same stipends in place.
The Infield and Designated Hitter
C/DH – Danny Jansen & Alejandro Kirk
1B – Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
2B – Santiago Espinal/Whit Merrifield
SS – Bo Bichette
3B – Matt Chapman
With the “which catcher will be traded” conversation finally put to rest, the Blue Jays will head into 2023 with Danny Jansen and Alejandro Kirk sharing the workload behind the plate. Jansen is the experienced backstop behind the plate and also saw some improvements with his bat via the limited sample due to various injuries, posting a .855 OPS and a career-high 15 home runs. Kirk flashed what will hopefully be what to expect from the catcher moving forward, amassing a 126 OPS+ with 63 RBI while also improving behind the plate, throwing out 26% of base stealers to the tune of a 9 DRS and sliding in the 94th percentile in terms of framing. Expect him and Jansen to split sometime in the DH spot as well with the Varsho acquisition as well when neither player is catching that particular day/pitcher.
First base, shortstop, and third base are all pretty much locks to start the year, as Guerrero Jr. and Chapman both had great seasons at their respective positions from a defensive standpoint. Bichette had a bit more trouble on the left side of the diamond, committing 23 errors and sitting in the 7th percentile in terms of outs above average (OAA) last year. There are no signs pointing to a position change in the near future given this current core but Bichette does enter the 2023 season as the reigning hits leader in the American League dating back to the 2021 campaign.
The possible second base platoon…
At second base, there appears to be a platoon/Spring Training competition brewing between Santiago Espinal and Whit Merrifield for playing time. Both are right-handed batters but Espinal did post better stats against LHP last season (.826 OPS vs. Merrifield’s .711), with the Dominican product earning his first All-Star appearance as a replacement player. Defensively, Merrifield does have more experience at the position (634 games vs. 120) but Espinal posted a better OAA (96th vs. 90th) and a higher DRS value (4 vs. -1) last year.
There are pros and cons to starting one over the other and uniquely enough, both Espinal and Merrifield can be used in other positions as well across the diamond, with Espinal able to take reps at third base and shortstop while Merrifield can be moved to the outfield as needed. I predict a platoon scenario for these two players with Merrifield filling in defensively in the outfield as necessary.
LF – Daulton Varsho
CF – Kevin Kiermaier
RF – George Springer
These three players are also pretty much locked down to their respective positions for the time being, with Ross Atkins confirming that Varsho would be playing in left field and Kiermaier confirming to the media that he feels that the centre field job is “his to lose”, with the former Ray stating, “They want me to play pretty much every day.”
With all this in mind, the Blue Jays now boast one of the top defensive-ranked outfield groups heading into the 2023 season, with Varsho posting a 19 DRS last season between right and centre field while Kiermaier has three Gold Gloves under his belt playing in centre field while also sitting in the 93rd percentile in sprint speed. Springer will be moving from centre field to right field this year, with the former Astro boasting 564 games at the position throughout his career with a 12 DRS.
These additions will make a difference in the outfield but also in the lineup, with both Varsho and Kiermaier providing some stability from the left side of the plate, which will help balance out the right-handed dominant lineup. Removing the shift and moving to a hitter-friendly park should also help Varsho as well, as he pulled the ball 48.9% and was shifted in 48.2% of his at-bats last year and could add a few more knocks in the AL East.
The biggest question regarding these three is health, as Kiermaier and Springer have missed time throughout the past two seasons (and career for Kiermaier) with various ailments that have kept them out of the lineup. For the Blue Jays to succeed, these two will need to stay healthy, likely mixing in numerous DH stints or rest days to accomplish this through the course of a 162-game season.
With that in mind, it wouldn’t be surprising if the Blue Jays sign another outfielder that could help offset Varsho against LHP, as he struggles when facing the southpaws (career .615 OPS).
C – Jansen/Kirk
INF – Espinal/Merrifield
INF – Addison Barger/Otto Lopez
UTIL – Cavan Biggio
OF – Nathan Lukes
For the Blue Jays, they will enter the 2023 campaign with technically five bench players, with one of them slotting in as the DH (for this case, we can go with Kirk or Jansen when they aren’t catching). With Varsho able to catch as well, manager John Schneider can move Kirk/Jansen into the DH spot without limited risk should either player become injured and lose the DH spot with positional switching. Espinal and Merrifield also slide into this category if they do indeed platoon like I believe they will, which leaves three additional spots on the Jays’ bench.
The only lock I would consider to fit into this situation is Cavan Biggio, who is likely finding more of a utility role this season with Espinal/Merrifield taking more reps at second base than the former fifth-round draft pick out of Notre Dame. Biggio can play multiple positions across the diamond and with no dedicated first baseman backup, he will likely take on that role when Guerrero Jr. needs a rest/DH day. Biggio can also slide in at third base and across the outfield as necessary but possesses more experience in right field compared to the other two positions.
As of right now, the Jays would likely head into Opening Day with Nathan Lukes as the fourth outfielder, utilizing Biggio/Merrifield as the fifth outfielder as necessary. This can change with just under two months to go before Spring Training rolls around but Lukes did have a strong showing in AAA last year, with the lefty-batter posting a .285/.364/.425 slash line with 36 extra-base hits while hitting well against LHP, hitting to the tune of a .327 average through 113 at-bats. Possibly outfield free agents options currently available include A.J. Pollock, Adam Duvall, Robbie Grossman, Jurickson Profar, and Adam Engel should the Jays be interested in adding another outfield option.
Does Addison Barger crack the 2023 Opening Day roster?
Barring a veteran free agent being brought into Spring Training on a Minor League deal, I think Otto Lopez and Addison Barger are going to be competing for a spot on the Opening Day roster. Again, lots of time between now and Opening Day but Barger had an incredible 2022 season that should be rewarded if he continues to show strong early next year. Lopez does have the added versatility compared to Barger because he can take reps in the outfield but Barger’s rise through the Minor League system last year cannot be ignored. I do think Lopez has the inside track considering the former only has eight games at AAA but stranger things have happened, especially if one pulls away in the springtime.
The starting rotation
In no particular order:
- Alek Manoah
- Kevin Gausman
- José Berríos
- Chris Bassitt
- Yusei Kikuchi/Mitch White
After the Bassitt addition, the Blue Jays boast a rotation that has four dedicated starters and forms one of the top rotations in the American League. Manoah and Gausman will be leading the charge for the Jays while Bassitt will get some increased reps in the AL East while reuniting with his former Oakland Athletics teammate in Matt Chapman.
One question mark looking ahead to the 2023 rotation is Berríos, as he struggled in 2022 to a 5.23 ERA through 32 starts while allowing an AL-leading 199 hits and 100 earned runs. He also posted a 7.8 K/9, one of the lowest marks of his career dating back to his rookie season but did keep the walks in check with his 2.4 BB/9, which is one positive to look at along with his 17 quality starts. The balance will be finding a rhythm where he can pitch with consistency, as he allowed 6 or more earned runs in six starts last season but also had 16 games where he allowed two earned runs or fewer.
The battle for the fifth spot in the rotation…
At the back end of the rotation will be another battle brewing, as Yusei Kikuchi and Mitch White will both be battling for a spot in the rotation. Both pitchers didn’t really impress last year, as Kikuchi struggled with his command while White posted a 12.3 H/9 once he joined the Blue Jays, so neither enter the 2023 season with the biggest vote of confidence for the rotation. To complicate matters, White is out of MiLB options, so he either makes the team in some capacity or he must be DFA’d and I don’t think he makes it through, while Kikuchi could technically be optioned to AAA but having someone making $20 million over the next two seasons pitching in AAA is not the ideal scenario.
To make matters even more interesting is that the Jays could also add a back-end starter prior to Spring Training, whether it be one of the remaining free agents like Johnny Cueto (who the Blue Jays have been linked to) or a veteran who does well on a MiLB deal. Hyun Jin Ryu is also on track to return towards mid-late July, which would create a situation where the Blue Jays could slot him into the rotation as needed as well.
Overall, with the current roster, it is shaping up to be a Kikuchi vs. White battle this spring.
In no particular order:
- Jordan Romano
- Anthony Bass
- Erik Swanson
- Adam Cimber
- Trevor Richards
- Tim Mayza
- Yimi García
- Yusei Kikuchi/Mitch White
On the bubble, in no particular order:
- Zach Pop
- Julian Merryweather
- Nate Pearson
- Matt Gage
- Trent Thornton
- Hayden Juenger
- Yosver Zulueta
Looking ahead to the 2023 season, the Blue Jays’ bullpen is in better shape than it has been in recent memory. Jordan Romano is locking down games in the closer’s spot while Bass and García will likely move into the setup role. The remaining group fills out the middle relief portion, with the recent addition of Swanson, who posted a 1.68 ERA through 53.2 innings last season with the Marines, making the Jays’ relief corps that much stronger this year. Tim Mayza currently slots in as the Blue Jays’ only southpaw in the bullpen while Richards and Cimber round out the group, with a prediction of the loser of the rotation battle (Kikuchi or White) being the long-man in the Blue Jays bullpen.
With all this in mind, the unfortunate man on the outside is Zach Pop, who unfortunately has a MiLB option still to his name and will likely be the one moving between Buffalo and Toronto the most (max five) this year. It will also be interesting to see where the Blue Jays choose to use Nate Pearson this season after he missed a good portion of the last two seasons with various injuries, potentially shaping him to be more of a bullpen arm rather than in the rotation for 2023. Gage would be the next southpaw in line for a promotion, with the New York product posting a strong 1.38 ERA through 11 relief outings with the Jays last year. Thornton can also be a factor but will likely start the year in AAA while Juenger and Zuleuta I believe will factor in later in the season compared to Opening Day.
The interesting candidate of the group is Julian Merryweather, who like White, is out of options heading into 2023. We saw glimpses of what he can accomplish back in early 2021 but since then, injuries and poor outings have really hampered his outlook on the active roster and there really isn’t an open spot for him anymore. I predict he will be DFA’d come to the start of the regular season.
Lastly, there are a few options still left on the free agent market that the Blue Jays front office could look into adding before Opening Day, with Andrew Chafin, Michael Fulmer, Chad Green, and David Phelps being potential candidates. Any addition to the 40-man will cost someone a spot on the Opening Day roster, with Richards the likely candidate on the outside looking in when push comes to shove.
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