The 2023 Blue Jays, Position by Position: An already strong infield got even better with the signing of Brandon Belt
Photo credit:© Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports
6 months ago
Out of the five “Position by Position” articles, the infielders have seen the least amount of changes.
The infield was rather solidified coming into the off-season, but the Jays did manage to add an exciting piece at first base. Other than that, it has remained the same.
In this article, we’ll also look at some prospects who could earn a call-up at some point or another in 2023.
Let’s start with first base.
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. – First base:
Guerrero Jr. had quite the season in 2022. He slashed .274/.339/.480 with 32 homers in 706 plate appearances. Overall, he finished with a 132 wRC+, and also won a gold glove at first base!
Still, it was a bit of a decline from his MVP-calibre 2021. That season, he slashed .311/.401/.601 with 48 homers in 698 plate appearances and finished with a 6.3 fWAR (compared to a 2.8 fWAR in 2022).
Guerrero was still great in 2022, but if he can find his 2021 form once again, that would put the Blue Jays over the top.
Santiago Espinal – Second base:
I wasn’t too sure who to put here, as the second base starter has yet to be determined. Whit Merrifield and Cavan Biggio were included in the outfield edition of Position by Position, so it seemed fitting to place Espinal here.
The 28-year-old infielder slashed .267/.322/.370 with a career-high seven homers in 491 plate appearances in 2022. He finished with a slightly below-average wRC+ of 99 but accumulated a 2.3 fWAR.
This was in large part due to his defense, as he had a 4 Defensive Runs Saved and a 10 Outs Above Average in 945 innings at second base.
It’s also worth mentioning that Espinal dominated left-handed pitching. In 128 plate appearances, he slashed .301/.375/.451 with a higher BB% (10.9%) than a K% (10.2%).
It’s likely that Espinal platoons with either one of Cavan Biggio or Whit Merrifield, with the former making more sense.
Bo Bichette – Shortstop:
The 24-year-old shortstop had a confounding season. Overall, it was great, as he slashed .290/.333/.469 with 24 homers in 697 plate appearances. He also had a 4.5 fWAR, which was the highest out of any position player. However, once you dig deeper into his stats, there were some worrisome signs.
For starters, he was one of the worst defensive players in 2022. He had a -16 DRS (-17 was the worst out of any position) and a -7 OAA. While he was below average last season (2 DRS, -5 OAA), he was borderline unplayable defensively at the position.
Furthermore, from the start of the season to August 20th, Bichette slashed .256/.295/.420 with 17 homers, along with a 5.5 BB% and a 24.7 K%. This gave him a rather low 103 wRC+. He obviously had a historic end of the season which drastically boosted his numbers, but it’s worth noting he was a slightly above-average hitter for the majority of the season.
When Bichette is on, he is arguably the best shortstop in the game. Hopefully, he can pick up where he left off last season while making improvements defensively, which he is capable of.
Matt Chapman – Third base:
Chapman was acquired in a March 2022 trade, and he came as advertised.
He slashed .229/.324/.433 with 27 homers in 621 plate appearances, finishing with a 117 wRC+. What’s more, is that his K% of 27.4% dropped below the 30% mark for the first time since his career year in 2019.
The one thing lacking in Chapman’s game (according to statistics), is his gold glove calibre defence. Last season, he had a 2 DRS and a 1 OAA. Contrast this to his 2021 with a bad hip, where he had a 10 DRS and a 17 OAA. Hell, his best defensive season came in 2019, where he had a 28 DRS and a 15 OAA.
If Chapman produces what he did last season (4.1 fWAR), the Jays should be happy. If he has a season similar to 2019… the Jays will win it all.
Unfortunately, Chapman will be a free agent at the end of the season, and there is a real possibility that the Jays will lose him. However, it has been said on the record that Chapman would like to stay with the Jays, it just depends if they can afford him.
The bench pieces:
Here, we’ll look at Biggio and Merrifield’s defence at second base, along with the Blue Jays backup first baseman!
Cavan Biggio’s defence:
We already looked at Biggio’s bat in the outfield edition of Position by Position, so let’s look at his defence at second and first base.
Biggio was actually a pretty solid fielder at second base last season, posting a 0 DRS, but a career-high 7 OAA at the position. In fact, up until this point, he had never had an OAA above 0.
At first base, Biggio had a 2 DRS and a 0 OAA< but was average at the position for when Guerrero Jr., needed a rest.
On top of playing in the outfield, Biggio provides a ton of value with his versatility and plus defence, even if he doesn’t find his 2019 form with the bat.
Whit Merrifield’s defence:
Out of him, Biggio, and Espinal, Merrifield has the best bat. However, he also has the worst defensive numbers, at least in 2022.
He posted a -5 DRS and a 3 OAA at second base in 634.1 innings pitched. However, he was well above average in 2021, when he posted a 14 DRS and a 6 OAA in 1255.2 innings pitched. Up until that point, he never had a DRS over 3, and his highest OAA to that point was also 6.
My guess is that Merrifield will likely start the 2023 season as the primary second baseman, with Espinal moving to a utility infielder role and Biggio in the super-utility role.
At the start of the new year, it was quite surprising that the Jays signed 34-year-old Brandon Belt.
The long-time San Francisco Giant slashed .213/.326/.350 with eight homers in 298 plate appearances in 2022. He finished with a 96 wRC+ and a 0 fWAR in an injury-riddled season.
With that being said, the first baseman was one of the best hitters on the planet in 2020 and 2021. In those two seasons, he slashed .285/.393/.595 with 38 homers in just 560 plate appearances for a 162 wRC+.
Depending on Belt to perform as he had in 2020-2021 is a big ask, but if he can even do half of that in a designated hitter role, it could help the Jays out tremendously.
Who’s coming up:
Here we’ll look at a few infielders who could make an impact in 2023.
The 23-year-old shortstop/third baseman seems to be the talk around spring training, and for good reason.
Between High-A, Double-A, and Triple-A in 2022, Barger slashed .308/.378/.555 with 26 homers (second in the organization) in 526 plate appearances.
As you could see from that video, he has a quick, fluid swing and plenty of bat speed. I’d say it’s only a matter of time before we see him in the big leagues, but his position is yet to be determined. It could be as a second baseman (the most obvious move in 2023), or as Chapman’s replacement. Hell, Barger may even get a look in the outfield during spring training.
He’s a damn good player who could force his way onto the Jays as soon as the start of the season.
López deserves MLB plate appearances. The 24-year-old second baseman/outfielder slashed .297/.378/.415 in 391 plate appearances with the Buffalo Bisons in 2022. While he doesn’t offer much power (three homers), he gets on base and uses his speed on the base paths.
Playing in the outfield is a clearer pathway for López.
The 25-year-old first baseman/left fielder spent his 2022 season in Double-A and Triple-A. Between the two levels, he slashed .275/.391/.452 with 12 homers in 483 plate appearances.
Horwitz’s likely pathway is by playing in the outfield, but he’s worth mentioning as he is a natural first baseman.
On Sunday, we’ll transition to pitchers by looking at the starting pitchers. Stay tuned!
As always, you can follow me on Twitter and Instagram @Brennan_L_D.
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