Playing Pepper 2023: Toronto Blue Jays

If there is one thing baseball is good at, it’s tradition.  (OK, so that point could be debated with the changes over the last few years.)  Tradition around here states that the beginning of the season means that it’s time for Playing Pepper!  This is the fifteenth season–a decade and a half!–of the series that helps you get ready for the season by going around the league and talking with people that live and die with their teams.  Bloggers, former bloggers, podcasters, we’ve got them all as we take a tour of MLB and play some pepper!  If you get inspired to make some predictions during this series, this contest is open to fans of all teams so enter today!

Toronto Blue Jays
92-70, second in the AL East, lost in the Wild Card round
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Last year’s Pepper
Top pitcher by fWAR: Kevin Gausman (5.7)
Top hitter by fWAR: Bo Bichette (4.5)

Later this week, we’ll get a chance to see the Blue Jays as they open the season against the Cardinals in Busch in what is (I feel like) the first interleague matchup the Cards have ever had on Opening Day.  Toronto made plenty of noise in a strong AL East last year.  Can they do it again or perhaps even better?  Our friends from north of the border are here to let us know! (And special kudos to Kate for answering questions in the midst of wedding planning!)

Contributor Site Twitter
Kate Stanwick Bluebird Banter OhKStan
Jeremy Gibson 500 Level Fan 500LevelFan
Joshua Howsam Artificial Turf Wars JoshuaHowsam
Shaun Doyle Jays From the Couch JaysFromCouch

C70: Toronto was able to make the playoffs last year but didn’t rest on that this winter. What are your thoughts about this offseason and how the team stacks up for 2023?

Kate: It’s an exciting time to be a Blue Jays fan. The 2023 team is a legitimate division contender, and could plausibly make a World Series run. They needed another starter, which they found in Chris Bassitt, improved the outfield defense and added some left handed pop with the additions of Kevin Kiermaier and Daulton Varsho, and sweetened the bullpen by adding Erik Swanson and a recovering Chad Green. Sadly the team is down three beloved players in Teoscar Hernandez, Lourdes Gurriel and top prospect Gabriel Moreno, but that comes with the territory of “win now” mode. The Jays have the talent to take on any major league team and have a chance to win, and it’s the most wonderful thing to think about.

Jeremy: I like what the Jays did this offseason. They needed to add left-handed bats, strengthen the bullpen, add a starter, and improve team defence. Check, check, check, and check. I think the Chris Bassitt signing was huge and really strengthens the rotation. Time will tell if trading Gabriel Moreno was a bit too aggressive, but I think it vastly improves the team in the immediate term, which is key with this young core.

Joshua: The Jays had a pretty transformative offseason without touching their main core. Gurriel, Hernández, Stripling, Phelps and Moreno out, Varsho, Kiermaier, Belt, Bassitt and Swanson in. The biggest aim seems to have been to improve the defence and adding diversity to the lineup (all three hitters added bat left). Overall, if the team stays healthy it stacks up nicely with the rest of the division, but a lot of success will hinge on the bounce back of José Berríos after a disastrous 2022, and Yusei Kikuchi or Mitch White holding down the 5th spot.

Shaun: Toronto HAD TO make the moves they made this winter. While most teams would be happy making the playoffs, Toronto’s early exit was a big disappointment and the front office needed to make improvements to avoid that disappointment repeating itself. The approach Ross Atkins & Co took was very methodical, but it didn’t start out that way…at least not obviously. Trading Teoscar Hernandez, a fan favourite AND a big middle of the order bat was a jarring way to kick things off, but that is why you never judge an offseason based on the first move. When all was said and done, they had systematically addressed their weakness, namely outfield defense, but also added some much needed pitching in Chris Bassitt and Erik Swanson for the bullpen. This approach has turned Toronto into a team that can adapt to many different situations and matchups. In short, there are few holes that exist. That said, beyond their starting 5, the starting depth is rather lack-lustre, so they will need to pray for the consistent health of their rotation to continue in 2023. If it does, we’re looking at a division champion.

C70: Matt Chapman had a very good first year in Toronto but will be a free agent after this season. What do you expect from him and is there any chance he doesn’t hit the market?

Kate: It’s hard to know what to expect from Matt Chapman. The optimist in me would love to bet on an All-Star season, but at the very least we can expect some automatic outs on any baseball hit toward third base. I would love for Chapman to be a Blue Jay for many more seasons, but there haven’t been any extension murmurings yet. The front office have shown they can and will offer long term deals to players they traded for as evidence in the Jose Berríos extension, but we will have to wait and see.

Jeremy: I love Chapman, especially what he brings on the defensive side of the game. I’d hate to see him sign elsewhere after the season ends. I think he is in line for a huge year now that he has a full season under his belt in Toronto. I’m hopeful the Jays can re-sign him before the season ends, but honestly getting the young stars like Vladdy and Manoah signed long-term is probably more of a priority than Chappy.

Joshua: Chapman was especially strong over the last four months of the season, which was something that seemed to happen to a large number of veterans after the abridged spring training. His defence took a step back, but he was excellent in 2021, so a return to normalcy should be expected there. A 5-6 WAR season isn’t out of the question, but a 3-4 WAR year should be the minimum expectation. As for the FA market, while an extension isn’t impossible, he has spoken openly about reaching FA, so a deal before hitting the market is very unlikely.

Shaun: I was one of the loudest proponents of trading for Matt Chapman. He came in and had a solid season in Toronto, a season that saw him sign an extension before he even played his first official game. That extension took him up to the end of this coming year and he is set to hit free agency at its conclusion. And, that is exactly what will happen. It’s difficult to see him signing a longer term deal in Toronto, mostly because it is difficult to see the Blue Jays extending a 29 yr old third baseman to a 6 or 7 year deal, which is likely what his agent, Scott Boras, will be seeking. The beginning of that deal won’t be the problem, but the likelihood of the 5th or 6th year providing positive value to the team is tough to see them paying top dollar for. Add to that the fact that they have Orelvis Martinez and Addison Barger making their way to the big leagues, the latter of which had a stand out Spring Training showing. He’ll be up this season and may be tabbed to step in Chapman’s shoes in 2024.

C70: What would you say is the strongest part of this team?

Kate: High ceilings, high floors, experience, young talent and great chemistry. This team has more than a couple players with All-Star potential, and very few weak spots. There’s a tantalizing mix of veterans and their youngest players have a couple seasons of experience under their belts now. The front office have also shown themselves to be impartial to good clubhouse guys, and as a result the team seems to really jive well together. They should be a force to be reckoned with. 

Jeremy: Despite losing Teoscar Hernandez and Lourdes Gurriel Jr., the offence is still the strength of this team. Springer, Bichette, Vladdy, Chapman, Kirk, and Varsho is a formidable lineup, and I think Brandon Belt also has a big year in store. I know the pitching and the team D should be better, but this team will compete based on its run scoring potential.

Joshua: Oddly, given how weak it was last year, the strongest part of the team is its defence. There are above-average to great defenders at C, 1B, 2B, 3B, LF, CF and RF. Only Bichette is below average for his position defensively and he more than makes up for it with his offence. 

Shaun: Many will point to run prevention as their strength and rightfully so. The front office brought in Kevin Kiermaier and Daulton Varsho for that very reason. However, what is even more intriguing about this Blue Jays team is that they have the versatility to matchup well with anyone. They have three legitimate center fielders in George Springer, Varsho and Kiermaier, who will get the majority of the time there. Their infield has multiple guys who can play all over the diamond. Heck, even trading away top catching prospect, Gabriel Moreno didn’t really hurt them because Varsho can be a backup catcher if needed. Their lineup has much more options available to manager, John Schneider than he had last season. In short, they’re much more balanced and prepared for a wide variety of scenarios. 

C70: Is there a rookie or a player with limited major league experience that will make an impact for the Blue Jays this year?

Kate: I would love to say it could be top prospect pitcher Ricky Tiedemann, lefty hitter Addison Barger or infielder Otto Lopez, all of who have a good chance of seeing MLB time this year, but perhaps it’ll be the oft injured Nate Pearson (hard to call him a rookie at this point with two years of service time accrued, but he has only pitched 33 big league innings). 

Jeremy: The Jays are built to win now, so I don’t see a rookie or young player having an opportunity to make a big impact. That said, the two names we have been hearing a lot about in Spring Training are Addison Barger and Ricky Tiedemann, and one or both might reach the majors at some point. However, I’m going to say Nate Pearson here. He has lost the “top prospect” label after years of injury problems, but he might have an opportunity to shine out of the bullpen at some point.

Joshua: The easy answer is top prospect, Ricky Tiedemann, but I actually think Yosver Zulueta, the flame-throwing Cuban, is the likeliest young player to provide meaningful help to the club in 2023.

Shaun: I want to say Nate Pearson, since his MLB time has been limited, even if he’s not a rookie anymore. However, his history of injury and ineffectiveness makes that difficult. For that reason, I am most interested in seeing Addison Barger at the big league level. Sooner or later, the club is going to need to give him time to see if he is indeed ready to take over for Matt Chapman. Early signs are that he will be, but there is only one way to find out: let him play. 

C70: What’s the best case, worst case, and most likely scenario on how 2023 plays out?

Kate: The best case scenario for this team is a 2023 World Series parade in downtown Toronto. Worst case, a narrow playoff miss (but we don’t want to think about that!). Most likely? I’m not sure. I just hope it’s not a repeat of the last three years. World Series or bust, I say!

Jeremy: Worst case is that the team fails to come together, they can’t replace the power of Teoscar, and the redesigned outfield in the Rogers Centre causes more problems that benefits, leading the team to a sub-.500 record. Best case is finally making the jump to contenders, leapfrogging the Yankees, winning the AL East and making a deep playoff run. I think this is a playoff team again, just hoping for a better ending.

Joshua: Best case: Realistically, it’s a World Series title. The team is that good
Worst case: It’s hard to imagine this team missing the postseason, but stranger things have happened. Realistically, it’s probably a repeat of last year.
Realistic case: A berth in the ALCS

Shaun: This Blue Jays team is strong enough to win the AL East. That is especially true if their starting pitching stays healthy. Each of their top 5 starters have a history of staying on the mound, so they will need to continue that. The worst case scenario is that injuries hit the rotation and they do not make the postseason. That is difficult to imagine, though. Even if they don’t win the division, this construction of this club means a Wild Card at a minimum. Anything less than that is a MASSIVE disappointment and could result in a GM change in Toronto. The most likely scenario is they battle New York for the division all the way to the end of the season. How that ends up could go either way, but it will result in a postseason appearance. That is where the versatility, etc they have will really shine. They’re built for matchups and the postseason can often come down to just that. I’m expecting a division title and a deep playoff run. Anything less and I will be disappointed.

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