Every successful team has their headline stars, but they also have a few X-factors who contribute in their own special ways. This year, the Toronto Blue Jays expect big things from Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette, Kevin Gausman, and Alek Manoah.
But those guys can’t drive the bus the entire season. Other players need to step up to help this squad win 90-plus games and secure another berth into the postseason. So, who will it be this year?
Last year, breakout campaigns by Alejandro Kirk, Santiago Espinal, and Ross Stripling were pleasant surprises for Toronto. But there may be even more gold to unearth on the roster ahead of the 2023 season.
Some of these names were underachievers last year, some weren’t even on the Blue Jays in 2022, but these are three players who could be crucial to the Blue Jays’ success during the 2023 campaign.
1. Matt Chapman (third baseman)
Even Matt Chapman would tell you 2022 was not a Matt Chapman-esque year for the Blue Jays third baseman.
His offensive numbers didn’t get the Rogers Centre bounce, as most were expecting. And on the defensive side, his metrics were below Gold Glove-calibre, which was atypical for the two-time Platinum Glove award-winner.
Chapman’s defensive runs saved (DRS) dropped from 10 DRS in 2021 to two in 2022, and his outs above average plummeted from 17 OAA in 2021 to 1 OAA in 2022. The 29-year-old went from an elite defender in Oakland to a replacement-level third baseman in Toronto.
Which version will the Blue Jays get in 2023? With one year of experience under his feet playing the turf in Toronto, perhaps this is the year Chapman rediscovers his defensive prowess and bails his teammates with those highlight-reel plays fans were used to seeing from 2018 to 2021.
Chapman’s in the final year of his current deal with the Blue Jays, making him a free agent at season’s end. And with the 2023 free agent crop razor thin, Chapman is one of the top three hitters to hit the open market.
The bulk of Chapman’s value lies in his glove, so if he returns to even 75% of his defensive wizardry from his 2018-2019 self, the Blue Jays will reap the benefits of having a defensive stud back at the hot corner.
2. Jose Berrios (starting pitcher)
The 2022 campaign started rocky for Jose Berrios and never let up through the entire season. The Blue Jays tabbed him as the Opening Day starter and their newly minted ace with a $131 million contract extension in tow.
Then he posted the worst ERA of any starter in MLB, riding promising highs punctuated by frustrating lows. The Berrios of 2022 was nothing like the arm the Blue Jays acquired at the 2021 trade deadline.
Considering he had the worst ERA of any pitcher last year, there’s nowhere left to go but up for Berrios, but what is the ceiling for this latest iteration of the right-hander? Is he a front of the rotation arm like he was with the Twins, or will he move to the back of the rotation?
After the Blue Jays signed Chris Bassitt to replace Ross Stripling, the third spot in the rotation is arguably his, but the team believes Berrios can be much more than a fourth starter on this squad.
Durability has always been Berrios’ calling card as one of the most consistent starting pitchers in the American League, but pitching five or fewer innings every fifth game hampered the Blue Jays’ bullpen last year.
They can ill afford to have the same Jekyll and Hyde version of Berrios take the mound again this year. Consistency will be the key for the 28-year-old this season, and limiting damage on his fastball.
3. Kevin Kiermaier (centre fielder)
If there’s one player who embodies the Blue Jays’ about face in defence and baserunning this season, it’s Kevin Kiermaier. The former Tampa Bay Ray came over from the dark side and will patrol centre field at the Rogers Centre this season.
Kiermaier will see most of his at bats at the bottom of the lineup, but much like the aforementioned Chapman, Kiermaier’s value rests in his glove. Upgrading from an injured George Springer to Kiermaier in centre field is a massive improvement defensively for the Blue Jays.
Let’s not forget that he also has a cannon for an arm as well, and he’s an astute baserunner. After coming back from hip surgery, health will be a concern, but if he can manage a campaign of 130+ games in the outfield, Kiermaier will make a world of difference for the Blue Jays in the outfield and on the base paths.
The Blue Jays can’t parade a lineup of nine Bichettes or Vladdys out there, so there are going to be weak points in a lineup, but Kiermaier’s left-handedness, speed, and versatility will make him a potent weapon on the diamond.
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