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A deeper dive into the 2023 Toronto Blue Jays


(Getty Images)

Opening day is here, and with many teams ready to burst out the scene in 2023, the Toronto Blue Jays remain one of the more intriguing teams going into the new campaign.


From the top of the lineup to the back-end of the bullpen, the club features a bevy of renowned talent that can win a World Series. The changes made in the offseason came as a dramatic response to a 2022 that folded in catastrophic fashion.


It’s also important to note the renovations at the Rogers Centre that will be ready for the April 11 home opener. While the fan experience will be enhanced with the additions of amenities and concourse features, the on-field product is set to be manipulated with the fences being moved closer from the power allies and within (as if the park already wasn’t a band-box).


Here is an overview of the team Toronto will be sending to war to open the new season.


Position players


This lineup is stacked, there’s no way around it, and the team should once again have no problem mashing baseballs all year.


Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is the focal point in this equation. The 2021 MVP runner-up looks to bounce back following a down season in 2022, in which he still hit 32 home runs en route to a 132 wRC+. As long as Guerrero can be as selective as he was in the prior season, he will force pitchers into steep counts, and he will get the right pitches to be the player he is at heart.


While Guerrero is likely to lead the team in home runs again, the power in this lineup is endless. Guys like Bo Bichette, George Springer, Matt Chapman, Daulton Varsho and Danny Jansen all have the potential to hit 25+ dingers along with quality batting profiles.


Alejandro Kirk is also another hitter to fear. Since earning his promotion in 2020, Kirk has been one of the game’s best at pushing pitchers to their limits and getting on base. The 2022 all-star starter was one of baseball’s rare hitters to walk more than he struck out, and his hitting fundamentals look to carry over into the new year.


Brandon Belt and Whit Merrifield stand as two hitters with plenty of upside. If Merrifield can find his stride and make heavy contact, he can be a very pesky hitter at the bottom of the order that can start many rallies for the top half. Belt, on the other hand, will be of MUCH value if he can even sniff his game from 2020-21, in which he carried a mean wRC+ of 164 over those two seasons.


Defensively is where the team looks brand new, specifically in the outfield. Swapping out Lourdes Gurriel Jr. for Varsho is a massive upgrade in left field, given Varsho’s superb performance in Arizona. The 26-year-old was a gold-glove finalist and covers a ton of ground. Kevin Kiermaier also brings some of the best centre field defense to the table, which will also help Springer preserve his health in a less demanding right field role.


If Bichette can address his issues concerning his arm at shortstop, then the entire infield is set defensively, especially with Chapman and Guerrero manning the corners.


Starting pitching


Toronto returns with the same deadly one-two punch that took them far in 2022. Kevin Gausman looked like a legitimate ace all year round. Gausman ranked in the 99th and 97th percentile in chase rate and walk rate, respectively, and his 2023 spring looks like he hasn’t skipped a beat. If the defense can help him out more than it did last season, watch out for him to make a serious run at a Cy Young award.


The other member of this one-two punch is none other than opening day starter, Alek Manoah. Manoah stole the show in his sophomore season and finished third in AL Cy Young voting, highlighted by a 174 ERA+, good for fifth in the show.


The signing of Chris Bassitt is also a big boost, as he joins the rotation as a superb third option. If he can stay healthy and maintain his usual game, it will be massive for the club.


The real story revolves around the performances of Jose Berrios and Yusei Kikuchi. Both starters struggled mightily last year, and have serious work to do in order to regain the trust of the fanbase.


Berrios in particular needs to bounce back, and hard. His track record dating back to his beginnings in Minnesota show that he can be tough to gauge on a year-to-year basis, but it hit rock bottom in 2022. His four-seam fastball was statistically the worst pitch in baseball, and it helped allow for a career worst 29 home runs allowed. He also led the AL in hits allowed and earned runs, along with the lowest strikeout rate of his career.


Kikuchi wasn’t any better. His command was ghastly all year, as he routinely put himself behind in counts, leading to a plethora of walks and poor pitches leading to hard contact. It looked different this spring, however, as he posted an ERA of 0 with 31 strikeouts.


Let’s just hope this is the Kikuchi we continue to see going forward.


All in all, the top three are trusted to give us what they provided last year. It’s up to Berrios and Kikuchi if this rotation is going to jump from a really good one to an elite one.


Bullpen


The bullpen looks genuinely strong this year.


That’s right, the Toronto Blue Jays have a good bullpen going into 2023, and no, it’s not only because of Jordan Romano.


It’s not like it was a bad bullpen last year, but there were needs to be filled.


The acquisition of Anthony Bass was a quality pickup (if you can look past game two against the Mariners), and the team still has him for another year.


Romano still remains the team’s closer and has been a great pitcher since his 2020 season. The Markham Maniac put up an impressive 185 ERA+ in 2022 despite some up and down stretches, but it’s his ability to miss bats with the combination of his slider and high velocity fastball that really makes the difference.


But the biggest difference maker is Erik Swanson. Swanson was downright dominant in 2022, and easily projects as the clubs top reliever following a year where he proved to be one of baseball’s best. His elite ability to avoid hard contact will be crucial all year long in securing close games, especially in the newer, more difficult environment for pitchers at home.


The rest of the pen is reliable with the likes of Adam Cimber, Yimi Garcia and Tim Mayza having significant roles. If newly signed Chad Green can return to his pre-injury 2022 form once fully recovered, this bullpen has a good shot at being considered one of the best come the summertime stretch.


Verdict


It’s no question the Blue Jays will have their work cut out for them this season. The New York Yankees are eager to make serious noise once again in the regular season, and have the team to cause some trouble, especially with the signing of Carlos Rodon (if their rotation isn’t a complete bandaid, that is).


Meanwhile the Tampa Bay Rays, as volatile as they can be, will be competing for the division title if they can get more production out of Wander Franco along with better injury luck.


But it seems as if Toronto has done the most work this offseason in improving their team. They’ve made the moves to balance the lineup and make it less right-hand dominant, and have upgraded their run prevention abilities both on the field and on the mound. New York has better pitching on paper, but their lineup has a number of holes even with the emergence of Anthony Volpe.


It’s also important to note that given recent history, the Blue Jays have a team with fewer injury concerns, and it can be the difference between finishing first and second in the AL East. Which is something that doesn’t favour either the Yankees or Rays.


Ultimately, it seems like it’s the Blue Jays’ division to lose purely based on their opening day roster. It’s now time to see which side has what it takes to win the marathon.


Prediction: 95-67 (1st in AL East)

Team MVP: Vladimir Guerrero Jr.

Team Cy Young: Kevin Gausman

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