Blue Jays: A strong campaign could solidify Espinal’s spot on the roster
Before the lockout, Blue Jays fans did not have to go far to find an article or a sports news outlet that didn’t mention the possibility of the club looking to improve third base. The front office explored this possibility earlier in the year, attempting to acquire Jose Ramirez from the Cleveland Indians, although no trade ever materialized. Fast forward to the offseason, the Ramirez rumours are still alive and true but fans are also interested in other targets like Matt Chapman on the Athletics or a free agent like Kris Bryant.
The lockout has put a damper on the trade rumour front considering no Major League transactions will be made until a new CBA is in place. There will surely be a mad dash before the season begins when it comes to transactions and free-agent signings and it will be interesting to see where the Blue Jays will fit in amongst the crowd. Third base is not the only position the Blue Jays could be looking to upgrade, with the club potentially looking for another starter to fill out the rotation or some additional arms to round out the bullpen.
One reason third base may not be on the top of the priority list is the emergence of Santiago Espinal last season, who took over the hot corner when Cavan Biggio landed on the injured list. While he did make his MLB debut the season prior, the 2021 campaign certainly impressed the Blue Jays faithful, appearing in 92 games and posting a solid .311/.376/.405 slash line with 13 doubles, 17 RBI, and a .781 OPS through 222 at-bats. Defensively, Espinal was the clear front runner amongst the group, posting a .980 fielding percentage at the position while committing only four errors through 551.2 innings of work and finishing the season with an 8 bDRS and some highlight-reel worthy plays.
Looking at various projections from models like ZiPS and Steamer, most are predicting Espinal to play in at least 110+ games with 400+ plate appearances, with Steamer projecting closer to 500 PAs by season’s end. Slash lines between both projections have Espinal hitting around the .250-.260 area while posting an OBP no higher than .320. These stats are a step back compared to the numbers Espinal put forward last season but they signal him being on the field for almost 75% of the Blue Jays games this upcoming season, which is an encouraging sign for the Dominican product.
After a strong 2021 campaign, Blue Jays infielder Santiago Espinal could cement his spot on the roster with a strong season in 2022.
There are a few different factors that could heavily influence Espinal’s playing time with the Jays next season and long term.
First and foremost is the possibility the club adds a veteran impact player like Ramirez or Chapman, both of whom would uproot Espinal from the hot corner and either put him on the bench or potentially see him fight for some reps at second base. Adding either one of these players would be an upside over Espinal given their veteran experience and the fact that Ramirez is a fantastic all-around player who hits from both sides of the plate and Chapman is an elite defender who has some pop in the bat, evident by his 27 round-trippers last year.
Not going to lie, adding a player like Ramirez would be an absolute treat to watch in the Blue Jays lineup, and while this would push Espinal to the sidelines, it would make the team better on the field. The biggest question mark will be if the two clubs can figure out a deal that works for both sides, that is if Cleveland is willing to trade their star player.
If a trade or free-agent signing does not materialize, Espinal will also have to contend with internal pressures from within the Blue Jays system. Kevin Smith is looking to find a spot on the active roster and although he struggled in the small sample size last season, he should at least be finding a spot on the Blue Jays bench to begin the season unless he implodes this spring. Factor in that top prospects like Jordan Groshans and Orelvis Martinez are within arms reach of the big league squad over the next two years, Espinal could be in for some tough competition when it comes to taking on full-time third base duties. Both prospects are projected to be long-term options at third base and could usurp Espinal in the near future, adding fuel to the fire if he struggles to begin the campaign while Groshans, who is closer to the big leagues than Martinez at the moment, starts strong in AAA.
The best thing Santiago Espinal can do this season is to start strong and prove to everyone that last season’s stats were not a fluke, proving that he can be a consistent and dependable player at third base.
For a team like the Jays who is looking to contend after falling just short last year, a slow start for the righty-batter will not go over well and reps might be given to Smith or other options like Biggio to keep the better players in the lineup.
This upcoming campaign will be the season where Espinal is given a chance to prove he belongs in the everyday lineup. In doing so, the Blue Jays could find an inexpensive internal option to help fill out the infield while allowing the front office to bolster other areas of the roster come the trade deadline.