Progression or regression? Five Blue Jays players to watch in 2023
There are a handful of players on the Toronto Blue Jays who are chomping at the bit for the rapidly approaching 2023 season to get underway.
This quintet is either eager to prove that their 2022 season was no fluke or improve upon the numbers they put up a year ago.
Isaac Newton famously said, “what goes up, must come down”, but that isn’t always the case regarding baseball or baseball players' individual seasons. With that in mind, here are five Blue Jays players to watch either progress or regress in 2023.
Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
There’s no way around it. After his outstanding 2021 season, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. experienced a drop-off in many statistical categories. His average (-.037), on-base percentage (-.062) slugging (-.121), runs (-33), hits (-13), total bases (-57), and OPS (-.184) all took rather precipitous drops last year.
If you look closely, “Vladdy” still had some breakthroughs, a career-high 35 doubles, eight stolen bases, and improved defense, which led to his first Gold Glove award. There’s no guaranteeing he’ll repeat 2021’s monstrous totals of 48 homers and 1.000+ OPS, but seeing him land on around 40 bombs, with an OPS near .900 seems well within reach.
It all came together for Alek Manoah in his first full season in the big leagues last year. Quickly establishing himself as the ace of the staff, Manoah went 16-7 with a 2.24 ERA, 0.99 WHIP, and a 5.9 WAR in 196.2 innings pitched. He allowed 2 or fewer earned runs in 24 of his 31 starts, made a memorable All-Star game debut and was a Cy Young finalist.
With all the success, it’s fair to wonder if Manoah can improve upon what he was able to accomplish last season. After all, a few batted balls that find daylight instead of a fielder’s glove would make a difference in his overall numbers and these things tend to even out over time. Manoah’s BABIP of .245 was significantly lower than the league-average of .291 and Baseball Reference projects a 13-6, 2.75 ERA for the big West Virginia alum.
Alejandro Kirk took a turn toward stardom last year, but his season was not without its ups and downs. Through his first 21 games played, Kirk was hitting .237 (14-for-59) with zero extra-base hits. Over the next two and a half months, the Tijuana native caught fire, going 70-for-208 (.337) with 13 doubles, 11 homers, and 35 RBI on his way to being named the starting catcher in the All-Star game.
Then, in the second half, Kirk’s numbers fell off a cliff. He hit .246, six doubles, three home runs, and 26 RBI over 56 games for an OPS of .661. Whether he began running out of steam towards the end of a long, heavy-use season, or if pitchers around baseball were starting to get a “book” on how to get Kirk out, his results suffered. He could experience a drop-off in production, say a .260 batting average with 10 homers and 50 RBI, and still be part of a flourishing backstop duo in 2023.
It was a night José Berríos would never forget. Opening night in front of a packed house, and the man known as “The Machine” was making his first such start for the Blue Jays, who had recently signed him to a seven-year, $131M contract extension. The confidence his team had shown in him was doing little to help, as he surrendered hard hit after hard hit and Berríos left the game after allowing four earned runs, a pair of walks, and getting just one batter out.
The wild game, which the Jays somehow won after a spirited comeback, turned out to be a microcosm of the Puerto Rico native’s season. Just too much hard contact, too many missed targets, and a great deal of frustration for the player, team, and fanbase. Obviously starting the season off by failing to get out of the first inning is a tough tone to set, but having Berríos lower his ERA down to four or so would do a lot for the rotation’s depth.
Like Kirk, Santiago Espinal reached heights his career had yet to see in 2022. Also much like Kirk, the story of Espinal’s season was one of two halves. One of the stories of camp last year was the young infielder showing up to camp in the best shape of his life, having added 15 pounds of muscle during the offseason.
The improved physique served Santi well as he showed the ability to drive the ball not seen before. In the first half, Espinal hit .271 with six home runs, 21 doubles, and 37 RBI. That was enough to be named an All-Star but the second half told another story. After the break, the Dominican Republic native hit .258 with one homer and four doubles. He missed some time with injury and saw his playing time cut into by trade acquisition Whit Merrifield. It may be a case of less being more with Espinal, as it says here he’ll be more effective, but receive less playing time.