As Blue Jays look for infielders, where do Biggio and Espinal fit best?

Toronto Blue Jays' Randal Grichuk celebrates his three-run home run off Tampa Bay Rays relief pitcher Aaron Loup with Santiago Espinal (5) and Cavan Biggio (8) during the seventh inning of a baseball game. (Chris O'Meara/AP)

When you scan the Toronto Blue Jays depth chart as it stands today, you’ll find areas that could use an upgrade, but gaping holes are hard to come by.

The one spot where the club’s need feels dire is the infield. Any team with Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette can only feel so hard done by when it comes to infield talent, but if the season started today the Blue Jays would be starting both Cavan Biggio and Santiago Espinal — a suboptimal situation for a team fighting for a playoff spot in the AL East.

Biggio and Espinal aren’t bad players by any stretch, but giving over 50 per cent of your infield to the pair doesn’t seem advisable. Steamer projects the two to combine for 3.0 WAR in 2022 — less than half of what the departing Marcus Semien gave the team in 2021. Although finding another Semien is virtually impossible, it seems likely the Blue Jays will make a significant upgrade.

The question of who that will be is a worthy one that’s been talked about all offseason, and it prompts another less-discussed question: “If the Blue Jays add another starting infielder, who gets relegated to the bench?”

Of course, it’s not a pure binary where one of Biggio and Espinal plays 150-plus games and the other sees virtually no action. The two would be mixed and matched depending on matchups, who’s healthy and/or rested, and perhaps even who’s on the hill for the Blue Jays. That said, a 1A and 1B would emerge, and it’s worth wondering who is likely to deserve a bigger piece of the pie.

The first step in figuring that out is to check the projections. While there aren’t many out there at this point in the off-season it is interesting how similarly Steamer sees Biggio and Espinal on total value.

Espinal’s margin of 0.2 WAR is borderline insignificant, but it also comes in slightly fewer plate appearances (488) than Steamer sees for Biggio (524) so it’s fair to give him a slight edge.

That said, this projection seems hard on Biggio’s defence as Steamer pegs the 26-year-old for -3.2 runs of defensive value. On the surface that seems fair considering he’s coming off a season where he produced -4.2. However, in 2021 he played primarily third base, a position he’s not particularly well-equipped for. The dirty secret about Biggio is that despite his reputation as a versatile super-utility player, he hasn’t looked particularly strong at any position except for second base.

Some of the sample sizes here are minuscule, but the point remains that Biggio has been a solid defensive second baseman — and there isn’t much evidence that he can excel elsewhere. His 80th percentile Sprint Speed suggests some solid outfield production isn’t out of the question, but it’s far from a lock. In a post-Semien world, Biggio could play primarily second, which would significantly improve his defensive value. It wouldn't be enough to match Espinal, but probably enough to close the gap between the two.

Offensively speaking, Biggio’s edge over Espinal in the projections seems valid, even if we didn’t see that bear out in 2021. Last season, Biggio’s wRC+ of 84 was dwarfed by his teammate’s 115, but considering neither hitter had even 300 plate appearances those numbers require more context. Coming into 2021, Biggio had slashed a quality .240/.368/.430 line (117 wRC+) in 695 MLB plate appearances while Espinal had a .267/.308/.333 line (72 wRC+) in just 66 trips to the plate at the majors — plus middling minor-league offensive numbers into his mid-20’s.

Comparing the two offensively prior to 2021 would’ve been absurd. It’s less so now, but Espinal’s breakout with the bat doesn’t hold up very well to scrutiny. He had a .368 BABIP last season despite an average exit velocity (84.8 mph) that ranked 390th among 404 hitters with at least 100 balls in play — and a Hard Hit rate that ranked 393rd. He did a good job of making contact, but he’s extremely unlikely to squeeze as much production out of that contact as he did in 2021 again.

Biggio is not without his warts with the bat, but it’s also likely that reports of his demise have been exaggerated. The notion that he was figured out, and rendered totally useless by velocity doesn’t quite match the facts. In 2020, he had a worse batting average, whiff rate, strikeout rate, expected batting average and expected slugging percentage against four-seamers than he did in 2021 yet still produced at a .250/.375/.432 clip in a similar amount of plate appearances.

Every hitter has weaknesses, but Biggio is capable of mitigating his, and the Blue Jays have the option of sheltering him from certain matchups. The other major complaint about Biggio’s offence is his lack of raw power, and while his home run numbers have tended to be bolstered by wall scrapers, he actually showed some growth in that area in 2021 despite his disappointing overall production.

Biggio is hardly on his way to becoming the next Giancarlo Stanton, but flashing an above-average power gear is intriguing.

Espinal turned heads and won fans’ hearts with his glove last season, and rightfully so. That leatherwork — combined with some abnormally strong offensive results — allowed him to produce like a starter, but when lined up against Biggio it’s hard not to like the latter’s offensive track record enough to bridge the difference between the two’s defensive abilities. That’s especially true considering the way Biggio’s left-handed bat and on-base ability complement a righty-heavy lineup overflowing with power.

That means the best iteration of the 2022 Blue Jays probably includes a new third base-focused infielder who allows Biggio to live primarily at second and Espinal to serve as the first infielder off the bench against tough lefties and high-velocity arms. An outside addition who plays exclusively second would flip the calculus as Biggio’s defensive limitations at third would probably be enough to nullify what his bat brings to the table.

When comparing Biggio and Espinal it’s clear that whoever else enters the picture will have a lot to say about how playing time is allotted. Even so, those clamouring for Espinal over Biggio in a vacuum might be putting too much weight on a season where everything went right for one and everything went wrong for the other.

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