The infield options the Blue Jays could pursue to become real contenders

Chicago Cubs' Kris Bryant reacts after hitting a two-run home run during the eighth inning of the team's baseball game against the San Diego Padres. (Gregory Bull/AP)

It may not happen as soon as anyone would like, but eventually MLB’s labour dispute will reach a resolution and the sport will move ahead with the 2022 regular season — or at least what’s left of it. The timeline will be rapid, with shotgun spring training camps in Florida and Arizona likely opening within a week of a new CBA being ratified, and opening day looming somewhere three-to-four weeks beyond that.

That will leave front offices scrambling to fill big-league roster holes as soon as MLB’s transaction freeze is lifted, likely spurring the kind of wild activity that invigorated the sport last November. And the Toronto Blue Jays will be right in the thick of it, seeking to put the finishing touches on a win-now team being constructed to surpass the 91-win mark it achieved last season.

With that in mind, this is the first of a three-part series looking at the biggest roster needs remaining for the 2022 Blue Jays and how the club’s front office could go about addressing them on the other side of the lockout. Check back later this week for parts two and three.

All ZIPS projections via FanGraphs.

All arbitration projections via MLB Trade Rumors.

The need: Infield upgrade

Where things currently stand (FanGraphs ZIPS projections)

When you lay it out like this, it becomes abundantly clear why the Blue Jays absolutely must add an infielder — a pretty good one, at that — prior to opening day. For starters, the Blue Jays have been looking for a productive, everyday third baseman since 2018, when Josh Donaldson missed most of the season with injury before being traded. A motley crew of 10 players have made at least 70 plate appearances as third basemen for the Blue Jays over the four seasons since — none of whom have stuck.

Blue Jays production from third basemen since 2018 (min 70 PA)

That need remains. But now, with Marcus Semien a Texas Ranger, there are 86 extra-base hits and 6.6 fWAR of 2021 production to replace at second base on top of it. As the Blue Jays proved last season, when the club’s third basemen produced a .692 OPS collectively, it’s possible to have a top-five offence while receiving meager production from one infield position. But it’d be awfully hard when weighed down by two.

The tandem of Cavan Biggio and Santiago Espinal are presently positioned to receive the bulk of playing time at second and third base, respectively. That’s fine if you’re betting on a substantial bounce back from Biggio, who struggled to an 84 wRC+ over an injury-plagued 2021, and linear extrapolation from Espinal, who quietly posted a 115 wRC+ over 246 plate appearances last season but has yet to prove himself over a larger sample against upper-level competition.

The problem is both players generated below-average quality of contact numbers, which contributed to expected statistics that stand in stark contrast to the actual numbers they produced. That makes it difficult to project either player to perform considerably better in 2022, let alone come close to replacing the top-shelf production Semien took to Texas.

Which isn’t to say they can’t play a role on a successful team. Biggio’s strike zone judgment is elite, allowing him to reach base at a .354 career clip. Espinal rarely strikes out, posting an excellent contact rate in an era when hitters are whiffing more than ever. Those traits are undeniably useful. They’re just better suited to a part-time bench role rather than an everyday starter’s one on a contending team.

Adding another quality infielder would allow the Blue Jays to better deploy Biggio and Espsinal situationally, exposing them to the matchups and circumstances in which they’re most likely to succeed. Meanwhile, it’d bump Kevin Smith down to triple-A, where he’d continue his development with regular playing time while providing a necessary layer of depth against inevitable injury ahead of him on the depth chart.

Not that we ever really needed to get this deep into it. A high-level survey of the Blue Jays' roster reveals a crowded outfield picture, youthful depth behind the plate, and generational talents playing shortstop and first base. That leaves second and third as the most logical areas to upgrade and add offensive oomph to this lineup. And if the Blue Jays want to win their division, that upgrade will be more necessity than luxury.

Internal options (FanGraphs ZIPS projections)

With Toronto’s next wave of potentially impactful infield talent still raw and congregated at the lower levels of the minors — none of Orelvis Martinez, Leo Jimenez, Rikelbin De Castro, Manuel Beltre, or Estiven Machado are old enough to drink legally in the United States — it’s tough to see the Blue Jays addressing their infield shortcoming from within.

Smith and Otto Lopez each made their MLB debuts last season and will likely have depth roles to play on the 2022 Blue Jays when injury inevitably strikes. But neither boast the track record or pedigree to suggest they’re capable of producing regularly in the majors on a win-now team. Non-roster utility infielder Gosuke Katoh could factor in, as well, but the Blue Jays certainly aren’t counting on the 27-year-old career minor-leaguer to make a big impact.

Meanwhile, 22-year-old Jordan Groshans is still accumulating the playing time necessary to develop and maximize the tools that made him a 2018 first-round pick, having played just 99 games over the last three seasons thanks to injuries and a pandemic. He may yet emerge as Toronto’s third baseman of the future, particularly if he can hit the ground running this year in his first taste of triple-A. But a late-2022 MLB debut is a best-case scenario at this point and the Blue Jays need much more imminent help.

Free agent options (FanGraphs ZIPS projections)

Kris Bryant

Signing Carlos Correa for north of $325-million and moving him off shortstop seems a little far-fetched; as does prying Freddie Freeman away from Atlanta and moving Guerrero across the diamond to a position he hasn’t played in two years and wasn’t particularly good at when he did. But Bryant’s just behind those two atop the free agent market if the Blue Jays have room to add another mega deal to their payroll on the other side of the lockout. And of the three, he’s the easiest fit.

The 30-year-old played at least 92 innings at first, third, and all three outfield spots in 2021, demonstrating the defensive versatility he could bring the Blue Jays beyond their obvious home for him at the hot corner. And with a .278/.376/.504 line and 134 wRC+ for his career, Bryant’s the best bet this side of Correa and Freeman to replace Semien’s elite production.

Ultimately, it’ll come down to whether the Blue Jays both have budget for and see value in the Semien-esque commitment — the Rangers dished out seven years and $175-million for a less versatile player a year older than Bryant — it’ll likely take to sign him.

Trevor Story

Story played both second and third on his way up Colorado’s minor-league system, and while continuing to maximize his big power and speed tools as a shortstop is no doubt the goal, it’s possible he won’t find much of a post-lockout market of bidders both capable of giving him Javy Baez money — six-years, $140-million — and needy at the position.

Perhaps that’s where the Blue Jays come in. Story’s athleticism and historically strong defensive numbers ought to allow him to make the transition to either side of shortstop, where his power bat would certainly play. Relocating to homer-happy Rogers Centre would also minimize some of the Coors Field handicap for a player whose home/road splits are impossible to ignore.

Story’s in a tough spot: tied to draft pick compensation, coming off a down year offensively, a free agent amid a historic class at his position. The Blue Jays could try to sell him on a short-term, value-reestablishing deal that gives him the opportunity to reenter the market off a better platform season and with fewer premium shortstop options available. That bet-on-yourself design worked out pretty well for Semien.

But if Story’s not interested in the Semien route, this could be a very expensive option — one that might see the Blue Jays paying for several years of decline to add another right-handed power bat to a lineup already full of them. Story wouldn’t be a spectacular fit in that scenario. But either way, the drop off from him and Bryant to the rest of the free agent alternatives is substantial.

Jonathan Villar

Like, super substantial. Villar is the next best free agent remaining at second or third base and it wouldn’t be a shock to see him emerge from the scramble to fill roster holes prior to spring training with a two-year deal. But for the Blue Jays to be that team would be somewhat of a shock, particularly after Villar’s calamitous, post-2020-trade-deadline stretch with the club in which he hit .188/.278/.203 over 79 plate appearances.

But not for nothing, Villar’s rough 2020 is surrounded by a 107-wRC+, 3.9-WAR season in 2019, and a 105-wRC+, 2.1-WAR campaign in 2021. He’s been a useful utility player throughout his career and projection systems see him as a solid contributor going forward. And if the Blue Jays strike out elsewhere, they’ll have to consider a reunion.

Josh Harrison, Brad Miller, Donovan Solano

None of the above would be a long-term solution, but any of this trio could serve as a short-term stop gap if Toronto’s pursuit of a higher-impact infielder comes up empty. At the very least, they’d give the Blue Jays another proven, veteran bat on a low-risk, one-year deal, allowing the club to reassess its circumstances in-season and hunt for a more substantial upgrade at the trade deadline.

Harrison can play either second or third, and while he doesn’t add much thump to a batting order, the two-time all-star at least makes plenty of contact and has worked his way to a 104 wRC+ and 1.8 WAR over 649 plate appearances since 2020.

The left-handed hitting Miller can defend practically anywhere, but his three-true-outcomes bat is only playable as part of a platoon. He could be 2022’s Corey Dickerson with the added benefit of more positional versatility.

At 34, Solano is coming off a quietly productive three-season stretch in which he’s hit .308/.354/.435 with a 114 wRC+ while mostly playing second base. There isn’t much in his peripheral numbers to suggest he can sustain this late-career breakout, but he does consistently put the ball in play and can cover at third or shortstop in a pinch.

Potential trade targets (FanGraphs ZIPS projections)

Jose Ramirez

Perhaps you’ve heard this name before? A switch-hitter with a high walk rate, low strikeout rate, and exceptional quality-of-contact peripherals, Ramirez carries one of the game’s most well-rounded bats at his position. And considering how well he’d fit, the Blue Jays are going to be connected to the third baseman until he’s no longer a Guardian.

That seems only a matter of time. Cleveland isn’t typically in the business of paying market rates for elite players like Ramirez, and the opportunity window for the organization to move his extremely payroll-efficient contract — Ramirez will earn $12-million this season and carries a $14-million 2023 club option — for a handsome prospect package is rapidly closing.

Of course, the Guardians could wait until the trade deadline or even next off-season to pull that trigger. Ramirez’s player-unfriendly deal is literally the only guaranteed money on Cleveland’s books going forward, removing pressure to trade him barring an offer too good to refuse. In the meantime, Ramirez might just help his current club contend for a spot in an expanded postseason. And isn’t that the point of this whole thing?

Ketel Marte

Considering the fact he’s younger, more versatile defensively, and has posted a higher wRC+ since 2019, Marte could arguably be a better addition for the Blue Jays than Ramirez. To say nothing of the 28-year-old’s even more ludicrously below-market contract, which owes him $8-million in 2022 with club options of $10-million and $12-million in the following seasons.

But as with Cleveland and Ramirez, it remains to be seen how motivated Arizona is to trade its best player. You can’t squint at the Diamondbacks and see a potential 2022 playoff outfit like you can with the Guardians. But the three years of club control the team holds over Marte removes urgency to make a move for anything less than a premium return.

Matt Chapman

Ramirez and Marte may not be on the trade block once MLB’s transaction freeze lifts, but Chapman almost assuredly will as the Oakland Athletics face a self-imposed payroll squeeze that will likely spur them to move talented core pieces for salary relief. Projected to earn $9.5-million this season through arbitration, Chapman’s one of the bigger cost-saving levers Oakland’s front office could pull. And as an elite defender at third base with loads of power in his bat, the 28-year-old ought to be targeted by plenty of clubs.

On paper, Chapman’s not a perfect fit for Toronto. His line drive, hard-hit, and chase rates have been trending in the wrong direction. And, purely for the sake of a more balanced lineup featuring less redundancy, the Blue Jays would prefer a left-handed bat with an approach less predicated on the game’s three true outcomes. But beggars can’t be choosers. And it’s possible Chapman’s the best infielder available to the Blue Jays once the lockout’s through.

JD Davis

After signing Starling Marte, Eduardo Escobar, and Mark Canha before the lockout, the Mets have created a position player logjam that will require clearing prior to opening day. One of several players without a natural roster fit is Davis, a well-rounded right-handed hitter who’s posted a 130 wRC+ and 4.5 WAR over nearly 900 plate appearances since 2019.

Davis is not a strong defender at third base and carries some injury concern after battling a left hand issue last season that ultimately required surgery. But all the 28-year-old has done whenever and wherever he’s played consistently is hit. And with three seasons of club control remaining, including a projected $2.7-million salary through arbitration in 2022, the Blue Jays could easily make room for a puzzle piece the Mets don’t have an obvious fit for.

Paul DeJong

It’s tough to say what to expect going forward from DeJong, who started his career putting up a 108 wRC+ and 10.6 WAR through his first three seasons before posting below league-average campaigns in 2020 and ’21. Just as it’s tough to say whether the St. Louis Cardinals expect to move forward with DeJong at shortstop.

As his rocky 2021 endured, DeJong first plummeted in the batting order, then conceded considerable playing time to Edmundo Sosa during a playoff push, and ultimately was left out of the lineup in the NL Wild Card game. But following the season, the Cardinals expressed public confidence in DeJong bouncing back and suggested they expect him to reclaim the shortstop job he appeared to lose last season.

Whether the club’s actions align with its words remains to be seen. But if there’s a hint that DeJong — owed $15-million over the next two seasons with a pair of club options beyond that — could be available, the Blue Jays may want to make a call and see if there’s a buy-low opportunity.

Throughout his struggles, DeJong — a second baseman in college and primarily a third baseman as a minor-leaguer — has continued to post solid barrel rates and flash the power potential (.194 ISO in 2021) that fuelled his impressive, early-career production. Still just 28, it’s not out of the question that he could find some adjustments to improve his quality of contact and earn more damage from the consistently high fly ball rates he’s posted throughout his career.

Whit Merrifield, Adalberto Mondesí, Ian Happ, Didi Gregorius, Jean Segura

It’s not the design, but there’s always a possibility the Blue Jays aren’t able to acquire one of the more obvious impact infielders available for one reason or another. And with the rapid turnaround from the end of the lockout to opening day only serving to increase pressure and urgency to add someone who can play second or third, the club may have to adjust its sights and seek a creative opportunity to address its infield need.

Could the floundering Royals look to move on from a veteran infielder such as Merrifield or Mondesi with Nicky Lopez establishing himself as a capable big-leaguer, while top prospects Bobby Witt Jr. and Nick Pratto near their MLB debuts?

Do the rebuilding Cubs continue the veteran sell-off they initiated at the trade deadline and move Happ, a switch-hitter who thrives against right-handed pitching and lines up all over the diamond?

Is there a potential framework to build with the Phillies, a club that desperately needs outfield help, in which the Blue Jays flip Randal Grichuk for one of Gregorius or Segura?

These won’t be the Blue Jays' preferred alternatives, but they’re options the club could find itself considering as names fly off the board in the days and weeks following the lockout. The club trading from its outfield depth to acquire an infielder certainly has some merit, particularly if it then turns around and signs a premium left-handed hitting outfielder such as Michael Conforto or Kyle Schwarber. Even Eddie Rosario or Joc Pederson could make sense as platoon options to backfill for the subtraction of an outfielder via trade.

There are a lot of roads the Blue Jays could take once MLB reopens for business; a lot of ways to add expected wins to a roster that needs as many of them as it can get. But all of those roads lead to the Blue Jays adding an infielder. For this team to contend, no upgrade is more necessary.

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