Blue Jays Confidential: What you need to know about the 2023 season

Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher Jose Berrios throws against the Philadelphia Phillies during the first inning of spring training baseball action in Dunedin, Fla., on Sunday, March 5, 2023. (Fred Thornhill/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

As the 2023 season begins, Blue Jays Confidential asks a panel of Sportsnet Blue Jays insiders to weigh in on what to expect from the team:

1. While the Toronto Blue Jays return largely intact for 2023 season, they did make some significant changes over the winter. Based on what you’ve seen over the course of spring training, what will be the most significant difference?

Ben Nicholson-Smith (@bnicholsonsmith): The simplest way I can put it is to say it’s just going to be a tighter brand of baseball. Defensively, they’re going to play better. Baserunning should improve, too. And along with that, they may score fewer runs. So: expect crisper, closer games.

Shi Davidi (@ShiDavidi): The way the Blue Jays will be able to match up for whatever the game presents them. Tough fastball-slider righty on the mound? They can insert four lefties to counter. Difficult pitcher to elevate against? Between Merrifield, Kiermaier, Springer, Bichette and Varsho, they can line up six base stealers. Switch up in the middle of the game? Barring injuries, they’ll have some combination of Alejandro Kirk/Danny Jansen, Santiago Espinal/Whit Merrifield, Cavan Biggio and Nathan Lukes on the bench. Deep toolkit for manager John Schneider.

David Singh (@ByDavidSingh): Outfield defence. It was a joy talking to Kevin Kiermaier and Daulton Varsho about their glovework. They simply approach their craft differently than what we’ve seen from Blue Jays outfielders of the recent past.

Arden Zwelling (@ArdenZwelling): A less redundant, more functional roster. Toronto’s front office has been progressively working to diversify the skillsets in its lineup, rotation and bullpen for years and the 2023 vintage is probably the closest they’ve come to their vision. The Blue Jays can produce runs in a variety of ways, their roster is as positionally versatile as ever, the rotation offers five distinctly different looks and no two bullpen arms are alike. That makes Toronto tougher to gameplan against and opens options for the coaching staff for setting lineups and navigating games.

Jeff Blair (@SNJeffBlair): Given the cost and emphasis, it had better be outfield defence.

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2. What is the most pressing question you have about the offence heading into the season?

Arden Zwelling (@ArdenZwelling): How Toronto hitters respond to late-game, leverage situations. The Blue Jays hit .218/.280/.321 with a 71 wRC+ in high leverage plate appearances in the eighth inning and beyond last season. That was bottom-seven production across MLB. The hypothesis is that Toronto’s lineup was too redundant and therefore too easy for opponents to attack in those spots. This season will test whether a more balanced batting order featuring diversified skillsets produces better results.

David Singh (@ByDavidSingh): What Brandon Belt brings to this lineup. He turns 35 in April and is coming off knee surgery, however Belt says he feels great. If that’s the case and the left-handed hitter approaches his .975 OPS from 2021, the Blue Jays’ offence is vastly different.

Jeff Blair (@SNJeffBlair): What happens if Matt Chapman is the Matt Chapman of 2022 at the plate and Daulton Varsho turns into a left-handed Matt Chapman?

Ben Nicholson-Smith (@bnicholsonsmith): I’m always curious to see what Bo Bichette and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. can do. I can’t think of anyone better positioned to win a batting title than Bichette, and Guerrero Jr. has as much power as anyone this side of Aaron Judge. To me, though, watching Matt Chapman in a walk year may be most fascinating of all, especially as he implements some swing changes.

Shi Davidi (@ShiDavidi): Will Brandon Belt become the middle-of-the-order threat the Blue Jays need in the middle of their lineup to ensure teams don’t walk Vladimir Guerrero Jr. 130 times this year?

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3. What is the most pressing question you have about the pitching heading into the season?

David Singh (@ByDavidSingh): Easily Jose Berrios. He’s the X-factor in the rotation — if the veteran proves last year was just an anomaly and returns to his steady self, Berrios can elevate the starting staff from “very good” to “fearsome.” 

Jeff Blair (@SNJeffBlair): The Blue Jays were 19th in the Majors in starters’ innings last season – a statistic that proved to be a predictor of post-season success. Subbing in Chris Bassitt alone won’t be enough if Jose Berrios and Yusei Kikuchi run into early-season trouble. 

Arden Zwelling (@ArdenZwelling): How the club would manage a mid-season stretch without two of the five starters in its Opening Day rotation. Toronto’s starting pitching depth is thin. And although we saw the Blue Jays regularly running bullpen days down the stretch in 2022, that’s not a sustainable strategy over a longer period.

Shi Davidi (@ShiDavidi): Will another reliable, late-game leverage reliever or two emerge from the lightning-armed group of Zach Pop, Nate Pearson, Chad Green, Yosver Zulueta, Julian Fernandez, Junior Fernandez and Hagen Danner?

Ben Nicholson-Smith (@bnicholsonsmith): I’m not going to overcomplicate this. It’s what the Blue Jays get from Yusei Kikuchi. Can you imagine a year where he throws 140 innings with a 4.00 ERA? Sure. But can you also imagine a scenario where he loses his rotation spot by May? The range of outcomes is just so wide here.

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4. Who will contribute more to the 2023 Blue Jays – Hyun Jin Ryu, Chad Green or a TBD trade deadline addition?

Jeff Blair (@SNJeffBlair): A healthy Chad Green would be the best trade deadline acquisition … because I don’t think this is a post-season bullpen.

David Singh (@ByDavidSingh): I’ll go with TBD trade deadline addition. Given where the Blue Jays are in their window and the strong composition of this year’s club, I’d hope the front office is ready to go all-in at the deadline, and that translates into acquiring a player who makes a profound impact.

Ben Nicholson-Smith (@bnicholsonsmith): To me, it’s Green. Ideally Ryu would come back in time to make six starts, and you know the Blue Jays will be in the market for further pitching this summer, but Green has consistently pitched at an elite level, with a 3.17 ERA, 11.6 strikeouts per nine and 2.3 walks per nine over the course of his career. It’s tough to do much better than that.

Arden Zwelling (@ArdenZwelling): The mystery box. It’s impossible to forecast how a pitcher will feel and perform after Tommy John rehabilitation. But based on how Toronto’s front office has operated in the past, it’s safe to assume the club will be active at the trade deadline. Aside from the off-season, it’s the busiest transaction juncture of MLB’s calendar. All 30 clubs are engaged and looking to deal. And the Blue Jays put a lot of time and energy into leveraging that opportunity to improve their roster. 

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5. Which prospect/depth player opening the season in the minor leagues do you believe will play the biggest role this season?

Shi Davidi (@ShiDavidi): Nate Pearson feels like the safer choice here but I keep thinking Addison Barger and all that left-handed pop have a role to play. He’s still working to reduce the swing and miss but that he’ll be playing short, second, third and the outfield shows how the Blue Jays want to create multiple pathways for him onto the roster.

Jeff Blair (@SNJeffBlair): I’d love to see Addison Barger up here … but that would mean something calamitous has happened. Nate Pearson is the default answer, I guess.

Ben Nicholson-Smith (@bnicholsonsmith): This is another one that could go either way, but I’ll go with Nate Pearson. The velocity’s there, and there’s zero reason to coddle him in the minor leagues anymore. If and when he forces the Blue Jays’ hand, he’ll get chances at the highest level – and that won’t be fun for opponents.

David Singh (@ByDavidSingh): Ricky Tiedemann. If everything we hear about the 20-year-old lefty is true, it’s not unimaginable to picture him as a weapon in the big-league bullpen down the stretch and during a playoff run. Think Brewers right-hander Corbin Burnes in 2018. 

Arden Zwelling (@ArdenZwelling): Zach Thompson. He’s the No. 6 in Toronto’s rotation and will be up to make a start as soon as a need arises. With five pitches he’ll throw in any count to either side of the plate, there are Ross Stripling vibes to his approach. And the Blue Jays have worked with Thompson on improving his sequencing and attack zones, which they believe can help him recapture the form he showed in 2021, when he pitched to a 130 ERA+ with the Marlins. Don’t be surprised if he hauls 100+ big-league innings for the Blue Jays this season.

6. Over/under 92 wins this year?

Ben Nicholson-Smith (@bnicholsonsmith): Over.

David Singh (@ByDavidSingh): Over.

Arden Zwelling (@ArdenZwelling): Over.

Shi Davidi (@ShiDavidi): Over.

Jeff Blair (@SNJeffBlair): Over.

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