Breakouts wanted: which Blue Jays could take big steps forward in 2023?

Arden Zwelling and Ben Nicholson-Smith list some of the hitters and pitchers from the Toronto Blue Jays who can be a surprise factor for the upcoming season.

DUNEDIN, Fla. – Think back to last October, and how baseball’s best teams advanced to the post-season. They had superstars, of course, players like Aaron Judge, Justin Verlander and Mookie Betts. 

But beyond those established veterans, breakout players also emerged as key contributors for MLB’s best teams in 2022. A year ago, it would have been unreasonable to count on much from the players below, but these overachievers helped propel their respective teams to first-round byes:

Yankees, 99 wins, AL East title

Nestor Cortes (4.2 WAR), Matt Carpenter (2.4 WAR), Jose Trevino (2.3 WAR) and Oswaldo Cabrera (2.0 WAR)

Astros, 106 wins, AL West title

Jeremy Peña (4.9 WAR), Cristian Javier (3.7 WAR) and Ryne Stanek (2.2 WAR)

Atlanta, 101 wins, NL East title

Michael Harris II (5.3 WAR) and Spencer Strider (3.7 WAR)

Dodgers, 111 wins, NL West title

Tony Gonsolin (4.6 WAR), Tyler Anderson (4.3 WAR), Evan Phillips (2.8 WAR), Gavin Lux (2.5 WAR) and Trayce Thompson (2.0 WAR)

To be fair, some of these teams would have reached the playoffs even without surprise breakouts. For instance, the Mets won 101 games thanks mostly to their established stars.

But surpassing expectations certainly becomes easier when a player or two overachieves. As Blue Jays pitching coach Pete Walker says, “you need that to happen in a championship year.” The question now, is which teams will benefit from those surprise contributions?

In Blue Jays camp there’s optimism that some unheralded players will join stars like Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette in the team’s push for its first division title since 2015.

In 2022, they enjoyed breakouts from Ross Stripling and Santiago Espinal. A year later, who’s next? Yusei Kikuchi’s the obvious name, but $36 million players don’t really count as breakouts. With apologies to two-time all-stars like Whit Merrifield and Jose Berrios, they’re not true breakout candidates either. Still, many others have the potential to emerge as impact contributors who generate 2.0 WAR like the players above.

Conversations with players, coaches and executives in Blue Jays camp have helped identify these five players as breakout candidates in 2023…

The sinker specialist: Zach Pop

Now in competition for the final spot in the bullpen, Zach Pop has a sinker-slider combination that has the potential to push him up the Blue Jays’ depth chart. The 26-year-old has elite velocity with a fastball that averaged 96.5 m.p.h. last year – better than 88 per cent of fellow big-leaguers.

He throws the sinker more than three-quarters of the time, pairing it with a slider that keeps opposing hitters from sitting fastball too comfortably.

“He’s an underrated arm right now,” Walker said. “He’s someone that could step up, with his kind of stuff and have like a Clay Holmes type of year. He is potentially that kind of guy. The fact that he’s now throwing his sinker to both sides of the plate and not just one side as evidenced (Wednesday). When he starts getting left handers out routinely he’s an elite reliever and not just a right-on-right guy.”

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That Holmes comp would be ideal for the Blue Jays. An all-star last year, Holmes posted a 2.54 ERA with 65 strikeouts in 63.2 innings. Best-case scenario, Pop approaches those numbers in Toronto.

The versatile on-base threat: Cavan Biggio

Ask GM Ross Atkins about potential breakouts and it doesn’t take long before Biggio’s name comes up. The left-handed hitting 27-year-old fell off offensively in 2021 and 2022, but the ZiPS projection system still forecasts an above-average wRC+ of 108 for him in 2023.

Then there are the other aspects to Biggio’s game – the defensive versatility to play first base, second base and right field and the baserunning instincts that have allowed him to steal 25 bases in 26 career attempts. 

“Speed and baseball IQ is a good combo,” manager John Schneider said earlier this spring. “There’s power, there’s on base, there’s great defence, there’s great baserunning. He brings it all.”

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There are no guarantees here. We’ve seen the downside. But the Blue Jays are likely to leverage Biggio’s career .749 OPS against right-handed pitching to find favourable matchups this coming season. Combined with improved health, that could be a recipe for a sneaky two- or three-win season.

The contact hitter: Otto Lopez

Playing for Canada at the World Baseball Classic, Lopez impressed in some high-pressure spots, flashing a little power as well as the bat-to-ball skills he’s known best for. Combine that showing with his 2022 season (he hit .297/.378/.415 in 91 triple-A games last year) and the way Lopez performed in the Grapefruit League and he looks more and more like someone who can hold his own against high-level pitching.

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A leading candidate to earn the final spot on the Blue Jays’ bench (Nathan Lukes and Vinny Capra are the others), Lopez wouldn’t likely start much at first. But it’s a long season – opportunity generally emerges for those who earn it. 

Ideally, the Blue Jays don’t need Lopez much because their starters are all producing. But there’s value in having someone who can put the bat on the ball, pinch-run and play just about anywhere.

The depth starter: Zach Thompson 

While it’s conceivable the Blue Jays might not need a bench bat like Lopez, there’s virtually no world in which Thompson doesn’t get chances to start in 2023. In fact, he might be the first layer of depth beyond the current rotation at a time that Mitch White’s still catching up to his teammates.

“He’s someone that’s certainly going to contribute this year, and he could end up contributing in a big way,” Walker said. “He knows how to pitch.”

Granted, it’s a big ask. Thompson’s a waiver claim from the Pirates, not a major free-agent acquisition, and there’s not much in the way of certainty here. But this is a list of potential surprises and the Blue Jays have been working behind the scenes with the right-hander on some adjustments they’re hoping will pay dividends.

According to Walker, some of the same adjustments that worked for Stripling may end up benefitting Thompson, too.

The high-velo gamble: Nate Pearson

Injuries have robbed Pearson of valuable chances to pitch in recent years, so he no longer looks like the organizational building block he once did. Regardless, he can still light up a radar gun with a fastball that approaches 100 m.p.h. 

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At this stage, he appears likely to open the season as a reliever at triple-A, but if he’s throwing consistent strikes with his fastball and slider, chances are good that he’ll be able to force his way onto the Blue Jays’ roster before long. 

As with all players on this list, there’s the potential the season doesn’t go as planned for Pearson. But the upside here remains significant – he could be a high-leverage reliever getting big outs late in the year. So while it’s not fair to count on Pearson after a year in which he didn’t appear in the majors, ruling him out would be foolish, too.

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