High-variance players like Berrios and Belt will shape Blue Jays’ 2023 season

Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher Jose Berrios throws during the first inning of a baseball game against the Detroit Tigers, Friday, June 10, 2022, in Detroit. (Carlos Osorio/AP)

The Toronto Blue Jays enter 2023 with the luxury of having a number of high-performing players they can count on.

For all of his week-to-week volatility, Bo Bichette has been extremely consistent on a year-to-year basis. Vladimir Guerrero Jr.’s value has fluctuated the last couple of years, but his floor is extremely high. The same can be said for Matt Chapman and Daulton Varsho due to their elite gloves.

On the pitching side, the duo of Kevin Gausman and Alek Manoah has been durable and dynamic while Jordan Romano is coming off two straight seasons of locking down the end of games.

These players are crucial to the Blue Jays’ success, but they may not be the most critical factors in determining if this team sinks or swims. That title belongs to players with the widest range of outcomes who could bolster their chances immensely or provide virtually no on-field value.

Here are the high-variance players who will play an outsized role in determining the team’s fate this year:

Jose Berrios

Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Jose Berrios. (Carlos Osorio/AP)

Reasonable ceiling: All-Star who ranks among MLB’s best middle-of-the-rotation starters

In other words, Berríos is perfectly capable of pitching like he did for a five-year span between 2017 and 2021 when he ranked 14th in the majors in fWAR (15.2), made two all-star teams, and had an ERA that never left the 3.52-4.00 range.

There’s no specific reason to believe he can’t return to that level.  

He’s still young (28), didn’t lose any significant velocity or movement off his pitches last year, and showed flashes of his old self, like two 13-strikeout games — a threshold he’d never reached in 147 MLB starts prior to 2022.

FanGraphs’ Steamer projection system has Berríos down for a 4.14 ERA — an outcome that would likely be acceptable to the Blue Jays — but his impeccable track record and the lack of a clear reason for his 2022 demise suggest he could do better. 

Reasonable floor: MLB leader in earned runs allowed

While earned runs conceded isn’t the best metric to evaluate pitchers by, it’s tough to have a good season letting 100 of them cross the plate. 

Berríos also allowed more hits than any other major leaguer (199) and just four coughed up more long balls (29). 

It is highly unlikely that the right-hander replicates his nightmare 2022, but a repeat is within the realm of possibility. He didn’t lose his velocity or stuff last year, but his command was a mess, and there’s no guarantee it snaps back into place.

Even if he pitches like he did between 2017 and 2021, there’s room for him to experience worse luck as his ERA was below his xERA in all but one of those seasons despite middling contact-management metrics.

George Springer

Toronto Blue Jays outfielder George Springer. (Frank Franklin II/AP)

Reasonable ceiling: One of the best players in the majors

Since joining the Blue Jays, Springer has been outstanding on a per-at-bat basis. His 135 wRC+ ranks 20th among all MLB hitters with 900 or more plate appearances — just behind Carlos Correa and Rafael Devers, just ahead of Nolan Arenado and Xander Bogaerts.

He’s also performed well in centre field, and there’s reason to believe a move to right field in 2023 will result in some excellent defensive metrics.

Despite the fact Springer is 33, his wheels still work fine as his Sprint Speed was in the 76th percentile last season, helping him produce the second-highest stolen base total of his career (14).

At his best, Springer is one of the best all-around contributors the game has to offer and a bargain on the $22.5 million he’ll make this season. During a mostly healthy 2022, for instance, FanGraphs estimated his on-field value at $33.7 million.

Reasonable floor: Injury-plagued starter showing signs of decline

Springer’s injury issues since he joined the Blue Jays are well-documented. Even when the veteran plays there are often stretches when he’s battling through one ailment or another.

Whether you want to fault his age, all-out style, or just bad luck, Springer is more likely than the average player to have a lost season due to injury. That gives him a low floor.

Even though his overall contribution was excellent in 2022, his power numbers lagged to their lowest level since 2018:

He also produced his lowest xSLG (.438), max exit velocity (113.8) and xwOBA on contact (.374) since those metrics became available in 2015. If his bat is losing some thump he’ll be less able to mitigate any lost time with elite production.

Erik Swanson

Former Seattle Mariners pitcher Erik Swanson, acquired this off-season by the Toronto Blue Jays. (Patrick Semansky/AP)

Reasonable ceiling: Indispensable high-leverage arm

Based on what we saw from Swanson in 2022, he looks like a good candidate to vastly improve Toronto’s bullpen:

The only thing Swanson is missing is a big velocity, but his impressive extension helps it play up as opponents slugged just .228 against him last year. 

With a slider to use against righties and a splitter to fade away from left-hand bats, he’s about as complete a reliever as you’re going to find — especially when those ingredients are mixed with solid command. 

There’s a reason his 1.74 ERA ranked ninth among MLB relievers with 50-plus innings pitched last season.

Reasonable floor: Middle reliever with flashes of greatness and home-run issues

If you take away 2022, Swanson has 101.1 MLB innings with a 5.44 ERA and -0.1 fWAR. Those results go along with minimal draft or prospect pedigree.

Much of those numbers come from an inadvisable stint as a starter in 2019, but this is not an exciting track record. 

In 2021 Swanson became a full-time reliever, and his 3.53 ERA out of the pen was more solid than otherworldly — and his strikeout percentage (25 per cent) was well below his 2022 production (34 per cent).

Although much of Swanson’s work as an MLB reliever comes from 2022, he does have a prior history of throwing similar stuff with less impressive results. 

He is also an extreme flyball pitcher (34.4 per cent in his career) heading from pitcher-friendly T-Mobile Park to Rogers Centre, a stadium rife with uncertainty after outfield wall renovations.

Much of Swanson’s success last year came from the fact he allowed just three home runs all season. If keeping the ball in the park becomes an issue, his status as the top bridge to Jordan Romano may not hold up.

Brandon Belt

Former San Francisco Giants first baseman Brandon Belt, signed this off-season by the Toronto Blue Jays. (Aaron Gash/AP)

Reasonable ceiling: The left-handed bat the Blue Jays lineup has needed for years

That may seem like a dramatic statement, but if Belt is the hitter he was in 2020 and 2021, he’ll be the best lefty bat Toronto has had since Justin Smoak’s 2017 breakout.

His mastery of breaking balls and off-speed pitches made him one of the most dangerous hitters in baseball during that time, and he spent half his time hitting at pitcher-friendly Oracle Park.

That version of Belt would put up gaudy numbers spending most of his games hitting in AL East parks.

His 162 wRC+ in those years is so good it might run counter to the “reasonable” qualifier here, as that number would represent the sixth-best single-season mark in franchise history.

If we bump it down to 140, that’s a threshold that hasn’t been reached by a Blue Jays lefty bat since Adam Lind in 2009.

Reasonable floor: Slightly below-average hitter who limits Toronto’s versatility

Basically, Belt could be what he was in 2022 — and If the veteran produces like he did last year he will have little value to the Blue Jays.

With Vladimir Guerrero Jr. entrenched at first base, Belt figures to get most of his work at DH. Those are high-value at-bats. 

They come with a significant opportunity cost as they could be used to rest guys like Springer, or allow the team to get both of its catchers into the lineup. We saw in 2021 how even a talented hitter like Rowdy Tellez was quickly shipped off when he wasn’t producing in the role Belt will inhabit in 2023.

For the veteran to run back his career-worst season in 2022 he’ll probably have to encounter some injury trouble, but that’s not out of the question for a 34-year-old who’s been dogged by knee issues lately. 

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