SARASOTA, Fla. – On a hot morning at the Orioles’ spring training facility, Blue Jays infield prospect Addison Barger walks past in search of some pre-game hydration while 20-year-old outfielder Gabriel Martinez drops off his glove.
Nearby, one of the few established players to make the hour-and-a-half trip south takes a seat in the shade and reflects on how quickly the transition from rookie to veteran can happen.
“I always remember those days when I was watching J.D. and Tulo and Justin Smoak. Edwin (Encarnacion) and (Jose) Bautista. Watching them go about their business,” said Cavan Biggio, who will turn 28 soon after opening day. “Now I’m kind of the guy that’s here in Sarasota. And now guys are watching me go about my business. They ask me questions and I always try to remember what it was like to be in their shoes. It’s my fifth year in the big leagues, which is crazy to say.”
His fourth season in the majors didn’t go according to plan, as Biggio hit .202 with a .668 OPS, the lowest of his career. But after an off-season of work, he believes a turnaround is coming. The Blue Jays seem equally optimistic with GM Ross Atkins regularly going out of his way to mention Biggio’s potential impact. And after some frank off-season conversations, there are now more pathways for Biggio to make his presence known.
“I feel like I can help this team more in a bigger role,” Biggio said. “And I’m here to prove that.”
Working out in Houston alongside big-leaguers such as Anthony Rendon, Ross Stripling and Robbie Grossman, he added strength over the winter in the hopes of an offensive bounce-back season. But adding athleticism was also a priority for Biggio after a conversation he had with his manager.
Last year, “there was some frustration” for Biggio because he felt limited to playing second base, where he started 36 times, and first base, where he started 32 times. He welcomes the challenges of playing multiple positions and knows there will be times his day begins on the bench because others on the Blue Jays match up better. “I get it,” he said. “I’m not dumb.”
But at the same time, he felt he could offer more – especially if he got consistent reps in the outfield, where he started just eight times last year. In December, he told Schneider as much.
“I understand my role,” he said. “But it was a good conversation. Schneids, I have a personal relationship with him dating back to when I was drafted in 2016, so I feel like I can express my feelings to him and I know that he’s going to listen.”
From the manager’s perspective, the conversation was important, too. Many big-league players don’t have that same level of rapport with their managers, but open communication is a goal for Schneider in his first full year on the job.
“I love it,” Schneider said. “I mean, I’ve known him for a long, long time. And I’ve always been one to want feedback from players, whether it’s good or bad … I love the fact that he was outspoken about his desires, his wants, and how he can contribute. We’ve always had a pretty good back-and-forth.
“And I told him, if you’re going to blame anyone last year, blame me. But it’s just, you’re trying to win every night. And I think when everyone understands that it makes those conversations a little easier.”
Thanks in part to that conversation, Biggio’s slated for an equal mix of infield and outfield reps in 2023. He’ll be in the second base mix along with Whit Merrifield and Santiago Espinal while also helping back Vladimir Guerrero Jr. up at first and seeing regular time in right field, where he made a diving catch in Tuesday’s spring training game. On days George Springer is resting or at DH, Biggio will be a leading candidate to play right.
“He’s worked really hard,” Schneider said. “We definitely feel comfortable with him out there.”
Of course, the better Biggio hits, the more often he’ll find himself in the lineup this coming season. With a lifetime .749 OPS against right-handed pitching, he figures to see plenty of action against righties, especially if the restrictions on the shift help left-handed hitters like Biggio, as expected.
It’s also possible the off-season efforts to add athleticism translate into more activity on the bases for Biggio, who’s widely considered one of the savviest baserunners on the team. With 25 stolen bases in 26 career attempts and restrictions on pitcher pickoffs, he’s expected to have the green light often.
“Speed and baseball IQ is a good combo,” Schneider said. “There’s power, there’s on base, there’s great defence, there’s great baserunning. He brings it all. He’s in a great spot (with a) great mindset.”
Physically and mentally, Biggio feels ready for year number five in the majors. He’s on the same page as his manager again. And knowing who else is on this edition of the Blue Jays, his hopes are high for what they can accomplish collectively.
“Come away with the whole thing,” he said. “There’s no reason we shouldn’t be able to do it.”