Blue Jays' biggest X-factors heading into the 2023 season
Can Jose Berrios and Yusei Kikuchi bounce back? How will Brandon Belt and Daulton Varsho fit in Toronto's lineup?
Unlike in other sports, having superstars in your lineup can only get you so far in MLB. The Toronto Blue Jays are loaded with premier talent, but Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette can only do so much — just ask Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani.
Every World Series contender needs big contributions from players further down the depth chart in order to realize its potential. Here are six players who could push the Blue Jays over the top in 2023.
Coming off the worst season of his MLB career, Berrios has already been generating plenty of headlines this spring. He's looked decent in Grapefruit League action, posting a 2.70 ERA in three outings but giving up some hard contact along the way.
It was a start for Puerto Rico at the World Baseball Classic that gave Blue Jays fans nightmares, though. The right-hander was rocked for five runs on five hits in his one inning of work, and although the game plan might have been different than the one the Blue Jays want him to execute, it was still concerning to see him struggle so mightily.
Toronto signed Berrios to a seven-year extension after the 2021 campaign because he had been a model of consistency to that point in his career and looked to come with a very high floor. Fast forward one year and he's coming off a year in which he recorded a 5.23 ERA that was worst among all qualified starters in MLB.
Getting the two-time All-Star back on track would be a massive development for the Blue Jays, who have three extremely reliable starters at the top of their rotation (though that's what we thought about Berrios before last year) in Alek Manoah, Kevin Gausman and newcomer Chris Bassitt. A return to form from Berrios would give Toronto one of the most impressive starting staffs in the majors.
Speaking of starting pitchers in desperate need of a bounce back, Kikuchi's first year in Toronto did not go smoothly. The left-hander showed flashes of being an effective starter, but had too many outings where the wheels completely fell off, leading to a demotion to the bullpen later in the year. All told, he logged a 5.19 ERA over 32 games (20 starts) on the heels of signing a three-year, $36-million contract.
With Mitch White — his biggest competition for the fifth-starter spot — getting a late start to his spring due to injury, Kikuchi has taken the opportunity and run with it. His Grapefruit League ERA is down to 1.00 and he's been missing plenty of bats, highlighted by a nine-strikeout appearance on Thursday against a Minnesota Twins lineup featuring plenty of regulars.
We'll see if Kikuchi can keep it up when the games actually start to matter, but his March results have certainly looked promising.
The Blue Jays' biggest move of the winter came when they sent outfielder Lourdes Gurriel Jr. and top prospect Gabriel Moreno to the Arizona Diamondbacks in exchange for Varsho. It's easy to see why the Blue Jays were so smitten with the 26-year-old as he offers exceptional defence and possesses plenty of left-handed pop at the plate.
Varsho won't be asked to do too much in this offence, likely slotting somewhere between fifth and seventh in the batting order to start the season. His high-strikeout, low-walk profile might be frustrating to watch at times, but a move to the AL East and the rejigged Rogers Centre could easily see him surpass 30 homers in 2023, while he also provides offensive value on the bases.
Defensively, he'll plug into left field but should still log plenty of time in centre, especially if fellow offseason acquisition Kevin Kiermaier suffers an injury. Varsho has experience at catcher, but don't expect to see him behind the plate, save for in emergency situations.
Belt was another offseason addition made in an effort to bring more balance to the Blue Jays' righty-heavy lineup. The move was a pretty low-risk gamble for Ross Atkins and Co., as the two-time World Series champion only required a one-year commitment. The range of outcomes is large, but the best-case scenario is that he'll hit well enough to be Toronto's primary cleanup hitter as the DH, mixing in at first base to spell Guerrero Jr. when necessary.
Belt played just 78 games in 2022 due to a knee injury that required surgery, posting a .213/.326/.350 slash line with eight home runs. His 2021 campaign was excellent, albeit in only 97 contests, slugging a career-best 29 home runs with a .975 OPS. The 34-year-old also dominated during the COVID-shortened 2020 season, registering a 1.015 OPS in 51 games.
Merrifield joined the Blue Jays ahead of the 2022 trade deadline and struggled out of the gate as he transitioned to a new organization with a new role. The 34-year-old had spent his entire career with the Kansas City Royals and was used to playing every day.
He only hit .211 with a .590 OPS in his first month with the Blue Jays, but seemed to adjust in September. He looked a lot more like the two-time All-Star who led MLB in hits in 2018 and '19 by hitting .338 with a .949 OPS down the stretch.
His days of leading the majors in steals are likely behind him, but he can still be a valuable asset in that department as Toronto looks to be more aggressive on the bases in 2023. Another big part of Merrifield's game is his versatility, as he can comfortably play second base or either outfield corner.
The Blue Jays paid a hefty price to acquire Swanson, sending a premier bat in Teoscar Hernandez to the Seattle Mariners in return. Swanson was simply outstanding in 2022, posting a sparkling 1.68 ERA and 11.7 K/9 rate over 57 games. If there was one knock on him last year, it was that he didn't face too many high-leverage situations, with only 23 of his appearances coming in that game state.
If Swanson can repeat his 2022 statistics while consistently pitching in higher-stress conditions than he did in Seattle, the Blue Jays' bullpen will take a big step forward. Yimi Garcia and Anthony Bass are strong late-inning options behind closer Jordan Romano, but neither possesses the same strikeout upside as Swanson.