Blue Jays' 5 biggest questions for 2023 season
Can Jose Berrios and Yusei Kikuchi bounce back? Which version of Vladimir Guerrero Jr. will show up?
Spring training is officially in the books and the Toronto Blue Jays are itching to get their 2023 season started Thursday against the St. Louis Cardinals.
This iteration of the Blue Jays looks drastically different than the one that got swept by the Seattle Mariners in the American League Wild Card Series last October. While the front office appears to have constructed a roster that should once again challenge for a playoff spot, there are still a number of questions surrounding the team heading into the new season.
Can Berrios and/or Kikuchi bounce back?
Two of the Blue Jays' biggest moves of the 2021 offseason went absolutely bust last year. Jose Berrios signed a seven-year, $131-million deal and proceeded to post an MLB-worst 5.23 ERA in 2022. Toronto also rolled the dice on lefty Yusei Kikuchi and watched that gamble backfire immediately. Kikuchi was unusable for a large portion of the year and finished the season in the bullpen with a cumulative 5.19 ERA.
The top of the Blue Jays' rotation looks stable with Alek Manoah, Kevin Gausman and Chris Bassitt capable of providing consistently effective innings, so a bounce back from either Berrios or Kikuchi — or both — would give Toronto a formidable starting staff.
Berrios had a shaky spring, finishing with a 4.30 ERA over four starts. There were reasons for optimism and it's foolish to read too much into Grapefruit League stats, but he still surrendered a lot of hard contact. The two-time All-Star was also clobbered in his lone appearance for Puerto Rico at the World Baseball Classic, yielding six runs (five earned) in one inning.
Kikuchi, on the other hand, was the King of the Spring, finishing with a 0.87 ERA over seven contests. He also led the Grapefruit League in total strikeouts. It's never been a question of talent for the southpaw and now we'll see if the results will translate to when the games actually count.
Is Toronto's starting pitching depth good enough?
On the subject of starting pitching, the Blue Jays don't currently have any arms that inspire confidence should one of the five rotation members suffer an injury. Mitch White is on the injured list to start the season and could be a candidate once he's built up, but his results were awful after joining the Blue Jays at last year's trade deadline.
The triple-A depth isn't very appealing, either, as the likes of Drew Hutchison, Zach Thompson and Casey Lawrence make up the next wave of possible reinforcements. Top prospect Ricky Tiedemann is slated to start 2023 at double-A and wouldn't figure to be an option until later in the summer.
No team has seven or eight capable starting pitchers at its disposal but the Blue Jays look quite vulnerable should someone land on the IL.
A wild card in the back half of the season is Hyun Jin Ryu, who is currently recovering from Tommy John surgery. He doesn't have a firm timetable for a return and might not be close to the same pitcher he was prior to the injury, but he could at least be an intriguing option down the stretch.
What version of Vladimir Guerrero Jr. will show up?
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. ran roughshod over the American League in 2021 with 48 home runs and a 1.002 OPS en route to a second-place finish in MVP voting. He followed that up with a good-but-underwhelming 2022 campaign in which he slugged 32 homers and posted an .818 OPS. Through his first four seasons, MLB's former top prospect has only had the one truly special year in the majors.
Now entering his age-24 season, the pressure is on Guerrero Jr. to prove what he did two seasons ago wasn't an anomaly. His floor is still an extremely productive hitter, but the Blue Jays need their best player to be closer to his 2021 version if they want to turn their World Series dreams into a reality.
Can Springer, Belt, Kiermaier stay healthy?
This one is fairly straightforward but the Blue Jays have assumed some risk in their reliance on veterans with significant injury histories. Springer has struggled to stay on the field in his first two seasons with the Blue Jays as he's battled a number of ailments, and the team has been forced to manage his playing time even when he's been healthy. A shift from centre field to right field should help reduce his workload.
The Blue Jays' new starting centre fielder comes with red flags of his own, as three-time Gold Glove winner Kevin Kiermaier has only been able to suit up for 100-plus games twice in the past five seasons (not including the 2020 COVID-shortened campaign). The 33-year-old has only cracked the 130-game threshold once in his career and is coming off hip surgery.
Finally, potential cleanup hitter Brandon Belt played just 78 games in 2022 due to a chronic right knee injury that he's now had three surgeries on. The soon-to-be 35-year-old was also limited to 97 games in 2021 due to a plethora of ailments.
These three players — especially Springer — are expected to play big roles for the Blue Jays in 2023 but keeping them on the field might be a challenge.
Is there enough firepower in the bullpen?
The bullpen was a major point of concern for fans in 2022 as the Blue Jays lacked an impact swing-and-miss arm behind closer Jordan Romano. Things came to a head in Game 2 of the wild-card series as Toronto blew an 8-1 lead that ended its season.
The 2023 relief corps is almost the exact same group that imploded last October, with Romano, Yimi Garcia, Anthony Bass, Tim Mayza and Adam Cimber slated for big roles yet again. There was one major offseason addition as the front office traded slugger Teoscar Hernandez for right-hander Erik Swanson, who was dominant in 2022 with a 1.68 ERA in 57 games. Swanson doesn't possess elite velocity but can still rack up strikeouts, as evidenced by his 11.7 K/9 rate last season.
Unlike in the starting rotation, Toronto does have some intriguing bullpen depth in the minor leagues, as Nate Pearson and Yosver Zulueta both offer tremendous upside with upper-90s velocity. Veteran Chad Green, who signed a complicated two-year deal over the winter, should also provide a midseason boost once he returns from Tommy John surgery.