Toronto Blue Jays 2023 Season Preview
Any MLB preview worth its salt is going to start a Toronto Blue Jays evaluation with the changes made to Rogers Centre. The outfield walls have been raised, but they have also been brought in rather significantly. The wall in left field has been moved in seven feet (368) and the wall in left center has been moved in two feet (381). The wall in right center has been moved in 11 feet (372) and the wall in right center has been moved in 16 feet (359).
It should come as no surprise that Toronto’s three position player acquisitions were all left-handed batters in Dalton Varsho, Brandon Belt and Kevin Kiermaier. This was already a team rich with right-handed power, but the new dimensions, particularly in right field, called for an infusion of left-handed pop. It doesn’t hurt that the Blue Jays were also fourth in opposite field slugging percentage among right-handed batters.
It will hurt the pitchers, too, but the Blue Jays seem to be taking a page from the Orioles’ playbook, just from a different chapter. Baltimore made left field at Camden Yards way more pitcher-friendly in hopes of leveling the playing field for their offense. Toronto is just leaning into their offense as much as possible and these changes may make the ballpark the best hitter’s park in baseball not named Coors Field. And more home runs were hit at Rogers Centre last year than Coors Field.
Now, the question is whether or not these changes, among others, are enough to help the Blue Jays reach or even exceed their lofty expectations.
Explanations of the stats used in this preview can be found in my “MLB Stats to Know” article.
2023 Toronto Blue Jays Odds
(odds from DraftKings as of Mar. 6, click for updates)
World Series: +1300
AL Pennant: +650
AL East: +215
Win Total: 91.5 (-115/-105)
Make Playoffs: Yes -255 / No +215
Toronto Blue Jays Offense
For the first time since 2019, the Blue Jays played all of their home games at Rogers Centre. They were the second-best offense overall by wRC+ at 117 and also led the league in batting average at .264. They were actually sixth in wRC+ and eighth in wOBA at home, which means they did a ton of damage on the road as the league’s top offense in wRC+ and wOBA. These park factor changes at home are likely to make the Blue Jays the league’s No. 1 overall offense this season.
Toronto did lose a quality bat in Teoscar Hernandez, but Dalton Varsho hit 27 home runs last season and is much more valuable with the glove. He also went from a .409 SLG in the first half to a .487 SLG in the second half, so he added a lot more power with a big uptick in FB%. That is going to help him tremendously going to Rogers Centre with the shorter dimensions in RF.
Varsho also adds some balance to a lineup that was right-handed-heavy, yet still went 80-50 against right-handed starters. Toronto gets to run it back with the same top of the order in George Springer, Bo Bichette, and Vladimir Guerrero Jr., whose rough month of May obscured how good the other five months were. For the season, Vladito slashed .274/.339/.480 with a .351 wOBA and a 132 wRC+, but posted a .358 wOBA and a 136 wRC+ from June 1 through the end of the season.
Springer stayed mostly healthy and racked up 4.2 fWAR with a 132 wRC+ of his own. His power production dropped a bit while playing through some nagging injuries and the lowest Barrel% of his career, but I would anticipate a bounce back in that department from him. He is 33 now, but I don’t see too many concerning signs of age in his profile. He also had offseason surgery to remove a bone spur from his elbow.
Whit Merrifield’s resurgence after the Trade Deadline and the additions of Belt and Varsho really lengthen this lineup. There were 10 players with at least 300 plate appearances for the Blue Jays and the lowest wRC+ of the bunch was 90 from Raimel Tapia, who is no longer on the roster. Cavan Biggio had a 97 wRC+ and he’ll move to the bench. Santiago Espinal is just a utility infielder and a terrific glove man.
Toronto also made the call about the logjam at the catcher position and shipped off Gabriel Moreno in the Varsho deal. That leaves Alejandro Kirk and Danny Jansen will handle the dish duties, with Kirk probably in a platoon at DH with Belt, who struggles badly against lefties. Kirk can DH against southpaws and Jansen can slide behind the plate, so it will lower the wear and tear on Kirk and also put the best possible lineup out there.
All Kirk did in his first full season was post a 129 wRC+ with strong defensive numbers. In a part-time role, Jansen posted a 140 wRC+ and quality defensive metrics as well. There aren’t a lot of teams with catcher production like this and even fewer with catcher depth like this. It is a tremendous luxury for the Blue Jays.
This is a really deep, extremely talented lineup that now gets a power bump from the changes to the ballpark dimensions. The Blue Jays were also a solid defensive team, but get huge bumps in the outfield with Kiermaier and Varsho. As things currently stand, I think this is the best lineup in baseball and a top-five defensive unit.
Toronto Blue Jays Pitching
The offense will certainly benefit from the park changes, but how will the pitching staff fare? Health may be the biggest determining factor. Alek Manoah and Kevin Gausman form one of the top 1-2 punches in the league and I’ve always been a huge Chris Bassitt fan. Jose Berrios mixes in some really hideous starts with some flashes of brilliance and I still can’t quit Yusei Kikuchi, despite a lot of evidence that I should.
The problem is that the Blue Jays are seriously lacking depth. Gausman and Manoah each made 31 starts. Berrios made 32. Ross Stripling made 24, but he’s gone, and Kikuchi made 20 with a 5.19 ERA and a 5.62 FIP. Bassitt can replace Stripling, but the Blue Jays don’t really go more than maybe seven arms deep in the rotation. They can move Mitch White back into a starting capacity or give Nate Pearson another look. Newcomer Zach Thompson is a guy that I actually think can thrive away from the Pirates, but he’s also 29 and hasn’t even thrown 200 innings at the Major League level.
Over the last three seasons, three pitchers have more fWAR than Gausman. They are Corbin Burnes, Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola. That puts Gausman in some pretty elite company and his 5.4% BB% is second only to Nola. In that span, he has a 3.15 ERA with a 2.76 FIP and pitching in the AL East didn’t seem to bother him much last season. If not for a sky-high .363 BABIP against, he’d have had an even better season. He still had a career-best year with 5.7 fWAR.
His rotation mate in Manoah showed something rare in today’s day and age and that’s durability. He threw 196.2 innings over 31 starts and had a 2.24 ERA with a 3.35 FIP. He got the batted ball and sequencing luck that Gausman didn’t get, but that was largely because he ranked in the 92nd percentile in Hard Hit%. His fastball-heavy arsenal may leave him on the low end of K%, but he has so many other things working in his favor that it isn’t a big deal. Inducing weak contact with a low Barrel% will always play. The projection systems don’t like a full-fledged repeat of last season and something closer to his 2021 campaign, but that wouldn’t be a bad result either.
Some guys get slept on for a variety of reasons. I think Bassitt is one of them. Health has been a factor throughout his career, but he’s made at least 25 starts in each of the last three full seasons. I will say that his career home/road splits that are heavily influenced by being a longtime Oakland Athletic are a little more concerning now than they were with the Mets.
Bassitt has a 2.68 ERA in 376.1 innings in home starts and a 4.26 ERA in 361 innings in road starts. All of his stats are decidedly worse, which is to be expected with such an extreme home park. Now he’s in the AL East and will make approximately half of his starts at the new-look Rogers Centre. What has helped Bassitt throughout his career regardless of venue is a 32.8% Hard Hit%. I don’t want to buy too much stock in him, but he has been successful throughout his career.
Berrios is another guy I have a hard time with because his command can disappear for long stretches. He had nine starts last season with five or more runs allowed in 32 outings. His K% was down, his HR rate was way up and he had the highest Hard Hit% and Barrel% of his career. Between Berrios and Kikuchi, who also had an ERA north of 5.00, the Blue Jays rotation is top-heavy and the potential help from below is not reliable. They’re going to have to score a lot of runs to be successful.
Hyun Jin Ryu is said to be aiming for a July return, but August seems more likely if everything stays on track. He made six throwaway starts last year before undergoing Tommy John surgery. He might be a nice add as a quasi-Trade Deadline acquisition if he’s ready around that time. The starting staff is definitely my biggest worry for the Jays, who are extremely top-heavy in that department.
I wonder if Kikuchi could be a bullpen arm in light of last season’s big K% spike. Pitching out of the pen and narrowing your arsenal can help with some command and control issues, along with adding an extra tick or two of velo. Just a thought, especially with only one lefty back there in Tim Mayza, but this looks like a pretty average to slightly above average bullpen again. The Jays were 13th in ERA and 19th in FIP last season, but did have the sixth-highest HR/9, so that worries me with the home park alterations.
Erik Swanson is a nice piece in high leverage after a big season with the Mariners. The rest of the bullpen looks the same. Jordan Romano is a quality closer and the Blue Jays should have plenty of leads to protect, so it will be up to a hodgepodge of middle relievers to get to Swanson and Romano.
The Blue Jays were 46-42 with Charlie Montoyo, but rattled off a 46-28 ending to the season with John Schneider, a stretch that got the interim tag taken off of his title. Schneider won minor league titles at three levels before becoming the catching coach with the big club in 2019 and then the bench coach for 2022. The 40-year-old seemed to be a manager-in-waiting and Montoyo’s firing opened up the possibility.
Player to Watch
C Alejandro Kirk: I think a big leap is coming from Kirk. He only hit 14 homers in 541 plate appearances last season, but power is usually the last tool to develop. He had a big decrease in launch angle last season, but still ran an elite Hard Hit% and showed incredible plate discipline. He serves as the DH most days when he doesn’t catch, but he also had terrific defensive metrics as a framer. In the middle of an outstanding lineup, I don’t think he’s getting the preseason run that he deserves.
Toronto Blue Jays Win Total Pick
If you told me I could guarantee 60 starts from Manoah and Gausman, I would say that 13/1 to win the World Series is a decent bet. The Blue Jays are likely going to have the best offense in baseball with the new Rogers Centre dimensions and what they’re able to do on the road by driving the ball with high exit velocities. I am concerned about the depth of the starting rotation and the quality of the middle relievers, but the Blue Jays should average at least five runs per game or more. Two teams did that last season and they won 111 games (Dodgers) and 99 games (Yankees).
Toronto was 58-19 last season when scoring at least five runs. Oddly enough, they were 16-5 when scoring four runs and 9-11 when scoring five runs. Offense should be up league-wide with the rule changes. The Jays hit for a ton of power, yet ranked fourth in GB%. The absence of a shift might help them and the new dimensions at home are going to help them. But, the pitching staff remains the sticking point for me. If they don’t win the AL East and have to burn Manoah and Gausman in the Wild Card Round, that is a huge disadvantage in the ALDS.
As far as the season win total, I’d lean over. Six teams scored at least 4.8 runs per game last season and all of them won at least 92 games, with Toronto the team that won 92. This team has a chance to be special, but the pitching depth keeps me from betting this high win total. Every team will have a pick, but not every pick is a bet.
Lean: Over 91.5