Versatility affords Blue Jays lineup options
Suggesting a jigsaw Blue Jays season opening lineup that produces maximum result
2023 Suggested Lineup vs. RHP:
1-Springer; 2-Guerrero Jr; 3-Bichette; 4-Chapman; 5-Varsho; 6-Jansen/Kirk; 7-Belt; 8-Espinal/Merrifield; 9-Kiermaier.
Let’s be clear, it seems there will be no right or wrong when it comes to manager John Schneider filling out the Blue Jays 2023 lineup, for the season opener, March 30 in St. Louis. There are options that can be equally effective. Considerations include the impressive variety of top-tier offensive skill-sets available for the group to consider. The Jays’ lineup candidates boast unique degrees of speed, power and on-base ability. It’s a jigsaw. There are those players that can grind out at-bats and others that prefer to attack early in the count. Nevertheless, it is the same challenge for all 30 teams. Talent must be arranged one-to-nine, to maximize individual skills and team pressure on the opponent’s defence.
As a disclaimer, please note I am not pretending to be psychic or to have any influence inside the clubhouse. Instead, I can simply offer educated advice that Schneider can ponder or, more likely, dismiss out of hand…as various iterations of managers and coaches have done over the 50 years that I have been offering those unsolicited opinions. That being said, here are current thoughts on a Jays’ batting order. Analysis will be by thirds of the order using a baseline of the best lineup vs. righthanders – of course, the majority of opponent starters, over 162 games.
Top Third: 1-George Springer … 2-Vlad Guerrero Jr. … 3-Bo Bichette.
Leadoff: At the top of the order, there is no question about who will hit leadoff. George Springer was signed as a free agent by the Jays because he was one of the best leadoff hitters in the game, as an Astros. The adaptable clubhouse leader has a career .943 OPS, with 52 homers and 84 extra-base hits in 785 games batting at the top of the order. No argument.
Two-hole: Stumping for Vlad Guerrero Jr. to bat second becomes the most easily argued lineup decision and will surely elicit the most opinionated responses. A traditional perception of the No. 2 hitter skill-set began changing around 2011, evolving from a “move-‘em-along” bat more towards a team’s best hitter who consistently drives the ball hard and has an elevated OPS. I will admit that until Josh Donaldson in 2015, I had been stuck in the past, looking for setting the table so the big boys can drive them in. That all changed with the success of the Jays’ 2015 MVP. There are now legit Vlad reasons. Batting second, he has to be pitched to and challenged. That lineup protection allows him to be his most valuable. Vlad needs the spectre of having Bichette hitting behind him, so they can’t nibble at his corners and perhaps entice him to chase. With this more balanced overall offence, with a potential for speed at the bottom of the order, Vlad’s RBI opportunities will always be there. As for the other aspects, Vlad is an aggressive baserunner, sometimes to the point of recklessness, but he is not a liability on the bases. The biggest problem is to have him buy into the belief second is best for the team. Tough sell.
Three-hole: There is no doubt that Bo Bichette can bat anywhere and be effective. In terms of a concern that you need to maximize the talented shortstop’s plate appearances, note that in 2022, over 162 games, third place hitters for the Jays had just 20 fewer plate appearances than the two-hole. That’s one PA every eight games. Bo is signed for three more years and would likely bat wherever they need him. At this stage of the spring, he has been batting second, which is the other legitimate option to Vlad, but with new pickoff rules and bigger bases in place that encourage more aggressive base-stealing, one would expect Bo to know 20+ thefts. Consider also that if Bichette bats second and steals second, there could be a subtle concern about taking the bat out of Vlad’s hands. If Bo bats third, and steals a bag to put himself in scoring position, that is no longer an issue. This might be a totally Guerrero Jr. decision.
Middle Third: 4-Matt Chapman … 5-Daulton Varsho … 6-Danny Jansen/Alejandro Kirk.
Cleanup: The talented third-baseman, heading towards free-agency, is inspired to be better offensively than in 2022. That goal would be encouraged by batting him fourth every day. Players often respond to pending free agency with a career year, so at least afford Chapman that opportunity to start the year. There is something to be said for a team with championship aspirations fielding a consistent and consistently challenging Top 4, every day. When healthy, the Jays’ foursome of Springer, Vlad, Bichette and Chapman can intimidate pitchers and have always been comfortable in the teamwork and attitude needed to pass the baton. Teoscar Hernandez is gone and, somehow, Alejandro Kirk in cleanup always seemed stopgap.
Five-hole: It was a big price that the Jays paid to bring in Varsho from the Diamondacks, surrendering Lourdes Gurriel Jr. and top prospect, Gabby Moreno. That being said, there should be no hesitation in immediately inserting the 26-year-old Varsho into a middle-of-the-order RBI spot against righthanders. His modest .553 OPS vs. lefty pitchers in 2022, means he will have something to prove to stay in the lineup on southpaw days, perhaps giving way to Whit Merrifield in left. Having Varsho hit fifth also begins a sequence that allows the three everyday lefty swingers to be separated in the lineup as a challenge to opposing managers making late decisions with their bullpens. It’s a small sample size, but in 2022, Varsho had his second highest number of starts batting 5th, posting his highest OPS in the five-hole.
Six-hole: That should belong to the Jays’ catchers. Jansen and Kirk can be comfortably pencilled into this spot every day, with an impressive expectation of offensive production. The Jays combined catching stats for 162 games were superb -- .286 average, 25 homers, 88 RBIs and an .824 OPS. And on any day, if Kirk is DH instead of Belt, then Jansen could bat seventh. If Varsho is sitting out a start, then Kirk could be moved up to bat fifth.
Bottom Third: 7-Brandon Belt … 8-Whit Merrifield/Santiago Espinal … 9-Kevin Kiermaier.
Seven-hole: There are those who might suggest that Belt, the veteran with big-game experience, should bat higher in the order, but the lesson of Travis Shaw in 2020 is one that needs to be a teaching moment. Recall the baseball axiom that a win in April is as valuable as a win in September. You can find out his worth in the order as the season unfolds. If Belt indeed deserves to hit higher, make the change, but you don’t want to find out the hard way that he doesn’t. This conservative opinion of Belt’s place was formed even before his preparation was pushed back. Belt had been hobbled for much of 2022, but the fact is that from April 19 until forced to the sidelines, Aug. 20, he hit under .200 and had just two multi-RBI games in 71 contests. Better with a deep lineup like this one to have the 34-year-oldprove via his production that he should be moved up. Then, on those days when Cavan Biggio is in the lineup playing one of his multiple positions, Cavan can easily sub in here and bat in the same spot.
Eight-hole: Second base on the Blue Jays roster is three-deep in proven major-league talent, all with similar skills. You have 2019-2021 All-Star, Whit Merrifield. You have 2022 All-Star, Santiago Espinal, not to mention the lefthanded hitting Biggio, to provide handedness balance. But, again, in order to optimally separate the lefthanded and righthanded hitters eight is an ideal lineup spot for the two primary second basemen.
Nine-hole: There is an obvious reason why Kevin Kiermaier became available as a free agent from the low payroll Rays after years at Tropicana Field. There was injury and cost and, maybe, they shouldn’t have asked the iconic iPhone voice of Siri. Definitely, Jose Siri is a cheaper, younger, weaker hitting version of the Jays centre fielder. That being said, the windfall of having Kiermaier bat at the bottom of the order, gives tremendous value on both sides of the ball, with the ability to turn singles into doubles and turn the batting order over to Springer, Vlad and the rest. We know about his defence. It is his ideal spot, but he needs to stay healthy.
The bottom line is that sometimes it’s great to have tough decisions with multiple options.
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