The Blue Jays have made a few drastic lineup changes this offseason, sending out Teoscar Hernández and top catching prospect Gabriel Moreno while bringing back Daulton Varsho and signing Kevin Kiermaier. Toronto general manager Ross Atkins recently told reporters he considers the club’s heavy lifting mostly finished, though he left the door open for another small-scale move or two.
One area of the roster that has thus far not changed is the infield. That’s not all that surprising, considering the Jays entered the offseason with a strong infield under club control for another year. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Matt Chapman will be back at the corners, with Bo Bichette manning shortstop. The one position that doesn’t seem entirely settled is second base, though that’s not for a lack of options. Toronto has a trio of players who could compete for reps at the keystone, with manager John Schneider presumably planning to divvy up playing time depending on how each performs early in 2023.
At the moment, Whit Merrifield looks like the favorite for early run. Toronto acquired him from the Royals at last summer’s trade deadline, buying low at a time when the two-time All-Star was sitting on a meager .240/.290/.352 line. The Jays seemed undeterred by those numbers, betting on Merrifield’s career track record and generally solid work following an atrocious April. He rewarded the front office’s faith, hitting .281/.323/.446 in 44 games in a Jays uniform.
That surely cemented Merrifield’s place somewhere in the regular lineup, with second base being the straightforward option. Merrifield is capable of covering all three outfield positions, but Varsho and Kiermaier are in line for regular playing time alongside George Springer on the grass. With Alejandro Kirk and Danny Jansen likely to split time between catcher and designated hitter, Merrifield will presumably man second base on Opening Day.
Doing so pushes a pair of players who looked like quality regulars for the Jays not too long ago — Santiago Espinal and Cavan Biggio — to the bench. Biggio has been in the Opening Day lineup in each of the past three seasons, twice at the keystone, but that seems unlikely to be the case this year. The left-handed hitter is coming off a second straight pedestrian year, hitting .202/.318/.350 with six home runs through 303 plate appearances. Biggio still draws plenty of walks but he’s seen his power production dip the past couple seasons. He struggled enough he was briefly optioned to Triple-A Buffalo last season, though he was recalled within two weeks. He spent most of the year in a utility capacity, playing all four corner spots in addition to second base.
After Biggio was demoted, the primary second base job fell to Espinal. The 28-year-old had worked primarily as a versatile bench piece from 2020-21. He played his way into more consistent reps with a strong first few months in 2022, hitting .271/.323/.425 through the end of June. He even secured an All-Star appearance for that excellent early work, but he couldn’t carry that production for a full season. Espinal hit .261/.321/.317 from July onwards, ceding some more playing time to Biggio and (after the deadline) Merrifield for the stretch run.
With Merrifield in the fold, Espinal and Biggio each entered the offseason as at least somewhat realistic potential trade candidates. Espinal’s ability to cover shortstop if Bichette were injured and/or needed a rest day made him seem more entrenched than Biggio in Toronto, although it seemed reasonable teams could call on either player. There’s been no indication thus far that Toronto has discussed either with other clubs.
Considering the scant remaining middle infield options available via free agency, it’s possible teams like the White Sox, Angels, Giants or Brewers could still be in touch with Atkins and his staff in the coming months. The Jays don’t figure to be urgent to move either player, particularly considering the health uncertainty present with Kiermaier and Springer. An injury to either could press Merrifield more frequently back into outfield duty, leaving Espinal and/or Biggio to handle the keystone on a more regular basis.
Espinal and Biggio each qualified for arbitration for the first time this winter. They’re both projected by MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz for a salary in the $2-3MM range. That’s hardly onerous, although there’s a case to be made for considering trade possibilities. As MLBTR’s Darragh McDonald noted last week, the Blue Jays presently project to enter the season right around the $233MM base luxury tax line. There are enough error bars in arbitration projections they could conceivably head into the year either above or below that threshold.
A team’s tax payor status isn’t finalized until season’s end, and the organization could well determine they’re comfortable exceeding that mark to maximize their chances in what should be a competitive AL East. Yet if the club is content with its infield strength — especially if they’re confident prospect Addison Barger will be ready for MLB action fairly early in the season — fielding offers on Espinal or Biggio could make sense. They’re not under pressure to do so but would presumably be open to the possibility, particularly if they could net immediate rotation depth or bullpen help.