A good portion of the Blue Jays’ offseason was focused on finding infield help, both to replace the departing Marcus Semien and perhaps to create an avenue for Cavan Biggio to move back from third base to second base. Defensive metrics weren’t particularly fond of Biggio’s work at third base, but he has generally solid marks in more than 1000 innings at second.
The Jays indeed found a left-side upgrade in the form of Matt Chapman, who’ll not only serve as a defensive improvement over Biggio at third base but will also help to offset shortstop Bo Bichette’s below-average range. Chapman’s addition looked to move Biggio back to second base, at least as the larger half of a platoon with Santiago Espinal, but as Sportsnet’s Arden Zwelling writes, it’s Espinal who looks to have seized the full-time job at the position.
Espinal, 27, is hitting .268/.333/.464 (128 wRC+) and, as importantly, has already posted sizable plus marks in Defensive Runs Saved (3) and Outs Above Average (3) through just 135 innings at second base. It’s still just 63 plate appearances, but Espinal has solid walk (7.9%, slightly below average) and strikeout (22.2%, slightly better than average) rates thus far in addition to a huge 48.8% hard-hit rate to begin the season.
Espinal’s play alone would likely have boosted the size of his role, but Biggio’s placement on the Covid-related injured list yesterday could further open the door, at least in the short-term, for Espinal to continue impressing. The Jays didn’t announce that Biggio had tested positive, though GM Ross Atkins told reporters that he’s been exhibiting potential symptoms (Twitter link via TSN’s Scott Mitchell).
Atkins also provided some updates on a pair of injured Jays, noting that slugging right fielder Teoscar Hernandez, who’s on the injured list with an oblique strain, could progress to live batting practice within a few days’ time. Hernandez was placed on the injured list back on April 14, and the Jays have felt his absence. Offseason acquisitions Raimel Tapia and Bradley Zimmer have been pressed into larger roles, but neither has produced at the plate. Tapia is hitting .236/.232/.327 in 58 plate appearances, while Zimmer is just 2-for-22 with one walk and 10 punchouts. Both Tapia and Zimmer have connected on a home run, but that doesn’t offset their general dearth of production.
Catcher Danny Jansen, per Atkins, is behind Hernandez and isn’t yet ready to swing a bat. Jansen homered twice in eight plate appearances before going down with an oblique strain of his own back on April 11. In his stead, the Jays have gotten a solid OBP out of Alejandro Kirk and a massive .306/.324/.611 output in 37 plate appearances from trade pickup Zack Collins. While Collins’ 35.7% strikeout rate portends a good bit of regression, he’s been productive enough for now that Toronto has even given him five starts at designated hitter.
On the pitching side of things, lefty Hyun Jin Ryu is slated for a live bullpen session this week that’ll determine his next steps (Twitter link from Sportsnet’s Shi Davidi). He’s currently dealing with a forearm injury. Righty Nate Pearson, currently out with a bout of mononucleosis, is slated to throw to hitters this weekend and could go on a rehab assignment next week. Atkins noted that Pearson may be ticketed for a “bulky” role, suggesting a multi-inning relief assignment once he’s back on the roster (link via MLB.com’s Keegan Matheson).
Still just 25 years old, Pearson isn’t far removed from ranking as the top-ranked right-handed pitching prospect in the game. The former first-rounder has electric stuff, evidenced by a fastball that averaged 97.7 mph in last year’s tiny sample of 15 big league innings. However, he’s been limited by elbow and groin injuries since making his 2020 debut, and Pearson also underwent offseason surgery to repair a sports hernia.
With just 45 2/3 innings between Triple-A and the Majors combined last season, plus 18 innings in 2020 (and some work at the Jays’ alternate training site), Pearson likely wouldn’t be relied upon to work a traditional starter’s slate of innings anyhow. The hope for the long term is surely that he’s able to eventually realize his top-of-the-rotation potential, but a hybrid role seems more prudent at this time, given the limited workloads in recent seasons. Pearson could yet make some starts this season, but with Ryu, Jose Berrios, Kevin Gausman, Alek Manoah, Yusei Kikuchi and swingman Ross Stripling all on the big league roster, plus Anthony Kay and Thomas Hatch in Triple-A but on the 40-man roster, the Jays have the depth to more strategically build Pearson up for 2023 and beyond.