In the fifth part of a six-part series, Rob Longley breaks down what lies ahead for the Blue Jays after a disappointing 2023
In his season-ending news conference, Blue Jays president and CEO president Mark Shapiro didn’t name the guilty parties — probably because there was no need.
“There were players that fell short and that led to one of the biggest challenges watching night in and night out,” Shapiro said in evaluating his team’s offensive shortcomings. “We had three or four players that fell short of what we projected.”
Those who watched the team throughout the 162-game season and brief playoff cameo were well aware of the villains.
From Vlad Guerrero Jr., who has now had back-to-back seasons of regression, to Alejandro Kirk, who dropped off noticeably, to new guy Daulton Varsho and veteran George Springer, the big hits didn’t keep on coming.
Each of those in the flailing foursome had their own issues in 2023, as we examine below.
VLAD GUERRERO JR.
The year actually seemed to begin with promise for the 24-year-old slugging first baseman as he reported to spring training in good shape, his preparations accelerated in anticipation of leading the Dominican Republic in the World Baseball Classic.
Some of that momentum was stunted when Guerrero suffered a minor injury to his right knee that kept him out of action for two weeks.
From then on, it was an uneven season for Guerrero, whose production fell well short of his career breakout in 2021, form that now seems like a distant memory.
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Was it a nagging knee injury that limited the talented first baseman to 26 homers, six fewer than the previous season, and a whopping 22 in arrears of that sensational 2021 campaign?
Were there too many coaching voices in his head, muddling his approach?
Was it lack of plate discipline to adapt as pitchers attacked him aggressively?
All of these questions will need answers this winter. When the highlight of your season is winning the Home Run Derby, there is work to be done.
Under the glare of Gabriel Moreno’s emergence as a key component of the NL champion Arizona Diamondbacks and Danny Jansen’s injury woes, Kirk’s struggles in 2023 feel even worse.
But for too much of the season it wasn’t pretty for Kirk, whose emergence as an important bat in the Jays’ lineup the previous season never returned.
It started when Kirk arrived in camp late while awaiting the birth of his child back. When he did show up, he was in less-than-desirable condition.
Kirk’s numbers were down across the board as he often looked lost at the plate. The native of Tijuana, Mexico, managed just eight home runs (six fewer than in 2022), drove in 43 runs (compared to 63) and hit .250 (vs. 285.) At age 24, Kirk is still young enough to turn it around and suffered from the affliction of many young hitters: An inability to adapt to how opposing pitchers attack him.
But the shocking downturn was an unexpected blow to a front office that had lost interest in keeping Moreno as the team’s catcher of the future.
As if living in the midst of the Jays’ docile exit from the playoffs wasn’t enough, seeing his former team, the Diamondbacks, surge through October had to feel like a kick in the groin to Varsho.
When the Jays dealt Moreno and Lourdes Gurriel Jr. to the D-backs for Varsho, they weren’t doing it for his bat. Instead, they felt they would revolutionize their outfield with the elite defence that Varsho lived up to — and then some.
But they didn’t expect the 27-year-old to be a liability at the plate. Remember that this is a player that batted cleanup on opening day, but had worked his way to the bottom of the order by season’s end.
Varsho did that by seeing his average dip to .220 from .235 in his final season in the desert. He did manage 20 home runs, but that was a dip in power from the previous season and, given the decline from others around him, it felt even more costly.
The Jays certainly don’t need Varsho to lead their offence, but they can’t afford for him to be a liability, either.
When the Jays signed Springer to a six-year, $150-million US deal in 2021, there was always the expectation the back end wouldn’t be as fruitful as the front.
But what if there was a regression in Year 3?
To his credit, Springer was the healthiest he’s been in years, playing in 154 games and seemed to thrive defensively out in right field.
At the plate he wasn’t so robust, however, as Springer was inconsistent at times and looked lost at others, most notably during an 0-for-35 stretch in late July. It got so bad that the 2017 World Series MVP was dropped from the leadoff position by manager John Schneider, a demotion that didn’t sit well with Springer.
His power was often missing as well, as Springer managed just 21 homers, his lowest total as a Jay. The power outage resulted in one fewer long ball than in 2021, his first season with Toronto, when the former Astros star appeared in only 78 games.