What Blue Jays can learn from Astros and Phillies

Following a crushing playoff exit, the Toronto Blue Jays’ 2022 season ended much sooner than expected, although there’s plenty to learn from the two franchises still standing at the end of October.

Most baseball fans expected the Houston Astros to advance to the World Series after winning their division with an AL-best 106 wins during the regular season. The same, however, can’t be said about the Philadelphia Phillies, who secured the final wild-card seed in the NL.

But as unexpected as this championship showdown is, they each share a similar trait: offensive balance. Both lineups feature quality left-handed and right-handed hitters, which has been a difference-maker this post-season.

The Astros’ offence includes notable righties like Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, Yuli Gurriel and Jeremy Peña. But it also includes difference-making lefties like Kyle Tucker and Yordan Álvarez, one of the best hitters in baseball.

Álvarez led all big-league left-handers in slugging (.613), isolated power (.306) and wRC+ (185) in the regular season, according to FanGraphs. He also finished second in home runs (37) behind Philadelphia’s Kyle Schwarber, who blasted 46.

The Phillies, meanwhile, are led by two of the best left-handed sluggers in the sport, Schwarber and Bryce Harper. Their lineup also features talented righties like J.T. Realmuto, Nick Castellanos, Rhys Hoskins and Alec Bohm.

Bryce Harper #3 of the Philadelphia Phillies (L) and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. #27 of the Toronto Blue Jays speak between pitches. (Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)
Bryce Harper #3 of the Philadelphia Phillies (L) and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. #27 of the Toronto Blue Jays speak between pitches. (Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)

Both clubs have also relied heavily on their pitching staffs, but neither would’ve likely reached this point if not for their offences. And that’s an area — along with their starting pitching — the Blue Jays would benefit from addressing this off-season.

Toronto’s lineup is headlined by a handful of game-changing hitters, including George Springer, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette and Teoscar Hernandez. The problem, however, is they are all right-handed.

Talent is most important, obviously, but featuring enough balance can often be just as crucial when constructing an ideal lineup. When Raimel Tapia, Cavan Biggio, Bradley Zimmer and Jackie Bradley Jr. are your only lefties, something probably needs to change.

For context, the team’s left-handers ranked 23rd in ISO (.132), tied for 25th in SLG (.352), tied for 26th in wRC+ (84) and 30th in home runs (20) among all 30 MLB franchises. That production must improve in 2023.

Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins attempted to address that concern last winter, reportedly pursuing Schwarber and Joc Pederson, with both players ultimately signing elsewhere. If there’s one thing the front office should take away from this season’s World Series, though, it’s that they probably need to acquire an impact lefty.

The search for that individual could begin in free agency, which opens five days after the World Series concludes. With Pederson likely to hit the open market for a second straight winter, Atkins could try to sign the 30-year-old again, adding a lefty who posted a 144 wRC+ in 2022.

But considering the left-handed outfielder registered career-worsts in DRS (-15) and OAA (-11) over 779 innings with the San Francisco Giants, it might be wise to avoid him this time around. Another notable outfielder could receive interest from Toronto, though.

Brandon Nimmo, who’s likely to be among the top position players available in free agency, might be a perfect match for the Blue Jays. The 29-year-old doesn’t generate much power but hits for contact and provides quality defence in centre field.

This season, Nimmo slashed .274/.367/.433 with a .317 BABIP and 134 wRC+ over 151 games with the New York Mets. He also crushed 16 home runs, one shy of tying his career mark, while producing a 10.5 percent walk rate and a 17.2 percent strikeout rate.

As someone that reaches base consistently, producing a .353 wOBA in 2022, he’d mesh perfectly with Springer atop Toronto’s batting order. In turn, Bichette and Guerrero Jr. would receive additional run-producing opportunities.

The addition of Nimmo would also allow Springer to move to right field, likely placing less of a toll on his body, keeping him healthier long-term. As for centre, the long-time Met could take over that position, where he recorded a career-best +6 OAA in 1,282.1 innings this past season.

Unfortunately, signing Nimmo would almost certainly require trading one of Hernandez or Lourdes Gurriel Jr., as keeping all four outfielders would be rather expensive. But it would improve the roster in several different areas.

If free agency proves unsuccessful, the Blue Jays could improve their offence via trade, potentially with two-way superstar Shohei Ohtani. The Los Angeles Angels hope to sign him long-term, but if they fail, the 2021 AL MVP could be available this winter.

Ohtani, who hit .273/.356/.519 with 34 home runs and a 142 wRC+ in 2022, would be an earth-shattering acquisition for this franchise. Not only is he an elite hitter, but he also bats left-handed, perfectly complementing the team’s already-talented core.

The two-time All-Star would also solidify the starting rotation, joining Alek Manoah, Kevin Gausman and José Berríos. After posting a 2.33 ERA and 2.68 xERA with a 33.2 percent strikeout rate across 166.0 innings this past season, he’d instantly become one of their top arms — if not the best.

At $30 million for next season, Ohtani would come with a significant financial attachment, and it would likely carry into future seasons, as well. With the Japanese star eligible for free agency after 2023, he’s likely to command a historic contract extension next offseason.

The Blue Jays could instead target a far less expensive outfielder in Pittsburgh’s Bryan Reynolds, who is under team control through 2025. Though he wouldn’t provide as much value as Ohtani, the switch-hitter could prove useful in other areas.

Reynolds endured a down year this past season compared to when he slashed .302/.390/.522 with a career-best 141 wRC+ over 646 plate appearances in 2021. He did surpass his previous home run total, with 27, but hit .262/.345/.461 with a 125 wRC+ across 614 plate appearances.

The 2021 All-Star’s defence also took a step back in 2022, resulting in -14 DRS and -7 OAA through 1,063 innings in centre field. His metrics were far superior during the previous season, however, as he earned -5 DRS and +10 OAA over 1,133.2 innings.

At 27, Reynolds likely doesn’t align with the Pirates’ competitive window, as they’re probably still several seasons away from returning to the playoffs. That, in combination with his disappointing showing, could help the Blue Jays acquire him at a reasonable price.

Betting on Reynolds to return to his previous form next season would be risky, but after being worth 6.1 fWAR in 2021, that could be well worth the gamble.

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