Red Sox Rival #1: Toronto Blue Jays
No team in the American League has lost more talent than the Toronto Blue Jays. Cy Young winner Robbie Ray departed for Seattle, power-hitting second baseman Marcus Semien went to the Rangers, and starter Steven Matz signed with the Cardinals. That’s three key pieces of a 91 win roster than won’t be back in 2022.
The Blue Jays, however, have made a valiant effort to replace them. To fill in for Robbie Ray, Toronto signed Giants ace Kevin Gausman. After years of inconsistent performance for the Orioles, Braves, and Reds, Gausman finally put it together last year with an All-Star campaign. He was durable enough to start a league-leading 33 games while finishing in the top 10 in ERA (2.81) and strikeouts (227).
The knock-on Gausman is that he’s really only had one good season, and even that came with a caveat. His performance noticeably dropped off as the season went along, as he posted 3.81 ERA in his last 21 starts, more in line with his career numbers. The Blue Jays are banking on around 13 great starts in an up-and-down nine-year career, and it remains to be seen if that’s a worthy investment.
To replace Matz, the Blue Jays brought in Mariners left-hander Yusei Kikuchi. After two years as one of the worst pitchers in baseball, Kikuchi put it together in last year’s first half, pitching to a 3.48 ERA and earning a stop on the AL All-Star team.
In the second half, however, Kikuchi fell back to his 2019-2020 ways, posting an ERA near six and getting battered to the tune of a 300/.381/.521 slash line. The Blue Jays, though, chose to bank on the promise he showed early on and gave him a three year/$36 million contract.
When you look under the hood, it’s easy to show why the Blue Jays are excited by Kikuchi. He has struck out over a batter per inning over the last two years, a result of his fastball gaining nearly three miles per hour since 2019.
He has been durable enough to start 70 games over the previous three seasons, and while he has not put it together consistently enough to be considered a frontline starter, he has all the makings of a back-end stalwart.
Kikuchi, though, is an excellent matchup for the Red Sox. Kikuchi has struggled mightily against right-handers, allowing a .282/.349/.501 slash line over his career. With a lineup that includes right-handed sluggers like J.D Martinez, Xander Bogaerts, and Bobby Dalbec, the Red Sox should have no problem handling Kikuchi.
Finally, to indirectly replace the loss of Semien, the Blue Jays traded four prospects to the Athletics for third baseman Matt Chapman. Chapman has built a reputation as one of, if not the best, defenders in baseball, and it’s warranted. Chapman has totaled an incredible 48 Outs Above Average over the last five seasons, winning three Gold Gloves and a Platinum Glove in the process.
The question with Chapman has never been his glove but his bat. Chapman has considerable power, topping the 20 home run threshold three times, but his swing-and-miss tendencies limit his offensive value.
Chapman has always had big strikeout numbers, but he took it to another level in 2021, finishing second in the American League with 202 strikeouts. His .210/.314/.403 was easily the worst of his career, leaving concern over what kind of offensive value he will provide going forward.
The good news for the Blue Jays is that their lineup is so deep that they don’t need Chapman to be an offensive force. Chapman was brought in to play defense, and in a division stacked with right-handed pull hitters, a plus defender at third is indispensable.
His acquisition also allows Santiago Espinal to shift to second base and platoon with Cavan Biggio, who is a disaster against left-handed pitching.
So did the Blue Jays get better this offseason? That remains to be seen, but there’s no question that the players they brought in can at least adequately fill in for the ones who departed. With the continued progression of young superstars like Vlad Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette, the Blue Jays appear to be the team to beat in the AL East.