Blue Jays-Twins position-by-position breakdown

October 3rd, 2023

José Berríos, you might be thinking, or Paul Molitor, or maybe Jack Morris, or Dave Winfield. Dave McKay, if you really want to go back in history, and yes, we are trying to help all you Immaculate Grid players out there get ready for the Minnesota-Toronto Wild Card Series with a few players who have seen this one from both sides. (Our personal favorite: Nelson Liriano.)

It is, in our estimation, the most interesting of the four Wild Card Series, not just because of the players involved, but because of how evenly matched these clubs are. Each side has outstanding pitching. Each side has a star bat or two not exactly performing like a star bat. If not easy to predict, it will certainly be fun to watch.

So: Which side has the advantage, position by position? We’ll find out, but the Twins aren’t going to make this easy on us, either. As of the final day of the season, Royce Lewis (hamstring), Carlos Correa (foot) and Byron Buxton (hamstring/knee) are all injured, and it remains to be seen which ones make it back, and in what capacity. We’ll progress under these assumptions: first, that Lewis can hit, but won’t be relied upon to play third base; second, that Correa will be active even if he’s not 100%; and third, that Buxton either won’t be included on the roster or will be a pinch-hitter only.

Just know: much can change by the time the rosters are finalized.

The Blue Jays had a pretty outstanding duo in Alejandro Kirk and Danny Jansen – good enough that they felt comfortable dealing Gabriel Moreno to Arizona last winter – but then Jansen fractured a finger in September, ending his season. Kirk is something like the best blocking catcher in the American League, but his .695 OPS is considerably down from last year’s .786, and without Jansen, they’re now just one misplaced foul tip from having to rely upon journeyman Tyler Heineman in the postseason.

Meanwhile, the Twins have their own duo in breakout star-in-the-making Ryan Jeffers (134 OPS+ and top-10 catcher, by WAR) and two-time World Series winner Christian Vázquez, who remains a plus defender in every way we can quantify, though the less said about his bat, the better. (Fine. It’s a .221/.277/.318 line. It’s not great.) A year ago, this would have been Toronto’s edge, but as things stand today, you’d take Minnesota's side.

Advantage: Twins

First base
What do you even do here, given that the Blue Jays have an absolute superstar in Vladimir Guerrero Jr., who has had a season that is simultaneously incredibly disappointing (by his lofty standards) and also still pretty solid (26 HR, 118 OPS+). If it’s bad for what you expect from him, that’s not the same thing as bad, and what still works in his favor is that he’s been much better in September (.848 OPS) and much, much better away from Toronto, which matters since this best-of-three will entirely be played in Minnesota.

The Twins tend to go with a platoon between lefty Alex Kirilloff (.852 OPS against righties; numbers vs fellow lefties unprintable) and righty Donovan Solano, a generally competent hitter without any platoon splits at all. That the Blue Jays may not actually start a lefty pitcher in this series actually helps Minnesota here, but given that Kirilloff hasn’t really outproduced Guerrero this season and certainly doesn’t have the same track record, we’ll give Toronto an edge here.

Advantage: Blue Jays

Second base
Lewis’ health status makes for some moving parts here, as longtime infielder Jorge Polanco probably sees more time at third, leaving rookie breakout Edouard Julien as the likely starter here, though there’s an emphasis on starter, as Polanco might move back for defense late should the Twins hold a lead. Julien has elite plate discipline – the lowest chase rate in the game, actually – and a 127 OPS+ means he’s 27% above average as a hitter, which is more than a little impressive for a rookie. The glove is OK; the platoon splits are questionable; the ability to not chase outside the zone is exceptional.

The Blue Jays are a little in flux here, too, because it appears the keystone needle has landed back on Cavan Biggio, who was first the team’s second baseman back in 2019 but seemed to have fallen completely out of favor as his role deteriorated into “utility man” or “just barely hanging onto a spot.” But Whit Merrifield’s second-half collapse (.553 OPS since Aug. 1) has cut into his playing time, and Davis Schneider’s briefly red-hot run has receded so fast that he’s been nailed to the bench. Biggio, for his part, seems to have found a second life, with a .756 OPS in the second half

Advantage: Twins

Bo Bichette and Carlos Correa sounds like an appealing matchup of young star shortstops, and it would be if both were at or near their peak, but that’s not where we are right now. Correa hasn’t played since Sept. 18 due to plantar fasciitis, and while he’s expected to be available for the postseason, the injury is almost certainly what’s behind large declines in his speed and defense. It’s hard to say the .230/.312/.399 line is exactly what Twins fans were hoping for, either, though it’s important to point out that he’s usually stepped up in the playoffs, with 18 homers and an .849 OPS.

Bichette has had his own leg injuries, though he’s had a typically strong season (.307/.338/.472, a 122 OPS+), and he’s been especially hot over his last 15 games. The name value here might be comparable, but the 2023 playing value is an easy call.

Advantage: Blue Jays

Third base
We’re surprised by where we’re giving the advantage here, too. The Blue Jays have Matt Chapman, multiple-time Gold Glove winner, who got off to just the red-hottest of red-hot starts this year, posting a 1.152 OPS in April. The Twins had Jose Miranda, until they had Kyle Farmer and Willi Castro, until they had Royce Lewis, but then Lewis got hurt, so then Polanco moved over, and then Lewis came back, and got hurt again, and now it’s probably Polanco or Farmer again? It’s a bit of a mess, is the point.

And yet … Chapman has spent five months struggling in an uncharacteristic way. If April was the best month he ever had, and it was, then August was his worst ever and September was only slightly better than that. (He’s hit .185/.259/.315 since Aug. 1.) Given the likelihood that Lewis is limited to playing DH, there’s not necessarily a single Minnesota third-base option you’d think you’d like over Chapman for six months. But for two days, the ability to mix-and-match between the speedy Castro, the switch-hitting Polanco, or Farmer or Solano as needed, might just give Rocco Baldelli more options. You might be surprised to find that Minnesota’s third basemen slightly outhit Toronto’s, anyway.

Advantage: Twins

Left field
The Blue Jays made clear their commitment to adding speed and defense in the outfield last year when they traded Moreno and Lourdes Gurriel to Arizona for Varsho, and the fielding part of it worked, as Varsho has been one of the better outfielders in baseball this year with the glove. The bat, however, has been a considerable disappointment, despite the 20 homers, as a .220/.286/.391 line comes out to a below-average 86 OPS+.

Like at third, the Twins have had a number of situations here, with nine starters, but the early-season Joey Gallo/Trevor Larnach situation has gradually given way to rookie Matt Wallner playing pretty much every day. Wallner, like Julien and Lewis, has been tremendous, posting a .251/.373/.512 (141 OPS+) season. He’s a lefty who hits the ball hard, strikes out too much and has an elite-level cannon of an arm, which sounds more than a little like “Joey Gallo when Gallo was going good.” Varsho’s down season makes this an easy call, but so, too, does the fact that Wallner could face three righty starters, given his massive platoon splits.

Advantage: Twins

Center field
Imagine if Byron Buxton were here? You’ll have to, because he didn’t play the field once this season, and seems unlikely to do so in October. Instead, the Twins have mostly been fielding Michael A. Taylor, who has been doing exactly the sort of thing he always does, which is to hit for some pop (21 homers), play outstanding defense (8 Outs Above Average) and strike out entirely too much (33%). Castro and potentially Andrew Stevenson add excellent speed off the bench, should Baldelli want that.

It’s really not a bad group, but in terms of defense, you just won’t do better than Kevin Kiermaier, who is legitimately one of the best to ever play the position. He may not quite have Taylor’s power, with just eight homers, but he’s considerably better at getting on base, giving him a 104 OPS+ that’s better than Taylor’s 94. None of this is a knock against Taylor, who ended up playing considerably more than anyone expected, and who performed pretty much exactly how you’d expect he would. Kiermaier’s just a better version.

Advantage: Blue Jays

Right field
If we’re talking about name value, then George Springer easily edges out Max Kepler, and a 20/20 season from one of history’s more accomplished postseason performers is never one to look upon lightly. But even accounting for that, Springer hardly had a Springer-esque season, with a career-worst .732 OPS – by a lot – that was largely backed up by the underlying Statcast metrics.

Meanwhile, Kepler turned around a string of disappointing seasons by posting an .815 OPS, his best since 2019 (and the second best of his career), to go with his usual plus work defensively in right field. It wouldn’t be surprising in the least to see Springer break this series open with yet another October home run. It’s just hard to evaluate these two next to one another right now and not go with Kepler.

Advantage: Twins

Designated hitter
Now it gets complicated, because for the Twins, this comes down entirely to who is available. Maybe it’s Buxton, who started 80 times here, mostly in the first half, but all indications are that it’s likely to be Lewis, assuming that his hamstring has healed well enough to allow him to hit yet not to field. If he’s at full strength, then that’s a potentially dangerous bat, given not only the 149 OPS+ but the seemingly endless bases-loaded heroics.

We don’t know if Lewis will be healthy enough to produce or, at the time of writing, even totally certain he’ll make the roster. It’s that uncertainty that pushes us in the direction of Toronto’s Brandon Belt, a two-time World Series winner with the Giants who has had a resurgent 134 OPS+ that actually looks better if you skip his April recovery from offseason knee surgery; he has a .916 OPS since May 1. Belt isn’t without his own health questions, since he missed a chunk of September with back troubles, but he came back to hit home runs on Thursday, Friday and Sunday. Seems healthy enough to us.

Advantage: Blue Jays

Starting pitchers
Let’s be honest right up front: There are absolutely zero right answers here. We’re looking at the two best starting rotations in the AL, at least by ERA, and both sides clinched in time to be able to set their rotations well enough, so we’re looking at Pablo López vs. Kevin Gausman in Game 1 (potentially two Top-5 Cy Young finishers), then Sonny Gray vs. Chris Bassitt in Game 2, matching two former Oakland teammates who merely combined for 384 innings of 3.21 ERA pitching this year.

How can you split that apart? You mostly can’t. If there’s an edge, and there mostly isn’t, we’re giving it to Toronto, just because Minnesota’s Game 3 starter (Joe Ryan) has been inconsistent after an outstanding first half, posting a 4.79 ERA in seven starts after a visit to the injured list. The Blue Jays would likely counter with old Twins friend José Berríos, who had a strong rebound from a down 2022 – or, if they want to change things up, lefty Yusei Kikuchi, who had a 3.39 second-half ERA.

Advantage: Blue Jays

Relief pitchers
Both units are strong, though it kind of comes down to whether you value their full-season runs or care only about who is here, now. The Blue Jays' relievers had the third-best bullpen strikeout rate at 26%, though not all that far ahead of Minnesota’s eighth-best 25%. It’s been a strength all season long, really, dating back to last winter when Erik Swanson was acquired from Seattle, and even though there has to be some concern about closer Jordan Romano (runs allowed four of last nine times out) and Trevor Richards (an inconceivable 11.81 ERA since Aug. 23), it’s still a strong group, reinforced with in-season moves for Jordan Hicks, Génesis Cabrera and Chad Green.

But the Twins' bullpen is something entirely new. Gone are early season names like Jorge López and Jovani Moran; gone too are in-season acquisitions like Dylan Floro. While everyone knows the flamethrowing Jhoan Duran, the late-season Twins added sometimes starter Louie Varland (17/1 K/BB in relief; he throws 100) and rehabbing starter Chris Paddack (8/1 K/BB in three games; he throws 99 now), and newly healthy Brock Stewart (0.66 ERA), plus starter Kenta Maeda may be available as well. The Twins bullpen had a 30% strikeout rate in September, the second best in baseball. Baldelli has some new toys.

Advantage: Twins

We usually say that head-to-head matchups in the regular season hold very little predictive value in guessing the outcome of a postseason series, in part because they often happened so long ago that totally different players were involved, and that’s true here, too; these teams haven’t faced one another since June. They haven’t faced off in Minnesota since May.

On the other hand, they split the season 3-3, and the Twins outscored the Blue Jays by all of two runs (28-26). So maybe this is predictive, because that’s exactly how we feel about this one – these clubs are really evenly matched. We’ll say that this is finally the season that the Twins break their incredible run of not winning a single postseason game, but given how much better the Blue Jays seem to hit on the road – and, mostly, because before the season we personally predicted Toronto to fall to Atlanta in the World Series, and wouldn’t it be nice to get that right in this difficult-to-project season? – Toronto comes out ahead by the tiniest of margins.

Blue Jays in three.