It wasn’t that long ago that the Blue Jays looked to be building their infield around a trio of second-generation stars whose fathers combined to go to 20 All-Star Games over the course of their respective careers. Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette and Cavan Biggio all made their big league debuts in 2019, and all three hit the ground running. Fast forward to 2023, however, and only two of the three have panned out as core pieces. Guerrero and Bichette remain focal points in a talented Blue Jays lineup, but the now-28-year-old Biggio is clinging to a roster spot and could force the Jays to make a decision soon if the can’t turn things around.
While Biggio was never as considered as touted a prospect as either Guerrero or Bichette, he nevertheless looked like a potential key contributor from the moment he debuted. Between his 2019 debut and the shortened 2020 season, Biggio played in 159 games and totaled 695 plate appearances — effectively a full regular season’s worth of playing time — and batted .240/.368/.430 with 24 home runs while going a perfect 20-for-20 in stolen bases. His 26.5% strikeout rate was a bit bloated, and he wasn’t exactly an elite defender at second base, but Biggio walked at a huge 16.1% clip, ran well and showed above-average power.
Since that time, however, Biggio’s output has cratered. In a nearly identical number of plate appearances, he’s batted just .204/.307/.340 with 15 home runs and six stolen bases (eight attempts) — including a disastrous .127/.191/.238 showing in 68 trips to the plate so far in 2023. Biggio has been displaced at second base in recent years — first by Marcus Semien (2021), and then by Santiago Espinal (2022) and Whit Merrifield (2023). The Jays have bounced Biggio around the diamond a bit, giving him more time in the outfield and some time at third base, but the move to a utility role hasn’t been a productive one, clearly.
Biggio remained a disciplined, albeit less impactful hitter in 2021-22 (12.5% walk rate), but this year’s small sample of plate appearances doesn’t line up with even those down seasons. Biggio has walked in just 5.9% of his plate appearances — less than half his 2021-22 levels — and is striking out at a career-worst 38.9% clip. He isn’t suddenly chasing balls out of the strike zone with reckless abandon, as his 21.3% chase rate is right in line with his 2021-22 levels and well shy of the the league-average 31.5%.
However, Biggio’s contact rate when he does chase has plummeted to a career-worst 46.9%. His contact rate on pitches within the zone, meanwhile, has fallen to 80.6% — another career-worst. Heading into the 2023 season, Biggio made contact on 53% of his swings when chasing a ball off the plate and 85.4% on pitches within the zone.
The Blue Jays are a particularly right-handed team, so it’s perhaps understandable if they hope to get Biggio’s left-handed bat going. Brandon Belt, Daulton Varsho and Kevin Kiermaier are the only lefty-swinging regulars in the lineup. Biggio and outfielder Nathan Lukes are the two lefties on the bench at the moment. Of those five lefties, however, only Kiermaier and Belt have been productive at the plate. Varsho is hitting .206/.279/.359 in his first year with Toronto, while Lukes has gone 2-for-12 in a tiny sample of 14 plate appearances while making his MLB debut.
A lack of bench production, in general, has been a killer for the Blue Jays thus far, though others around Biggio have begun to pick up the pace. Espinal, for instance, opened the season mired in an awful 2-for-31 skid, though that looked rather fluky in nature, given his tiny 9.1% strikeout rate and .071 average on balls in play. He’s hitting .310/.370/.429 over his past 47 plate appearances, including a 3-for-3 effort on Saturday. Danny Jansen was scarcely better early in the year, beginning his 2023 with a 3-for-32 spell. He’s batted .247/.310/.506 since.
There’s been no such turnaround for Biggio, who has just two multi-hit games on the season and has only received 19 plate appearances in the month of May. The Jays clearly value his ability to play all over and provide some speed, as he’s lined up at second base, first base and in right field this month in addition to a trio of pinch-running appearances. However, Merrifield and Espinal have gotten the majority of playing time at second base, even against right-handed pitching, despite the fact that they’re both righties themselves. Biggio hasn’t played a complete game since May 6 and has only started twice in the past two weeks. He hasn’t been on the injured list; he just seemingly hasn’t been in the team’s plans.
For the time being, an injury to Espinal — which the Jays conveniently announced while I was finishing this piece — could open some additional time for Biggio. Utilityman Otto Lopez is up from Triple-A Buffalo in place of Espinal, and he could also enter the mix for at-bats.
Biggio has multiple minor league options remaining, but the Jays don’t have many infield/outfield options who are having productive years in the minors and are options to fill his spot. Lopez is batting only .213/.273/.260 in 139 Triple-A plate appearances, and top infield prospect Addison Barger hasn’t been much better at .237/.333/.329 in 87 plate appearances. Infielder Leo Jimenez is hitting .292 with a .370 on-base in Double-A but has just a .308 slugging percentage. This year’s 73 plate appearances are also his first experience above A-ball. Former top prospect Orelvis Martinez is batting .151/.226/.479 in Double-A. Each of Lopez, Martinez and Jimenez bats right-handed anyhow, and the Jays may want to keep as many lefty options around as possible.
One such option could be 25-year-old first baseman/left fielder Spencer Horwitz, who’s out to a terrific .326/.450/.437 slash in 169 Triple-A plate appearances. Horwitz isn’t hitting for much power and doesn’t project to, but he’s walked in 17.8% of his plate appearances and has torn up right-handed pitching at a .362/.492/.500 clip (.244/.347/.293 against lefties). The former 24th-round pick doesn’t bring the speed or defensive versatility to the table that Biggio would, but the Jays already have Lopez (and, once healthy, Espinal) on hand as a backup infielders who can play many of the same positions as Biggio. Lukes, meanwhile, can play all three outfield spots. Biggio’s defensive versatility is nice, but the Jays have other options at most of the spots he can cover.
This certainly isn’t a call to designate Biggio for assignment, but the Jays are a win-now team who aren’t getting much out of a valuable 26-man roster spot. It’s also tough to see how Biggio can be expected to get back on track when he’s had 19 plate appearances this month and is starting, at best, about a game per week. Again, perhaps the injury to Espinal can change that, but Merrifield still figures to be in line for a large portion of the work at second base.
The Jays showed last year they were willing to carry Bradley Zimmer for most of the season as practically an exclusive pinch-runner/defensive replacement, but Biggio has had more recent success than Zimmer had and at least ostensibly could have more of a future with the club. They could option him for everyday at-bats and see if that can jumpstart his contact abilities; at the very least, it might bring the Jays a more productive lefty bat off the bench, if Horwitz were indeed to be the chosen replacement.
From a bigger-picture standpoint, it’s increasingly tough to see where Biggio fits in if he can’t improve his production. He and the Jays agreed to a $2.8MM salary for the current season over the winter, avoiding arbitration in the process. He’d be arb-eligible again next winter, and it’s hard to imagine the team keeping him around if he has such a limited role and even more limited productivity. If Biggio can’t get things going, he’ll be a clear non-tender candidate following the season. For the time being, a shuffling of the bench mix makes sense both to maximize the utility of the big league roster and to hopefully get him back on track in Buffalo — an opportunity that simply isn’t present in the Majors right now.
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