The Blue Jays are speculated to be in the market for an upgrade at third base this offseason. How has Santiago Espinal’s strong 2021 affected that discussion?
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The Blue Jays acquired a 23-year-old Santiago Espinal from the Boston Red Sox in 2018. In exchange, the BoSox acquired Steve Pearce, who went on to be the 2018 World Series MVP. Sounds like Boston won that trade?
Maybe. But then again, maybe not.
So far in 2021, Santiago has a 113 wRC+. Coupled with a +7 DRS (13.1 UZR/150) in only 242 plate appearances, Santiago has 2 fWAR for the season. That extrapolates to a 5 fWAR/600 pace over a full season, which is Bo Bichette territory.
So does this mean that the Jays are now set at third base, and that writers (like this one) can stop gazing wistfully at trade targets like Matt Chapman and José Ramírez, and free agents like Javier Báez?
Maybe. But then again, maybe not.
Statcast calculates “expected stats” for hitters and for pitchers. These stats try to take the luck factor out of a player’s stats, and show what they would have been with a average luck (and an average defense behind them). For 2021, Espinal’s xstat line of .269/.311/.348 (which translates to a wRC+ of about 90) is substantially lower than his actual line of .311/.344/.405. In short, Statcast questions whether Espinal’s breakout 2021 is sustainable.
His defense is another story. Santa’s +7 DRS is 7th among third basemen this year, despite his playing far fewer innings. When normalized to 1200 innings played (a “DRS/1200”) Espinal’s +15 is third in the majors – ahead of Matt Chapman, Nolan Arenado and Austin Riley. Espinal’s UZR/150 (an alternate measure of defense) of 13.1 leads all mlb third basemen by a comfortable margin. Statcast’s Outs Above Average agrees – Espinal is a top-10 (maybe top-5) defensive third baseman. So, by any metric, Santiago is gooooooood.
So what does that mean for 2022? If you believe that Statcast xstats are a better (but not perfect) predictor of future performance, Espinal’s 2022 wRC+ would be expected to be somewhere between 113 and 90. That makes sense – his career wRC+ in AAA is roughly 110 and his career AA mark is roughly 115. Say, for the sake of the argument, that he can maintain a 100 wRC+ (league average) in 2022. And further assume that he could continue to be a top-5 defensive third baseman. That would equate to a 2-3 fWAR – or basically a slightly above average mlb player.
So what are the implications to the Blue Jays?
Having a cheap, controllable, acceptable third baseman in the fold changes what the Jays are looking for. Consider the following example, comparing Espinal to player X (another third baseman).
Player X has a lower batting average, roughly the same OBP, but hits for more power. But Espinal is a far better defender. To add one more detail – Play X will play 2022 at 34 years old, and is projected by ZiPS to only earn 1.5 fWAR in that year (and 1.0 in 2023). By now, you have likely guessed that Player X is Kyle Seager, currently of the Seattle Mariners. Seager is expected to be a free agent this offseason. If you were the Jays, would you see him as a major upgrade from Espinal (and worthy of a large-dollar free agent contract)?
The bottom line
The Jays should still be receptive to acquiring an elite third baseman – like a Matt Chapman, or a Javy Báez, or a Marcus Semien (if he would agree to play third). Any player of that calibre would be a substantial upgrade over Santiago, without question. But if the Jays believe that Espinal could give them average or better production at third base (at a pre-arb salary, under team control through 2026) then they might be less inclined to invest significant dollars or prospect capital in a marginal upgrade.
In short, having a 2+ fWAR backup plan in their pocket gives the Jays the luxury of being choosy – and potentially opportunistic – with their third base upgrades this offseason. And if the Jays do not upgrade – if they choose to focus their spending elsewhere, such as starting pitching – having Santiago as the opening day third baseman in 2022 might be perfectly acceptable.
*Featured Image Courtesy Of DaveMe Images. Prints Available For Purchase.
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