July 16, 2024

Matt Chapman’s departure leaves Blue Jays with a glaring hole at third base. The options to fill it are a major concern

Chapman is the best option available at hot corner in free agency, but a reunion in Toronto may not be in the cards.

The Blue Jays have a lot of holes to fill this off-season, and the one that might be the most challenging can be found at third base.

In a weak free-agent class for hitters, the lack of depth is particularly noticeable at the hot corner. The best player available happens to be the guy a lot of Jays critics don’t want to see return.

Matt Chapman hit the open market this month after two seasons in Toronto. He provided Gold Glove-calibre defence and flashed a lot of power, but also had far too many unproductive at-bats.

During a down year at the plate, Chapman was part of the problem more often than he was the solution. A lack of consistent contact became a season-long issue, and when the ball wasn’t flying out the 30-year-old’s spot in the lineup turned into a black hole. By September, his offence had become so bad that some fans called for him to be benched in favour of rookie Davis Schneider.

Despite the struggles, Chapman’s upside is apparent. He finished among the top 10 in voting for American League most valuable player in 2018 and 2019 with the Oakland A’s. In April, he flashed that ceiling again by hitting .384 with 20 extra-base hits and 21 RBIs.

When Chapman’s at the top of his game, there are few who do it better. The power combined with the elite glove has turned him into a hot commodity this off-season. Chapman declined a $20.35-million (U.S.) qualifying offer from the Jays and is projected by MLB Trade Rumors to sign a six-year deal worth $150 million.

The Jays can afford the price tag, but they might not want to pay it.

After a blistering start, Chapman hit just .205 with a woeful .659 on-base plus slugging percentage from May 1 on. While other markets might focus on the power, this one can’t easily forget the swing and miss that comes with it.

Chapman has been a valued member of the clubhouse and a favourite of the pitching staff, nobody’s disputing that. The question is whether a team that needs to get better offensively should commit long-term dollars to a guy who is best deployed in the bottom third of the lineup. Or, based on the lack of viable alternatives, maybe the better question is: Can they afford not to?

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Jeimer Candelario is generally considered the top available third baseman after Chapman. The 29-year-old is hitting free agency at the right time. A year ago, Candelario was non-tendered by the Detroit Tigers after slashing .217/.272/.361 in 124 games. Following a bounceback season with the Washington Nationals, he’s poised to cash in on a projected four-year deal worth $70 million.

That’s a lot of money for a player who has been wildly inconsistent (.643 OPS in 2019, .872 in 2020, .795 in 2021, .633 in 2022 and .807 in 2023).

Based on recent track record, Candelario might have the better bat, but the glove isn’t remotely comparable. While Chapman is considered one of the game’s top defenders, Candelario is average at best. He fits at third for the short term, but if his stay is long a transition to first or designated hitter will be required.

The next best option might be Gio Urshela, who was designated for assignment by the Jays in 2018. Unlike Chapman, Urshela doesn’t strike out a lot and hits for a decent average, but also offers limited power for a team that needs pop.

If the Jays take a run at Urshela, they’d be gambling on a comeback season. He was a disappointment last year for the Los Angeles Angels, registering just 10 extra-base hits before fracturing his pelvis in June. But prior to that, he hit .290 with a .799 OPS from 2019 to 2022. The upside is that Urshela would provide solid defence on a short-term deal.

After the top three, there’s a big drop-off. Longtime veteran Josh Donaldson recently expressed an interest in returning to the Jays during an interview with The Score, but he’s coming off a year in which he hit .152 with .667 OPS for the New York Yankees and Milwaukee Brewers. The season before wasn’t much better.

Donaldson’s return to the team he led to a pair of AL Championship Series in 2015 and 2016 would make for a good story, but doesn’t seem realistic based on recent performance and his previously fractured relationship with the front office. If the 37-year-old returns for one more season, it likely will be with someone else.

Veteran Justin Turner holds more appeal, but at 39 he’s not an everyday option at third after playing the position just seven times for the Boston Red Sox in 2023. A chunk of his reps would have to come at first base or DH. As a platoon player, he might work; as a regular third baseman, he does not. Other options such as Mike Moustakas or Evan Longoria are even less favourable.

There are some internal candidates to consider. The Jays could hand the job to Schneider, Cavan Biggio or have prospects Orelvis Martinez and Addison Barger compete for playing time. The issue is that all four are considered better defenders at second, where there’s another vacancy following the departure of Whit Merrifield.

The Jays are down to two years of team control on shorstop Bo Bichette and first baseman Vladimir Guerrero Jr. The window of opportunity is beginning to close, and the only way to keep it open for much longer is by taking the next step and achieving success in the playoffs.

Finding the right guy to play third base would help accomplish that goal. Unfortunately for general manager Ross Atkins, this group of free-agent third basemen carries a lot of risk. Even worse, once a few go off the board, there won’t be much left. When it comes to third base, the Jays will be forced to make the best of a bad situation.


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