The Toronto Blue Jays continued their push to shape their 2021 roster by signing Marcus Semien to a one-year, $18 million deal. The signing comes on back of the big ticket signing of George Springer as well as bullpen arms Kirby Yates and Tyler Chatwood. It’s another strong indication of the front office’s desire to push to for a playoff spot and augment its young and cheap core with impactful free agents.
Semien has been one of the better shortstops in the game. Since coming over to Oakland, he’s ranked 7th among all shortstops by fWAR behind Francisco Lindor, Manny Machado, Xander Bogaerts, Corey Seager, Carlos Correa, and Andrelton Simmons. Mostly a below average hitter, Semien broke out in 2019 in spectacular fashion posting 7.6 fWAR and finishing third in MVP voting. While in the past his wRC+ hovered in the 90s, in 2019 he posted a 139 mark with a slash line of .285/.369/.522/.891 to go along with his defense. In 2020 he had a slow start but picked up towards the end with 127 wRC+ posted for the second half.
Semien checks off a lot of boxes for the Blue Jays. At the end of last season, it was obvious that at least one - if not two - upgrades were necessary in the infield. While the initial thought among many was that Blue Jays could have looked to bring in a star shortstop - someone like Lindor - and Bichette could move to second thus shoring up middle infield defense. While Semien may be a defensive upgrade at short over Bo, it makes sense to start him at short and allow him to fail at the position before making a decision to switch them up. This is where Semien brings value to the Blue Jays.
All indications are, he’ll start the year as their primary second baseman. He’s a massive upgrade over Cavan Biggio - who’s more suitable in a super utility role - and can plug the middle infield which would help pitchers like Hyun Jin Ryu. In addition, he’s more than a back up in Bichette gets hurt, needs a day off or fails at the position.
How his bat plays out is anybody’s guess. If its anywhere close to what it was in 2019, it would deepen the Blue Jays line up incredibly. I’m personally not convinced if his bat really turned a corner in 2019 - I’d give 2020 a pass, good or bad given the incredibly short sample size and and even ridiculous breakdown of first and second half. Although there’s some improvement in his barrel rate, walk rate and hard hit percentage according to Statcast, there doesn’t seem to be a major change that I can point to which would convince me otherwise. But if he gives the Blue Jays league average production at second base, to go along with his defense could still add two to three wins for the Blue Jays - more in line with his 2018 season.
Here’s how he profiled in 2020:
One question I have is how Semien will adjust from short to second base. While most defensive metrics rate him above average, Statcast’s Outs Above Avera (OAA) does not rate him highly. He ranked 23rd in 2019 among all qualified shortstops in 2019. For the years for which OAA data is available, Semien is better off making plays to his left vs going in or going to his right. Here’s what it looks like:
A look at data from 2017-19 shows an interesting pattern - of the 34 qualified second basemen during this time, 29 were better at moving to their left than right, not sure how that much plays into it but its an interesting observation with Semien being better at making plays to his left. Make of that what you will but something I found interesting.
The other good part about this deal is that its for one year and in no way blocks path for prospects like Jordan Groshans and Austin Martin who could make their way up sometime in 2022.
According to Blue Jays, most of their heavy lifting is done although I’m sure there are still a couple of holes they’d like to fill. I’m sure if they can they’d like to get a third baseman too but my preference would be to sign another starter. There are a bunch of guys behind Ryu and Pearson may have an innings limit. Bringing back someone like a Tajiuan Walker might work for the team.
Of course, if they’ve gone all this way, why not go further and do both? The rumors about Kyle Hendricks and Kris Bryant are out there and while I wouldn’t put too much stock into it, based on what Blue Jays have done thus far this off season, who knows?
Azam Farooqui is a contributor at Beyond the Box Score. He can be reached at @afarooqui