For playoff contenders like the Toronto Blue Jays, finding regular at-bats for younger players isn’t always simple at this point of the season. That makes what Spencer Horwitz has done with his current opportunity extra special.
After spending most of 2023 at Triple-A Buffalo, the Blue Jays promoted Horwitz — and reliever Chad Green — when MLB rosters expanded from 26 to 28 players earlier this month. In doing so, they rewarded the 25-year-old first baseman for an exceptional performance this season.
Ranking among the Bisons’ top batters, the left-hander hit .316/.435/.526 with 10 home runs and 72 RBI while posting a 143 wRC+ across 107 Triple-A games. He also walked (16.1%) more than he struck out (14.9%), producing the third-highest BB/K ratio (1.08) in the International League.
By hitting for contact and walking at such a high clip, Horwitz reached base more than almost any other hitter at that level, as his stellar on-base percentage remains second highest throughout Triple-A.
The Blue Jays granted Horwitz his first taste of the majors in June when Brandon Belt landed on the 10-day IL with a hamstring injury. While that stint only lasted three games, the rookie looked unfazed by big-league competition, going 2-for-8 with an RBI and a pair of walks.
When the 24th-round selection from 2019 rejoined the Blue Jays in Colorado last Friday, his primary role was to face right-handed pitching as a pinch-hitter. And the club didn’t waste any time using him in that spot, as he was activated off the bench for just one at-bat in Saturday’s 8-7 loss.
But as it turns out, plans can change on a dime at the big-league level, which has caused Horwitz’s usage to increase dramatically on Toronto’s current road trip.
With Belt sidelined again, this time due to a nagging back injury and a nasty stomach bug, it has cleared a path to starting reps for Horwitz, who has taken full advantage of this sudden uptick in playing time.
The contact-oriented lefty made his first major-league start at first base in Sunday’s finale versus the Rockies, where he hoped to provide a source of offence for a team in desperate need of a series victory at Coors Field. And he didn’t disappoint.
Horwitz reached base safely in four of his five plate appearances, recording a trio of hits and two RBI, including his first career home run.
— Sportsnet Stats (@SNstats) September 3, 2023
On top of that, Horwitz also displayed his remarkable plate discipline with a pivotal seven-pitch walk in the ninth, ultimately allowing him to come around to score on Ernie Clement’s RBI single en route to a 7-5 victory.
That impressive showing, combined with Belt’s unavailability, earned the Blue Jays rookie a second consecutive start at first base during Monday’s series opener against the Oakland Athletics. Though he went 1-for-4 with a strikeout, his lone base hit ended up being the eventual game-winner.
As Toronto led 5-3 in the 10th, Horwitz added to that margin with an RBI double that would’ve scored two if it hadn’t gotten stuck underneath the outfield wall’s padding. With the A’s cashing two runs in the bottom half of the frame, securing the victory wouldn’t have been possible without Horwitz's knock.
Today's heroes: Espinal, Biggio, and Horwitz 💪 pic.twitter.com/M7Ilod3yAi
— Toronto Blue Jays (@BlueJays) September 4, 2023
Amazingly, the Blue Jays’ offence hasn’t suffered all that much despite missing Matt Chapman and Bo Bichette, as the club has scored the third-most runs in the majors (57) since Aug. 28, behind only the Houston Astros (60) and Minnesota Twins (61).
One reason for that has been the production it has received from the call-up kids — a group from Triple-A Buffalo that includes Davis Schneider, Clement and Horwitz.
Though Horwitz was last to arrive from the Bisons’ talented pool of infielders, his value to the team has been evident, albeit over a minuscule sample size. As such, he currently sits tied for second in fWAR (0.2) among Blue Jays position players since Sept. 2.
Belt’s eventual return, whenever that comes, will surely relegate Horwitz to his previous pinch-hitting role off the bench. There is, however, also a chance he could lose more than just his starting gig.
The Blue Jays will need to clear a pair of roster spots once Chapman and Bichette — who could rejoin his teammates as early as Friday — are activated from the IL. But given how that trio of former Bisons has fared, it likely won’t be easy to decide which two to send down.
Mason McCoy, primarily a pinch-runner and defensive replacement thus far, is the most obvious candidate to option back to Triple-A.
In all likelihood, one of Schneider, Horwitz or Clement will be the odd man out once a second roster move is required. Since Chapman’s timeline appears further away than Bichette’s, the competition among that group is probably far from over.
Schneider, whose 1.7 fWAR leads all Blue Jays position players since his MLB debut, can safely be removed from this debate. The same goes for Santiago Espinal and Cavan Biggio, as each has laid rest to any doubts about their standing on the roster in recent weeks.
That leaves Horwitz and Clement as the lone competitors battling for that 28th roster spot. While each is deserving, there’ll surely be several deciding factors at play before skipper John Schneider and his staff announce their decision.
Assuming Toronto’s regulars remain healthy, neither player would likely receive consistent playing time down the stretch, resulting in more time spent on the bench than in the field — a role most teams prefer to avoid with younger players.
To Clement’s credit, he is only two years older than Horwitz but is far more accustomed to playing once or twice a week than his counterpart. Plus, as a middle infielder, he’d also come with additional defensive versatility, which would provide the Blue Jays a bit more flexibility.
Keeping Horwitz would essentially sacrifice a month’s worth of development in favour of possessing an impact lefty on the bench. At the same time, though, keeping him around could increase his odds of becoming an everyday big-leaguer in 2024.
Belt is on an expiring one-year deal and is unsure about his future beyond this season. If he doesn’t return, Horwitz would be among the potential options at DH and as Vladimir Guerrero Jr.’s backup at first base next season.
The more big-league exposure the young left-hander compiles, the better odds he’ll have of leaving a lasting impression on the coaching staff and breaking camp with the team out of next year’s spring training.
If this recent sample size is any indication, Horwitz will not only be a vital piece in future seasons, but could also make a difference for a Blue Jays squad with substantial playoff hopes this fall.