By: Dan Grant
It’s August 30th, and the Toronto Blue Jays have a widening, but still ‘post-movie popcorn’ like grip on first place in the American League East. It’ll be a dog fight to the end, with the eleven games remaining against Baltimore and Boston looking more and more like they’ll directly determine who will win the division, and who will be stuck battling it out in the one game Wild Card playoff on October 4th. The series opening win over the Orioles last night was a nice start.
sphincter tightening tense games to come in September and early October, it’s important to remember that the Jays are the front runners, and they’ve been playing like it. Since they lost the now infamous 19 inning game to Cleveland on Canada Day, the Blue Jays are 15 games over .500, the best team in baseball over that period. Fangraphs gives them a 93% POFF, or chance of making the playoffs, in some fashion. I’m not going to do the worst thing a Toronto sports fan could do and count my chickens before they’re hatched, but it’s certainly reasonable to start thinking about how the Blue Jays playoff roster might look, given that only players on the 40 man roster as of August 31st are playoff eligible. As has been the case all season, the position players are pretty much a foregone conclusion, with a couple minor question marks, and the pitching staff is very much a source of intrigue.
Let’s break it down.
The Starting Nine
Unless there’s an injury of some kind, there’s no question that the Jays best starting lineup includes nine familiar names. Around the diamond, they are: Russell Martin, Edwin Encarnacion, Devon Travis, Troy Tulowitzki, Josh Donaldson, Melvin Upton Jr., Kevin Pillar, Michael Saunders and Jose Bautista. Whether Bautista or Encarnacion slots in at designated hitter most often will be interesting to see, as is whether or not the Jays carry a fifth outfielder if it winds up being Bautista. For his part, Bautista actually has 16 career starts at first base, so that could potentially be an option, particularly given his diminished skills in right field (-9 defensive runs saved so far this season) or should Encarnacion need a day off his feet.
The bench is fairly straightforward as well. The newly reacquired Dioner Navarro will be the back-up catcher, and the switch-hitting Justin Smoak is likely to earn a spot as a defensive replacement at first, and a decent source of bench power. Even though he’s been atrocious at the plate since May, Smoak has shown signs of life over the past couple weeks, which has to be… I don’t want to say ‘heartening’, but at least, less ‘temper-tantrum inducing’, for Jays fans of a certain ilk. Finally, Darwin Barney has clearly earned a spot over Ryan Goins as the utility man/backup infielder.
The fact that you only need four starting pitchers in a playoff series probably answers our outfield question from above, and it’s likely that Ezequiel Carrera gets the nod as the ‘fourth’ outfielder/pinch runner, even though he’s been an absolute train-wreck at the plate since his hot start to the season. You can check out his splits for yourself here, but shield your eyes — even though he had a stint on the disabled list with a strained Achilles, Carrera is slashing just .105/.150/.123, in (an admittedly tiny sample of) 60 plate appearances in the second half. With Dalton Pompey, Junior Lake and Darrell Ceciliani likely to be September call-ups, Carrera better start hitting a little or he might find himself out of a job, particularly since Pompey is a whole lot faster than he is, and filled a similar role for the club a season ago.
The most likely scenario you’ll see is the initial nine names mentioned above against right-handed pitching, with Bautista filling the designated hitter role. Against lefties, I was going to suggest that the switch-hitting Smoak might sub in for the left-handed hitting Saunders, but Saunders has posted a .402 wOBA against left handed pitching this year, and a 154 wRC+, which in case you were wondering, is really friggin’ good. Normally, Smoak would be relegated to a late-inning defender, but since Saunders has struggled to hit anything since the All-Star break (.177/.288/.323, 85 wRC+), this less-than-ideal proposed scenario is probably on the table. It’s worth noting that Saunders has been a net negative via Defensive Runs Saved (-4) and UZR (-5.7) this season, so if his bat isn’t going come playoff time, there isn’t much reason to have him in the line-up. I can’t believe I’m writing this, but if Saunders doesn’t find himself over the next 30 games, it might wind up being a hot hand scenario between him and Smoak.
That brings the Blue Jays roster to thirteen players, which leaves them twelve more spots for pitching. Even though Toronto is currently trotting out a six man starting rotation, it says here that they’ll be down to four starters for the playoffs, which means they can carry eight relievers. Here’s how it’ll likely break down.
Aaron Sanchez, J.A. Happ, Marco Estrada, Marcus Stroman
This is pretty cut and dried. Sanchez is being limited right now so that he can pitch as deep as the Jays go this year. J.A. Happ and Marco Estrada have been reliable and effective all season long. And Marcus Stroman has had a bumpy ride this year, but has been pitching much more effectively lately, and even has playoff experience from a year ago. The order of these four will likely be determined by how important the season closing series with Boston is — if it doesn’t much matter to the standings, Toronto would in theory be able to set itself up for the beginning of the division series on October 6th, or in a
terrifying less fun scenario, the Wild Card game on October 4th. If it does matter, you’ll see Toronto trotting out the big guns at Fenway, something that might force their hand later on. The Jays currently lead Boston by 2 games, and Baltimore by 4 — both teams coincidentally hold down the two Wild Card spots currently, with several teams nipping at the flagging Orioles heels. It’s all still too close to predict anything with any accuracy.
Roberto Osuna, Jason Grilli, Joaquin Benoit, Joe Biagini, Scott Feldman
Again, cut and dried. Grilli and Benoit have been unflappable veteran godsends, the impressive rookie Biagini is one of the best strike-one throwers in the MLB and Scott Feldman is your perfunctory long-man. As for Bobby Bear? Well, he’s Bobby Bear, and he’ll tear your heart out. Just ask the Rangers.
That leaves three more spots, and quite a bit of intrigue.
The Question Marks
R.A. Dickey, Francisco Liriano, Brett Cecil, Ryan Tepera, Bo Schultz, Aaron Loup, Danny Barnes
Seven names for three spots. Right now I’d say that this is wide open, except for one man. The Jays recent move to re-acquire Dioner Navarro meant they had to DFA R.A. Dickey’s personal catcher, Josh Thole. As of this writing, Thole sits on waivers, with the Blue Jays hoping he’ll clear them, so that he can re-sign with the team and remain Dickey’s catcher throughout September. However, since this re-signing can take place at the very earliest on September 1st, Thole would be ineligible for the playoff roster. Russell Martin caught Dickey plenty of times last season, but with the Jays currently six men deep at starting pitcher, and Dickey’s roller-coaster like effectiveness this season, it’s beginning to look more and more like he could be left off the playoff roster entirely, unless there’s an injury.
If we operate under that umbrella, it’s likely that Francisco Liriano will be included on the roster — he’d be available to be a long man out of the pen, or a power lefty that could be used situationally. He’s been better in Toronto than he was in Pittsburgh, but has still struggled some with his control. It should be noted that he’s only made 27 relief appearances in his entire career, and none since 2012. If Toronto moves back to a five-man rotation at any point during September, watch for them to try Liriano out of the bullpen.
Genetics and Liriano’s inexperience in relief means you’re likely going to see one of Brett Cecil or Aaron Loup on the roster as a LOOGY. [Ed. Note: Lefty One-Out GuY.] I wouldn’t expect you’d see both, unless it’s Liriano that isn’t included, which I think is pretty unlikely. Cecil, so effective just a year ago, has had a year from hell. It’s funny, his peripherals are bad, but they’re not as bad as you’d think — he’s still averaging 10.08 K/9, which is excellent. However his groundball rate is 40.1%, as opposed to 51.6% during his excellent 2015, and his hard contact and line drive rates are way up. His Left On Base % is just 74.3, which ranks him 156th out 244 relievers that have thrown at least 20 innings this year. None of this is great. However, he’s definitely getting penalized by the Rogers Centre, as xFIP shows that his 4.88 ERA would actually be something like 3.46 on a neutral site — his 19.2 HR/FB% (league average is around 10%) suggests there might be some merit to that. He strung together 12 appearances from July 22nd to August 15th in which he gave up just a single earned run. Unfortunately these were followed by a blow-up in Cleveland, and another ugly outing against the Angels in which he allowed three inherited runners to score and failed to record an out.
If that all this makes you feel like you just drank milk from the carton without checking the expiry date, hold onto your butts.
Aaron Loup is the only real alternative, and though he’s improved his velocity since coming off the DL, has been awful in 12 appearances spread over the 2016 season, posting a 7.45 ERA (4.80 FIP) and a groundball rate of just 39.3%. His BABIP of .346 might suggest he’s getting a bit unlucky, but then you look at his ugly 35.7% line drive rate and realize he’s just getting smacked around. Unless he puts together a stellar September, or Cecil continues to melt down, it’s not Loup that’s going to be included on the playoff roster.
That leaves one final spot, and three non-descript white right handers to fill it. I joked from the beginning of the season that the ongoing battle between Ryan Tepera and Bo Schultz for the final spot in the Jays bullpen was something akin to Highlander — there could only be one. Tepera has been called up and sent down by the Jays seven times so far this season, as Toronto (correctly) exploits roster manipulation loopholes. Schultz returned from off-season hip surgery and was hitting close to triple digits on the gun early in the season, but hasn’t really been effective, as his 4.15 ERA and 5.80 FIP illustrate, spread over 11 appearances. He’s with the big club right now, while Tepera is down in Buffalo, but it’s put up or shut-up time for Schultz. Tepera has posted a tidy 2.89 ERA in nine appearances and his 3.58 FIP says it’s not just luck. Or maybe it is, it’s only nine innings, who the hell knows? Both Tepera and Schultz are the same guy, essentially — hard throwing right handers who don’t strike out as many guys as their fastball velocity would normally dictate, because they lack consistent secondary stuff. They’re the mayonnaise on Wonderbread of Major League relievers.
On the fringes of the least interesting roster battle in the history of the world, is a man named Danny Barnes. Some of you may remember his short stint with the club early in the season — the 26 year old was a 35th round draft pick out of Princeton by the Blue Jays in 2010, and has spent the past six years working his way up the organizational ladder. A quick glance at his minor league work shows that he’s struck out batters wherever he’s gone, and when he was promoted to Double A this season, he posted a 1.01 ERA with 40 K’s in 34.1 innings. This earned him a promotion to Triple A, where he’s doubled down, striking out 34 in 24.1 innings, spread over 16 appearances. His ERA is a minuscule 0.36. I realize it’s the minors, but seriously, give this guy the 10,000 dollars. He’s my personal choice for eighth man, and I hope he gets the opportunity in September to earn the job.
So there you have it. Osuna, Grilli, Benoit, Biagini, Feldman, Liriano, Cecil and Barnes. Your playoff bullpen. The stuff of legends.
Yes, it’s too early to be talking about this stuff. Yes, it’s probably bad luck. But it’s August 30th and the Blue Jays are in first place. Forgive me if I feel like my good friend Ron.