25 Deep: It’s Game 163, Let’s Get Wild

By: Dan Grant

In this monthly feature (an homage to the great Jonah Keri), intrepid Blue Jays fan Dan Grant takes a look at the current team roster and ranks what he finds within. An important distinction to make is that this set of rankings is not one designed to judge overall talent, current skill, potential upside or even strength of character. It is one simply designed to reflect how important the performance of the ranked players are to the success of the team, both in the recent past and near future. From top to bottom, who’s hot, and who’s not? And more importantly still, who needs to be?

Hooooooooooooo boy. Here we go!

The barn door is open and the pigs are in the meadow! The cows have come home to roost! There’s chickens in the bush (two I think) and all our eggs are in hand. Or maybe in the basket? I know something is in the basket.

burgundysense

I know, Ron. I don’t even know where I am right now. That was a friggin’ weekend of baseball, wasn’t it? It wasn’t pretty, and it wasn’t even really all that satisfying or cathartic, but this Jays team has fully embraced its identity — as a good defendin’, base runner strandin’, good startin’ pitchin’, questionable bullpenin’ ball club, with a penchant for the dramatic that has increased sales of Depends in Canada to levels not seen since the 1995 Quebec Referendum, or maybe that time there was a Dutchie shortage at the local Timmy’s, amirite there BAHD?

I mean, probably. I don’t work for Depends, so I can’t confirm.

ANYWAY, I have to say, after 21 seasons of irrelevance from 1994-2014, the Jays fan in me is completely fine with that.

Yes, it can be frustrating, especially given the opportunities that this once prolific offense seems to squander. Yes, it can be soul crushing to watch another good starting pitching performance wasted. But if I told you at the beginning of the season that the Blue Jays were going to follow up last years electric playoff run with an 89 win season and another playoff berth, what would you have said?

I’m guessing ‘yes please’, with no further questions asked.

This special, insane, single game, winner take-all battle royale calls for a special emergency edition of 25 Deep. The feature was forced on break last month by the stupidity of roster expansion, with the idea that bringing it back for the playoffs would make the most sense. However, this Wild Card game is a different animal. These rankings aren’t for a whole playoff series, and it’s hard to factor in season-long performance — it’s specific to this Wild Card game only.

Who will the Jays need the most? How will they game plan against the Orioles, who play a very specific style of baseball, with both tremendous strengths and glaring weaknesses?

This is 25 Deep.

Toronto Blue Jays

Dio: ‘I think we should try and score more runs than Baltimore’ Martin: ‘ Bold strategy; I’m in!’ Both: ‘Up top!’

Unranked will be players that are probably going to be left off the roster for this game, like many September call-ups. It will also include players like Aaron Sanchez — Sanchez pitched an absolute gem on Sunday against Boston, but on one day of rest, there’s no way Toronto uses him out of the bullpen. J.A. Happ, who pitched Saturday, is a different story. More on that later.

What I’m saying is, don’t flip out when certain players aren’t where they’d normally be, and remember that this is for one game only. Don’t @ me asking where Josh Thole is, or you’re getting a whole office size padded manila full of glitter sent to your family Thanksgiving.

We’re also going to go a little deeper — each player is getting a mini-blurb, at the very least. Hey, it’s the playoffs.

benoitinjury

Joaquin Benoit injured his calf leaving the bullpen before an altercation with the Yankees last week. This has been your ‘injury most likely to be suffered by a heavyset 39 year old professional athlete’ of the day.

The Turner Ward Ward

25. Scott Feldman (RP)  TBD 

To say Feldman struggled after coming over from Houston would be like saying Donald Trump is ‘a little uncouth’. His 8.40 ERA in 15 innings pitched, coupled with a 1.93 WHIP, means that if you see Feldman in this game, something has probably gone horribly awry and you should go pick up your Jonas Valanciunas shirsey from the dry cleaners. Still, he probably gets the final roster spot over Matt ‘Frank the Tank’ Dermody (check him out. That guy is definitely still hung over), and Danny ‘Come on, I’m better than this guy’ Barnes. J.A. Happ would normally throw a side session and could be used for maybe an inning, so he might get consideration. Bo Schultz also might get a look, even if Ryan Tepera has won their season long ‘Highlander’ style fight and taken his roster spot. Who knows? The bottom line is that we don’t want to see Player #25 tomorrow night.

Update: John Lott has reported on Twitter that it will be Feldman.

24. Ryan Goins (INF)

Goins takes Sanchez’s roster spot and is available for pinch running/defensive replacement duties, but ranks behind Dalton Pompey and Darwin Barney in both those areas respectively.

23.  Aaron Loup (RP)

With Francisco Liriano also coming out of the bullpen, I’m thinking the only way Louper gets into this one is if the game goes into extra innings, which, oh my dear sweet lord, my heart is palpitating at the thought of watching Aaron Loup pitch in extra innings. Somebody get the Depends.

22. Ryan Tepera (RP)

Tepera had a nice season for Buffalo and was solid, if unspectacular, in 20 games for the Jays. In 15 appearances since August 10th, he’s only been scored on twice, giving up 12 hits, 5 walks and striking out 14, lowering his ERA from 4.76 to 2.95. Again, if he’s in the game, something unpleasant is probably happening, but he’s become semi-reliable.

21. Dalton Pompey (OF)

Pompey has found his niche as a pinch-running specialist, and will likely be used off the bench in a big spot, unless the game is somehow a blowout in either direction.

20. Melvin Upton Jr. (OF)

Upton has struggled at the plate as a Blue Jay, but could play a big role as a late inning defensive replacement/pinch runner. He still possesses the best pure speed of any player on the team, Pompey included.

Michael Saunders

It would be nice tonight, if Michael would, you know, hit the ball.

Maldonado’s Misfits

19.  Dioner Navarro (C)

John Gibbons has shown faith in Navarro, pinch-hitting him in big situations since his return from Chicago, with pretty underwhelming results. Still, Navarro had some massive hits for the Jays in 2015, and it’s not crazy to think we might see him grab a bat at some point late in this game.

18. Marco Estrada (SP)

Estrada will be on 3 days rest, and is likely available as a long man out of the bullpen, should starter Marcus Stroman struggle. You have to think that he’ll be preparing like it’s a start day, just in case.

17.  Justin Smoak (1B)

Smoaky has had an atrocious second half of the season, but might get into the game as a 9th inning defensive replacement. He’d be third on my pinch hitter power rankings, behind Navarro and the next guy on this list, and ahead of only Upton.

16. Darwin Barney (INF)

Darwin Barney wasn’t able to maintain the red hot start he had at the plate, but he’s provided the Jays with reliable play at multiple defensive positions, and runs well. Unfortunately for him, the positions he plays are occupied by Josh Donaldson, Troy Tulowitzki and Devon Travis, so it’s unlikely we see Barney in this game, unless there’s a situation where a pinch runner is inserted for Tulowitzki.

15. Michael Saunders (OF)

Saunders owns a career .300 batting average with a pair of home runs against Orioles starter Chris Tillman, so I fully expect he’ll get the start in left for the Jays. Saunders fell off  a cliff offensively in August/September (.178/.282/.357, 69 WRC+ in the 2nd half), so I imagine he’ll face Tillman only before being lifted for Upton’s superior defense in the late innings.

14. Kevin Pillar

In the words of Tony D’Amato of the Miami Sharks: “There’s nothing more to say, really.”

The Fernandez Fraternity

13. Ezequiel Carrera (OF)

The man they call Zeke has force fed me my own words. Twice this season I tried to bury him:

In February:

Jays fans are quite familiar with Carrera. He played 91 games for Toronto last season, though often as a defensive replacement, managing 191 plate appearances. He did hit .273 with a .321 on base, but managed zero power and whiffed 48 times. Also, for a ‘defensive replacement’, he put up a -10 in Defensive Runs Saved and a -10.1 in UZR/150 while spending time in all three outfield spots. Not ideal.

And again in September:

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.

He’s certainly showed me over the past couple weeks, stepping in when Toronto needed him most. I’m still not a fan of bunting (unless it’s for an attempt for a hit), but dammit if he hasn’t been making things happen. He’s also been much better defensively this season, playing 643.0 innings in the outfield and posting a +7 in Defensive Runs Saved and a +9.6 UZR/150, both by far the best marks of his career. He’s earned the right to play in this game, and the Jays may just need him to be a fly in the Orioles ointment. They need the ointment because they’re scaly and gross, from all the trash they eat.

12. Joe Biagini (RP)

The Jays (almost) unanimous in-house rookie of the year has become a bullpen stalwart.

stoetenbarnesbiaginitweet

11. Brett Cecil (RP)

Other than Friday’s dinger to David Ortiz, Cecil has regained his form for the Blue Jays, working clean innings in 16 of his last 17 appearances to end the year. With that said, he’s not quite the world destroying Cecil we saw at the end of 2015 — he still struggles in high leverage situations, when his K% craters and his HR% spikes. I do wonder if some of that is driven by how often Cecil bounces his (now-only-sometimes) deadly curve, and thus, doesn’t throw it as effectively with runners in scoring position, lest they advance on a wild pitch or passed ball, but that’s neither here nor there. Cecil may pitch a full inning in this game, but I’m thinking it’s more likely we’ll see him as a LOOGY.

10. Devon Travis (2B) 

Travis has been doing what he does, hitting a huge clutch home run at Fenway on Sunday, and generally being the sparkplug at the top of the Toronto batting order that they badly need. He’s also 3/8 career vs Tillman, with a home run and seven RBI’s. I’m not a big proponent of ribbies these days, but seven in eight at-bats is nothing to sneeze at, for whatever they’re worth. The more Jays have this guys number, the better.

9.  Jason Grilli (RP)

For your viewing pleasure:

grillifistpumporioles.gif

I know he’s struggled a bit lately, but he’s been so fantastic since coming over from Atlanta that I just can’t stay mad at him. He’s had a few days off and more than anyone, you know he’s going to be amped out of his mind for this game. I’d love to see that clip repeated around 10:30 on Tuesday night. Thanks Jason (and to Blue Jay Hunter for the GIF).

8. Francisco Liriano (RP)

It was announced late Monday afternoon that Marcus Stroman will be starting the game instead of ol’ Franky baby, so Liriano will be available out the bullpen. His role is probably a fluid one– he could be a caddy if Stroman struggles, pitching multiple innings. Or we could see him as a bridge in the later innings. If Liriano can harness find his sometimes Waldo-like control while coming out of the pen, he could be a very effective weapon, given how deadly he is the first two times through the order. More on this later.

7. Roberto Osuna (RP)

osunatranslation

You know that Bobby Bear will be there when you need him the most.

jaysmeme

Stieb’s Stallions

6. Jose Bautista (DH/RF)

Jose Bautista has been spitting fire (or at least embers) with his bat lately, reminding everyone just why we spent roughly 885,434,330 hours before the season debating how many tens of millions of dollars he was worth. A couple freak injuries *ahem* getting old *ahem* aside, this has been just an OK season for Bautista — the eye is still there, but the bat speed appears a little diminished — he struck out at his highest rate (19.4%) since his first season with the Blue Jays in 2009, which was also before his 54 homer breakout in 2010. With that said, a 122 WRC+ and a .355 wOBA are nothing to wag any type of appendage at, and Jose posted a .411 OBP in September/October, much more in line with his past elite seasons. If there’s any Jays player with a sense of the moment, it’s Joey Bat Flip, and he might need it on Tuesday night.

5. Russell Martin (C)

Martin has cooled at the plate after a red hot couple of months, but his power always plays well at the Rogers Centre SkyDome and he’ll be most valuable to the team behind the plate. His pitch framing skills remain elite, and while he struggled with the stolen base this season, Baltimore only had 19 stolen bases as a team all season long, by far the lowest in the Major Leagues. Let’s hope we get a few of these babies:

4. Edwin Encarnacion (DH/1B)

Now you don’t have to, Eddy.

3. Josh Donaldson (3B)

2. Troy Tulowitzki (SS) 

Josh Donaldson and Troy Tulowitzki are the foundation of this iteration of the Toronto Blue Jays. Both are here for at least two more seasons (Tulowitzki is signed for four), both are elite offensive talents and both play the game with an intensity normally only displayed by Becky ‘Icebox’ O’Shea during tryouts in Little Giants.

iceboxlittlegiants

There isn’t much to say that you don’t already know — Donaldson is the reigning MVP and Tulowitzki has been incredible in the second half of 2016, after a rocky start at the plate. Besides their skills at the dish, both are also gifted defenders and intelligent base runners. They’re the best of the best and Toronto needs them to be exactly that in this game.

1. Marcus Stroman (SP)

When Marcus Stroman was named the starter for Tuesday’s game over Francisco Liriano on Monday, there were a few puzzled looks and shrugs of the shoulders. Both guys seemed to have equal claim to the game — Stroman has been here longer, pitched well in the playoffs last year and has had a very good second half after a horrendous June; Liriano is a lefty (a weird Baltimore weakness) and has been mostly excellent in 10 starts as a Blue Jay, after struggling mightily with Pittsburgh. Liriano also carved up the Orioles to the tune of 10 strikeouts of 6.1 innings just last week, while Stroman gave up 4 runs and 9 hits over 7. So why Stroman?

Both have playoff experience, all of Stroman’s coming last year, while Liriano went to the playoffs in 2009 and 2010 with Minnesota and with Pittsburgh in 2013. On that 2013 run, Liriano actually started the single game playoff against Cincinnati (throwing to Russell Martin, no less) and twirled a gem, pushing Pittsburgh into the NLDS.

Many thought this combination of experience and platoon-split would be enough to push the ball into Liriano’s hand.

I think either would have been a fine choice, but I can see why John Gibbons chose Stroman (other than trying to give Buck Showalter a pre-game coronary). While Liriano has been good for Toronto, his 3.98 FIP suggests his 2.92 ERA in a Jays uniform might be a bit generous. He also has a tendency towards high pitch counts, and gets badly penalized the third time through the order: in 2016, teams hit .207/.298/.323 the first time they saw him, .236/.335/.392 the second time, and jumped all the way up to .319/.435/.611 that third time. This is a common trend among pitchers, but that’s a striking difference.

The Jays could theoretically have just given Liriano those first 18 batters and had Stroman and/or Marco Estrada ready whenever those were done, but with the Jays bullpen having been leaky of late, it makes sense to go with the option that can potentially get you the deepest into the game. Stroman pitched well three times versus Baltimore this season, and never went less than six complete innings, twice racking up seven full frames. He also had his worst start of the season against them, lasting only 3.2 innings and giving up 7 earned runs on June 19th. This was during a low-point in the season for Stroman, who has since made several mechanical changes, and has pitched much more effectively pretty much since that start, with only a couple other blips on the radar.

While some point to the free swinging Orioles line-up as a good match up for Liriano’s swing and miss slider (and it is), Stroman, with his major league leading 60.1% ground ball rate, is a better bet to get quick outs and put the ball in the hands of Toronto’s excellent defense. The fact that Baltimore led the majors in long balls and are coming into the dinger-friendly confines of the Rogers Centre Dome (likely with the roof closed) will definitely have played a factor in this decision — neither has a great home run rate, but Liriano’s is higher, and while all his other peripherals have improved since he became a Blue Jay, that HR/FB% jumped up to 20.0% in September — not ideal against the Orioles. Liriano and his filthy slider should work swimmingly for an inning or two out of the bullpen, should Stroman fail to get into the sixth inning.

You see, that third time through the order penalty applies to Stroman as well:

stromantimesthroughorder

So unless he’s really dealing, I think you’ll see a hook before he gets much further.

stromangif

Yahtzee!

Just remember that he can do that, and everything will be OK.

Dan Grant is an editor at the Same Page and a contributor to SB Nation’s Raptors HQ. He can be found on Twitter @SlamminDannyG.

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