If any doubt about Munenori Kawasaki’s popularity existed a week ago, it has since disappeared completely.
Kawasaki hit a game-tying home run Friday to electrify the Rogers Centre crowd and make the case that he should remain on the roster a while longer. His Toronto Blue Jays teammates sure seem to like him, too.
Edwin Encarnacion chanted Kawasaki’s name along with the fans over the weekend, Jose Bautista posted a video of Kawasaki’s post-game celebration dance, and Mark Buehrle called the shortstop one of his favourite teammates of all-time.
Buehrle spoke for a significant portion of the fan base when he told John Lott of the National Post that he hopes the Blue Jays will keep Kawasaki around even when Jose Reyes re-joins the team this week.
“That’s pretty much what we’re feeling,” Buehrle told Lott. “Obviously, not knowing what’s going to happen when Reyes comes back, but I think a lot of guys here would put some money together to pay his salary.”
A noble offer, but this is not really a discussion about money.
Rather it’s about roster construction and whether that 25th spot on the roster is best used on Kawasaki or another player -- presumably a relief pitcher -- once Reyes returns. The Blue Jays will have to decide soon, as Reyes is expected to return this week, perhaps by Thursday.
KAWASAKI’S ROLE: There’s no denying that Kawasaki has exceeded expectations on the field. He’s a below-average defender, but he has an above-average .341 on-base percentage.
General manager Alex Anthopoulos must now weigh future production from Kawasaki against the future production of others on the team.
Yet with Kawasaki there’s no denying that intangibles enter the discussion. Parting with a similarly productive utility infielder -- say Skip Schumaker or Eric Sogard -- wouldn’t be nearly as difficult from a public relations standpoint.
“Lots of times, guys get sent up and down, it’s ‘Good luck,’ whatever,” Buehrle told Lott. “With him, it’s going to be like, I don’t want to say sad and you’re going to cry, but there’s going to be a little bit more feeling if he gets sent down, just because of what he’s brought to this team the last two months.”
Kawasaki doesn’t have a skillset that’s well-suited to a bench role, but if the Blue Jays were to make an exception for any player, he might be the guy.
BULLPEN OPTIONS: If the Blue Jays decide to create space for Kawasaki by going to a seven-man bullpen, they’d have a variety of options, as detailed at Sportsnet last week. Each one of those options is flawed in its own way.
The Blue Jays have worked with Dustin McGowan for years and may not want to demote the out-of-options right-hander and expose him to waivers. However, McGowan earns $1.5 million per season in 2013 and 2014 and may simply sail through waivers unclaimed.
It’s clear that McGowan is not an integral piece of the team’s bullpen at this time. He has appeared in two games over the course of the team’s 11-game win streak: in the ninth inning of a 6-1 game and in the ninth inning of a 13-4 game.
Those aren’t exactly high-leverage innings. That said, the Blue Jays haven’t had to rely as extensively on their bullpen in recent weeks and having an eighth reliever such as McGowan provides manager John Gibbons with an extra measure of certainty going forward.
Out-of-options left-hander Juan Perez would figure to get claimed on waivers should the Blue Jays look to send him to the minor leagues. Optioning a pitcher such as Aaron Loup or Neil Wagner would hardly seem to help given how effectively they’ve pitched.
The Kawasaki decision was never going to be a simple one for Gibbons, and Anthopoulos. It's becoming clearer by the day that there's no easy way out.