Blue Jays should use rest of 2018 season to evaluate younger players

J.D. Martinez drove in his league leading 97th RBI of the season and the Boston Red Sox held on to defeat the Toronto Blue Jays in extra innings.

TORONTO – The goal for the Toronto Blue Jays over the final eight weeks of the 2018 season should be to do everything possible to help set up the 2019 club — whatever it ends up looking like — for success.

With nothing left to salvage beyond personal numbers and window dressing such as leapfrogging the Tampa Bay Rays for third place, developing anyone part of the plan going forward — both those already in the majors and a handful not — is the most achievable path to some type of meaningful return before everyone goes their separate ways.

For now, that’s not exactly the plan.

“It’s a bit of a balance. You don’t just turn everything toward what matters for 2019, 2020,” general manager Ross Atkins said before Tuesday night’s 10-7, 10-inning loss to the Boston Red Sox, who scored a combined nine runs against set-up man Ryan Tepera and closer Ken Giles after Marcus Stroman left with a right middle finger blister following seven dominant innings. “For us now, that balance has shifted a little but more toward the future, but that doesn’t mean we don’t try to win. It also doesn’t mean that the players we’ve committed to won’t get a fair opportunity to continue to perform.

“As we balance those things and factor in opportunities for development versus the best team on the field to win, we empower (manager John Gibbons) to make those decisions and we make decisions together on building the 25-man roster.”

That’s certainly sensible and fair, but every opportunity for development or chance to get an-on-cusp prospect some reps needs to leveraged.

A big-league start for Mike Hauschild on Wednesday, for example, is another missed opportunity to give Sean Reid-Foley – who allowed two runs over five innings with eight strikeouts for triple-A Buffalo against Gwinnett on Tuesday – an exploratory look at the majors.

Hauschild gained notoriety with Western Canadian Blue Jays fans last week in Seattle by coming out of the bullpen after a pre-game physical and contract signing and throwing six shutout innings. But in scrambling to sign the free agent days after his release from triple-A Fresno in the Houston system, the Blue Jays took an opportunity away from Reid-Foley.

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At some point they’re going to have to find out about the 22-year-old righty, who’s enjoying a breakthrough season.

Why not now?

“When we have the opportunity to think through the ideal transition for a player, we’re always going to do that,” said Atkins. “Sometimes we don’t have alternatives, like in the case of Ryan Borucki. He handled it exceptionally well, but he came up and made his debut against a very good right-handed hitting (Houston Astros) team and ideally we wouldn’t have chosen that for him. It was the best alternative and our alternatives to him at the time weren’t good enough. So there’s always a balance there of what’s optimal for this player’s transition and what are our alternatives and where are we in this player’s progression toward the big leagues, what does it mean for the rest of the season for him, what does it mean for his workload.”

Reid-Foley is up to 126.2 innings this season, rapidly approaching his previous career-high of 132.2 last year. A fair target for him would be in the 160-inning range, giving him, say, seven more starts in the six-inning range this year. The Blue Jays have about 10 starts to give each spot in the rotation, which easily could have been managed to accommodate the right-hander, especially with Aaron Sanchez, set for a rehab start Thursday in the GCL, on track to return.

Lefty Thomas Pannone and righty David Paulino, currently rehabbing an injury and a possibility to be healthy by September, are two other starters the Blue Jays would do well to get a look at.

Brandon Drury’s broken left hand means he’ll lose several weeks of at-bats, but it will create more playing time for Lourdes Gurriel Jr. once he returns from the disabled list.

In the outfield, there’s no room for Billy McKinney and, perhaps, Anthony Alford while classy veteran Curtis Granderson, who deserves to be in a pennant race, remains. The Blue Jays will be hard-pressed to get catching prospect Danny Jansen much playing time with Russell Martin and Luke Maile on the roster.

All that is a missed opportunity to get a handful of big-league firsts out of the way for a few players who’ll be in the mix next year, while allowing the front office to make some real assessments against opponents that matter they can use towards their off-season planning.

“What we’re looking for in terms of what we can achieve is to get as many players as possible as many reps as possible,” said Atkins. “Part of that is in triple-A and double-A and using the entire system. If guys are ready for more opportunities and there’s a way of getting them here, we’ll do that.”

In the interim, the Blue Jays will focus on continued growth for younger players. On Tuesday, Devon Travis had two hits including his eighth homer, Randal Grichuk walked and scored, and Teoscar Hernandez singled, walked and delivered a sacrifice fly. The Blue Jays are also hoping potential roster stabilizers like Sanchez and Stroman to finish out strong.

Stroman, coming off a five-inning, 11-hit, seven-run clunker in Oakland last week, had one of his best outings of the season cut short by a blister. He warmed up for the eighth before head trainer Nikki Huffman sprinted out to look at his finger and Gibbons promptly called in Ryan Tepera, who got burned for a four-spot that included a J.D. Martinez three-run shot.

That laid waste to Stroman’s seven innings of two-hit, one-unearned run ball with four strikeouts, as he mixed in 32 two-seamers, 29 sliders and 24 cutters to keep Red Sox hitters off balance the whole game.

“It got pretty bad in the seventh,” Stroman said of the blister, vowing to make his next start Sunday against the Rays. “It ripped pretty good and I just wasn’t in a position where I could throw my pitches effectively. I tried in the warmups and I couldn’t. It was a close game so I didn’t want to run into me throwing two balls, three balls and walking the leadoff guy.”

Maile’s RBI double in the eighth and Justin Smoak’s solo shot off Craig Kimbrel in the ninth sent the game into extra innings where Giles — another Blue Jays pitcher looking to rebound late in the year — gave up a three-run homer to Mitch Moreland and two-run shot to Jackie Bradley Jr.

“They were geared up for him,” Gibbons said of Giles. “He looked good out in Seattle. He’ll be fine. He’s just got to keep pitching here. That’s the way it goes sometimes. He’s here for a reason. Everybody’s not perfect all the time.”

Kevin Pillar’s two-run shot in the bottom of the 10th closed out the scoring.

These are far from fun times, but, if the Blue Jays can turn some of 2018’s pain into a 2019 gain, it will make the weeks ahead a little bit less insufferable.

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