Gibbons no longer handcuffed by Jays roster

The Blue Jays lost an important layer of depth when Janssen was out with an oblique injury. (Frank Gunn/CP)

TORONTO – At last the debate about roster construction for the Toronto Blue Jays can focus on merit rather than asset management, about what players can bring to the table rather than where they sit in the contractual-control structure.

The period of extended evaluations for those on the fringes of the big-league club ended Friday when Esmil Rogers was designated for assignment to clear a roster spot for Liam Hendriks, who allowed just a single run over 5.2 gutsy innings in a 3-2 win over the Oakland Athletics.

Rogers joins Jeremy Jeffress and Moises Sierra out the DFA door, and while the Blue Jays now have 10 days to trade, release or outright him to the minors, the page has been turned, and the current 25-man configuration features nothing but pieces manager John Gibbons might actually want to use.

The time was right.

While Rogers and his electric arm have potential, the Blue Jays can no longer wait for him to figure out how to pitch, not with the team atop the American League East and playing like it has a realistic chance of staying there. He got a much longer leash than either Jeffress, who refused an outright assignment and signed with the Milwaukee Brewers, or Sierra, claimed on waivers by the Chicago White Sox, and the risk of losing him matters less than the risk of handcuffing Gibbons in games that matter.

Lefty Rob Rasmussen makes far more sense for the Blue Jays right now than Rogers, who was redundant after losing the long-man role to a deserving Todd Redmond. And if not Rasmussen, then Chad Jenkins or Neil Wagner or prospect John Stilson are in triple-A Buffalo waiting to make a positive impact.

Even better, the Blue Jays are now down to a workable seven-man bullpen, and the longer Gibbons can play with a full bench, the more he can continue to exploit platoon advantages in his lineup and late in games when he’s trying to make things happen.

Moving Brett Lawrie back and forth between second so Juan Francisco and Steve Tolleson, who hit a two-run homer in the second, can be alternated in the lineup is one example of that flexibility. Being able to catch Erik Kratz and DH Dioner Navarro with Jose Thole on the bench as insurance is another.

Gibbons doesn’t have to manage around experiments any longer.

“It’s fun being on a winning team,” said Tolleson. “All of us want to be in the lineup every day, but all of us understand how we contribute to this team.”

The key in sustaining this, of course, is the rotation continuing to pitch deep enough into games and the bullpen maintaining the success it’s had since closer Casey Janssen returned from the disabled list May 11.

Minus two blowout losses May 11 to the Angels and May 14 to the Indians, when Blue Jays relievers were tagged for 16 earned runs over 9.2 innings, the relief corps has allowed only eight runs over its last 25.2 innings, and three of those runs belong to Rogers.

They may bend at times, the way they did Friday when the Athletics threatened in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings before Janssen locked things down with his sixth save, but they aren’t breaking.

The struggles before then are well documented, and while it’s too simplistic to say Janssen was a panacea, getting him back returned a layer of depth lost when his oblique bit. Dustin McGowan’s return from the rotation further bolstered the core.

Once that happened, there were more trusted relievers to share the late-inning load, and combined with better outings from the rotation, they had a better chance to be sharp once on the mound.

At the time of his injury, Janssen says he told pitching coach Pete Walker, “‘You ain’t going to miss me one bit. These guys are really good down here. Trust me,’” he recalled. “For a couple of games there they were on a roll, everything fit perfect, and no one was having those conversations. Then all of a sudden, they made a turn for the worse. … (But) every single team in the league wants our bullpen.”

With everyone back in their appropriate role – and with Sergio Santos throwing at 75 feet Friday without issue and looking to push things further over the weekend – that’s true again.

“Once you start struggling, sometimes it can start to snowball,” said Janssen. “And as a group, it’s almost like you’re waiting for it to happen, instead of, ‘I want to be the one to fix the problem.’ That little early stretch, every break didn’t go our way, every call may or may not have gone our way, broken bat singles, and of course there were some self-inflicted wounds with walks.”

Rebuilding from any self-doubt that may have developed isn’t easy – “You can’t fake it, you have to believe it,” Janssen notes – but perspective is necessary, too.

“I gave up a couple of home runs last year and Darren Oliver said, ‘I hope you give up 200 more,’” Janssen relayed. “I was like, ‘What do you mean?’ And he says, ‘If you give up 200 more homers, you’re going to be playing for a while.’ So you look at it like everyone’s been there, everyone’s given up a homer, and if you play long enough, you’re going to give up a heck of a lot more.”

That’s important to remember because things won’t always go as smoothly as they have of late for the Blue Jays. There will surely be some adversity to come, but with a roster that’s built to win, not to protect out-of-options upside plays, they’re better positioned to withstand the challenges to come.

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