ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- A repositioning of the Toronto Blue Jays roster, one not solely due to the arrival of their four trade deadline additions Thursday in Minneapolis, is coming and will provide an immediate test of the club’s work before the Aug. 2 cut-off.
Ross Stripling’s placement on the injured list with a strained right glute/hip shortly before Yusei Kikuchi’s latest Jekyll-and-Hyde start in a 3-2 loss Wednesday afternoon to the Tampa Bay Rays pushed the rotation into precisely the type of flux deadline additions were meant to prevent.
Mitch White, the 27-year-old right-hander acquired from the Los Angeles Dodgers to serve as a swingman/sixth starter, “is an option, amongst others,” to fill in for Stripling on Saturday, said interim manager John Schneider. “He definitely has that skillset to jump right in there if needed.”
That he’s not an automatic yes could simply be a by-product of wanting to connect with White first before assigning starts to him. There’s some procedural stuff to deal with, too, as the Blue Jays optioned him to triple-A Buffalo since he was already on option with the Los Angeles Dodgers, so he’ll join the team on the taxi squad until his recall.
Still, situations like these are precisely why he was acquired, and even if Stripling’s absence isn’t expected to be a long one, how quickly White acclimates and effectively eats innings will immediately reflect on GM Ross Atkins’ work.
After all, even without an injury, starting depth was an obvious need and since Stripling aggravated the injury during his last start, the Blue Jays knew they’d have an immediate need going into the deadline, before factoring in the uncertainty of Kikuchi.
In sacrificing Max Castillo as part of the return for Whit Merrifield, White became the definitive No. 6 and there’s no clearly defined option beyond him. Right-hander Matt Peacock was recalled in a stop-gap move and though there’s some internal belief there’s more there than his waiver-wire profile suggests, for now he’s a bulk-inning depth piece and no more.
Ideally, White would have fallen into a swingman role immediately, helping provide cover in case the ongoing Kikuchi project falters even if it’s clear now just how much the Blue Jays need this to work out.
“You never have enough pitching,” said Schneider. “We're confident with (Kikuchi) moving forward. I think he would say the same thing. It's just nice to have that in the back of your mind where you know, OK, this guy's going to go out and give us a chance every time.”
The perplexing lefty had a perplexing outing, looking utterly dominant over his first two innings before losing the zone during his next two frames. But in not letting the game unravel, the outing was a relative bit of progress.
While his slider was in the zone and effective, both Kikuchi’s fastball and changeup were all over the place. A one-out hit-by-pitch on Roman Quinn was followed by a single and a walk in the third, leading to Isaac Paredes’ sacrifice fly, while two singles and a Taylor Walls fielder’s choice in the fourth erased Teoscar Hernandez’s homer that opened a 2-1 lead in the top half.
“I would say feel for the slider has been pretty good this entire year,” Kikuchi said through interpreter Kevin Ando. “With the fastball, that third inning, it did get away from me a little bit, but I felt like I was able to make the proper adjustments and in the fourth inning it felt pretty good. I think I'm in a pretty good spot right now.”
The Blue Jays mustered only Hernandez’s RBI double in the first and solo shot in the fourth – the latter his sixth career homer off club nemesis Ryan Yarborough, who allowed one run in four innings behind opener Jalen Beeks. Meanwhile, two of the Rays’ deadline adds teamed up for the go-ahead run in the sixth off Adam Cimber, as an RBI single by David Peralta scored Jose Siri, who singled and scored second to open the inning.
“For the last couple of years I've been having success (against Yarborough), but at the beginning of my career I got a lot of strikeouts against him,” said Hernandez. “Right now I'm more patient at the plate and I can lay off the pitches that are going for balls and swinging at strikes. That's why I have pretty good success against him.”
The Blue Jays could certainly have used Merrifield with George Springer missing a third straight game, although he accelerated his baseball activities by hitting off the high velocity machine before the game.
While Schneider said the star centre-fielder “is trending in the right direction” and the Blue Jays are still “taking it day by day,” the pain in his right elbow has led to erratic availability of late. Atkins noted Tuesday that the Blue Jays “want to make sure that he’s not pushing too hard and he's honest with himself,” and Schneider said there’s no risk of Springer making the injury worse.
“If that was the case, we wouldn't be comfortable with him doing what he's doing now in terms of activity,” he said.
Merrifield will help cover him, although his vaccine status remains a question. He went on the restricted list during Kansas City’s visit to Toronto last month and told Kansas City media he’d be open to getting vaccinated if there were post-season implications and now, there are.
Atkins said the matter was too fresh to discuss Tuesday and Wednesday morning, Schneider added that there’s “nothing new.”
“Obviously we know he wasn't there in Toronto, but totally up to him,” he added. “I'm sure that he's had conversations with his family and other people. We're leaving that decision up to him.”
Arriving travellers to Canada must be 14 days clear of their second dose of an accepted vaccine or the single dose Johnson & Johnson shot, so the clock is ticking. Unless Merrifield has already received the J&J vaccine, he’ll be ineligible for the Aug. 12-17 homestand against Cleveland and Baltimore but has enough runway to be available for the Aug. 26-31 homestand versus the Angels and Cubs.
If it’s a short-term hiccup, that’s manageable, as the skillset he brings will certainly provide a nice complement to a power-heavy Blue Jays lineup.
“A lot,” Hernandez said of the elements Merrifield adds. “He's always going to be on base. He's a fast runner. He takes good at-bats and he knows how to steal bases. That's an advantage for us. Most of the time he's going to be on base and he's going to try to steal second. We're going to have more men in scoring position so we can score more.”
As the pitching staff sorts through the approaching flux, more runs certainly won’t hurt.