If the final stretch of the season goes according to plan for the Toronto Blue Jays, they’ll be in a playoff game two weeks from today.
Even with their playoff odds at 98.1 per cent, according to FanGraphs, the Blue Jays have lots of work ahead. Half of their remaining 14 games are against the New York Yankees, winners of five in a row, and starting Tuesday the Jays are about to play 14 games in 13 days. Well positioned though the Blue Jays undoubtedly are, they’re going to have to earn it.
With that in mind, the Blue Jays have to operate on two fronts as this shortened regular season winds down. First, and by far most important, they need to win enough to clinch a playoff spot. But alongside the need for immediate wins, the Blue Jays must also set themselves up for the playoffs as well as possible.
That creates a balancing act for the front office and coaching staff and sets up some significant strategic questions between now and the end of the month…
When does Ryu start?
More often than not, the Blue Jays have found ways to get Hyun Jin Ryu five days of rest between starts this year and as Shi Davidi recently wrote, the results have been great for those six outings: a 2.16 ERA over 33.1 innings with 37 strikeouts compared to only seven walks.
But if the Blue Jays were to keep Ryu on five days’ rest from here that would line him up against the Phillies on Sept. 19, the Orioles on Sept. 25 and Game 3 of the Wild Card round on Oct. 1. Not ideal. Considering how well Ryu has pitched, the Blue Jays will be better off if he’s available before Game 3, which may or may not even be played.
To line Ryu up for Game 1, the Blue Jays have a couple options. They could use Ryu on four days’ rest for two of his next three starts (as long as he starts on four days’ rest once, he’d at least be ready for Game 2). Or, if the Blue Jays have clinched a playoff berth by the final weekend of the season, they could simply skip his last regular season start and have him throw on the side instead.
Whatever direction the Blue Jays go, they’ll be asking the left-hander himself for input.
Who else will start in October?
The most straightforward Game 2 option is Taijuan Walker. He’s pitching well, Charlie Montoyo trusts him and he follows Ryu in the rotation already.
But there are other options here, depending on who the Blue Jays play in the wild-card round and how creative they want to get. Let’s say the Blue Jays face the Rays, a team with left-handed hitters like Brandon Lowe, Austin Meadows, Joey Wendle, Yoshi Tsutsugo, Kevin Kiermaier and Michael Perez. Could Robbie Ray enter the discussion? Not only does Ray have plus stuff from the left side, he might have the element of surprise on his side having only faced the Rays once in 2016.
“I could see him anywhere,” Montoyo recently said of Ray’s October role. “I could see him starting, I could see him coming out of the bullpen.”
There’s another option, too: instead of using a traditional starter, the Blue Jays could rely on a bullpen that’s been impressive all season. Do you think rival teams would be enthused about facing some combination of Julian Merryweather, Anthony Kay, Thomas Hatch, Ryan Borucki, Rafael Dolis, Anthony Bass and Ken Giles? Probably not, which is reason enough to consider it.
If the Blue Jays play Cleveland, Merryweather’s a particularly intriguing option (and not because he came up through their system). With so many switch-hitters, Cleveland is a tough team to match up against, but Merryweather has the four-pitch mix of a starter, giving him legitimate weapons against hitters on both sides of the plate.
At this point, it’s too early to say which option will be most appealing, but they can at least keep Walker behind Ryu in the rotation and see who’s pitching best in two weeks’ time.
Can Pearson and Shoemaker contribute? If so, how do Blue Jays prepare them?
At some point this week, Nate Pearson and Matt Shoemaker are scheduled to throw live batting practice, and if all goes well both right-handers will be pitching in games before the end of the regular season.
Given where we’re at in the calendar, both will be preparing for shortened stints rather than a traditional starter’s workload. In theory, their stuff could play up if they don’t have to pace themselves for five or six innings at a time — a scary thought considering Pearson’s fastball reaches the upper 90s even when he’s starting.
But there are challenges here, too. Shorter stints will likely require Pearson and Shoemaker to adjust everything from their off-day preparation to their pre-game routines to their pitch selection. With that in mind, those late-season reps will be important for the pitchers while providing team decision-makers with important feedback.
Alejandro Kirk impressed in his big-league debut Saturday, drawing a walk and collecting a single while working with Ray behind the plate. Over the next two weeks, the Blue Jays would love to see more of that production from Kirk and if they get it, an interesting question would surface ahead of a potential playoff series: is there a case to be made for rostering three catchers?
In theory, doing so would allow Montoyo to use Kirk as a pinch hitter without having to worry about running out of catchers late in games. And with 28-man rosters, the Blue Jays will have room for creativity. Of course, for that option to have any appeal, Kirk will have to keep hitting.
Rest vs. reward
As the season winds down, the Blue Jays will be balancing the need for daily production with the knowledge that overexposing players now could cost them later.
For Bo Bichette, that likely means occasional DH days or full off days (perhaps Joe Panik starts at short for one of the games in Friday’s doubleheader, for example). For Giles, that likely means pitching back-to-back once between now and Sept. 27.
Even beyond players like Bichette and Giles who are coming back from injury, there’s reason to build in rest ahead of the playoffs. The bullpen has been taxed heavily, so if there’s a way to use the likes of Merryweather, Kay, Hatch, Borucki, Dolis and Bass judiciously as the season winds down, that would be ideal.
Viewed from that perspective, clinching early would have tangible benefits for this team. Yet if that’s not possible, there will be no choice but to keep pushing until the end and figure it out from there.