As Blue Jays finalize wild-card roster, in-game tactics take centre stage

Toronto Blue Jays manager John Schneider. (Christopher Katsarov/CP)

TORONTO – Because a three-game series brings far more urgency than one game of 162, there may be moments Toronto Blue Jays interim manager John Schneider manages this weekend’s wild-card series against the Seattle Mariners a little differently.

Of course to reveal any such plans would be foolish as the Mariners are most certainly listening.

“I don’t want to give away any secrets,” Schneider joked Thursday afternoon at Rogers Centre. “The over-arching theme is finding advantages. Whether it’s defensive, offensive or on the pitching side, we’ll continue to do that. But at the same time trust the unbelievable amount of talent we have.”

“If there’s a spot where we could (gain) a little bit of an advantage, we’re going to take it,” Schneider added. “In-game, you watch the flow of the game.”

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Once the wild card series begins at 4:07 p.m. ET Friday, the Blue Jays must adapt to the demands of the series in front of them, and that could mean making decisions more proactively than usual. With off days on either side of the series, 12 or 13 pitchers available and little room for error, there’s zero reason to let struggling pitchers stay on the mound for long. This time of year, it’s often better to remove a pitcher one batter too early than one batter too late.

Along those lines, the Blue Jays must be open to using their pitchers in ways they wouldn’t on May 15 or August 10. For instance, could Jordan Romano be asked to record six outs? Could Tim Mayza pitch in the fifth inning? Could Jose Berrios pitch in relief? Why not (even more radical pitching deployment could be needed later in October, but we’ll save the Alek Manoah-out-of-the-bullpen speculation for then).

Beyond Manoah in Game 1, the Blue Jays haven’t announced their rotation plans, preferring to stay flexible depending on how the cut on Kevin Gausman’s right middle finger heals and – possibly – the outcome of the series opener. While using Ross Stripling on Saturday could be tempting if the Blue Jays win Game 1, Gausman could be more likely to pitch following a Game 1 loss.

As Schneider said, “It’s nice to have options.”

Step one for the Blue Jays? Sending their 26-man wild-card roster to the commissioner’s office by 10 a.m. ET Friday morning. On that front, there are still some significant questions, as the status of Lourdes Gurriel Jr. and Santiago Espinal remains uncertain. As such, their potential replacements remain in limbo, too.

As of Thursday afternoon, the Blue Jays were actively considering many scenarios, including taking 13 pitchers – the maximum allowed. And while finding space for three catchers is never easy, Gabriel Moreno finished the season strong with his first career home run Wednesday and would offer the Blue Jays valuable late-game flexibility.

“Several different scenarios whether it’s pinch hitting or pinch running,” GM Ross Atkins said. “One of the biggest challenges that I suppose works against adding a third catcher is how offensively successful and capable (Alejandro Kirk and Danny Jansen) are.”

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By Friday morning, we’ll know for sure how the Blue Jays will configure their roster. In the meantime, here’s my best guess …

Position Players (13)
Danny Jansen, C
Alejandro Kirk, C
Vladimir Guerrero Jr., 1B
Cavan Biggio, 2B
Santiago Espinal, 2B
Matt Chapman, 3B
Bo Bichette, SS
George Springer, CF
Teoscar Hernandez, RF
Lourdes Gurriel Jr., LF
Jackie Bradley Jr., OF
Raimel Tapia, OF
Whit Merrifield, Util

Pitchers (13)
Alek Manoah, RHP
Kevin Gausman, RHP
Ross Stripling, RHP
Jose Berrios, RHP
Jordan Romano, RHP
Yimi Garcia, RHP
Tim Mayza, LHP
Anthony Bass, RHP
Adam Cimber, RHP
Trevor Richards, RHP
David Phelps, RHP
Zach Pop, RHP
Yusei Kikuchi, LHP

Notable omissions: RHP Mitch White (now ineligible after being optioned), RHP Julian Merryweather, RHP Nate Pearson, C Gabriel Moreno, OF Bradley Zimmer

When the Blue Jays used Yusei Kikuchi for just 18 pitches Thursday, it was an indication they didn’t want to over-exert him ahead of the weekend. The left-hander finished strong, with 10 strikeouts compared to just two walks and one hit over his final 6.1 innings spanning four appearances. Will he pitch high-leverage? Probably not if the Blue Jays can help it. But against a Mariners team that features lots of left-handed hitters and switch-hitters, he makes sense.

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This version of the roster presumes health from Gurriel Jr. and Espinal, both of whom seemed relatively comfortable in on-field drills at Rogers Centre Thursday. While neither has hit in a game in weeks, Espinal offers late-game defence at second and insurance behind Bo Bichette at shortstop. As for Gurriel Jr., he could be appealing as a pinch-hit option even if his hamstring is still healing.

That would likely push Bradley Zimmer off the roster, limiting Schneider’s late-game outfield defence, but with Jackie Bradley Jr. the Blue Jays still have one card to play on that front. Finding room for Moreno would be ideal, but carrying extra arms like Kikuchi and Zach Pop may prove to be more appealing.

One way or another, the Blue Jays have the core of their roster in place, though. And for all of the debate about who belongs on the edges of the roster it’s likely the core of this team that will determine if the Blue Jays’ playoff run can continue next week in Houston.

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