MINNEAPOLIS – By taking 14 position players into their wild-card series against the Minnesota Twins, the Toronto Blue Jays are providing manager John Schneider with a wide range of late-game options off the bench for a pivotal week at Target Field.
It’s a departure from a year ago, when the Blue Jays rostered an even balance of 13 pitchers and 13 position players against the Seattle Mariners only to lose in two games. Yet the Blue Jays will still have nine relievers at their disposal, along with Kevin Gausman, Jose Berrios and Chris Bassitt, who are expected to start in that order.
There were no shockers when the roster was revealed after Tuesday morning’s deadline, but the decisions do offer a window into the team’s thinking and hint at what’s to come on the field. Here’s how the Blue Jays decided to use their 26 roster spots, followed by a look at what that will mean against the Twins:
Position Players (14): Alejandro Kirk, Tyler Heineman, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Brandon Belt, Cavan Biggio, Santiago Espinal, Bo Bichette, Matt Chapman, Daulton Varsho, Whit Merrifield, Kevin Kiermaier, George Springer, Davis Schneider, Cam Eden
Pitchers (12): Kevin Gausman, Chris Bassitt, Jose Berrios, Yusei Kikuchi, Jordan Romano, Jordan Hicks, Yimi Garcia, Chad Green, Erik Swanson, Tim Mayza, Genesis Cabrera, Trevor Richards
Expanded bench gives Schneider options
Teams often take inflated pitching staffs this time of year, providing themselves with security blankets that rarely, if ever, get used. Case in point, the 2022 Blue Jays, who rostered David Phelps, Zach Pop and Yusei Kikuchi without ever needing them against Seattle (they didn’t use Ross Stripling either, but he would have started Game 3).
This time, the Blue Jays are rostering three players with distinct skillsets:
• Davis Schneider’s power means he could be called on to pinch hit for someone like Daulton Varsho or Cavan Biggio if a lefty reliever like Caleb Thielbar enters with the Blue Jays trailing by a couple of runs.
• A career .301/.353/.405 hitter against lefties, Espinal should brace himself for the likes of Thielbar and Kody Funderburk late in games. Offensively, he’s more likely to be called on if the Blue Jays simply need someone on base. Defensively, he’s their backup shortstop.
• Eden has barely any big-league experience but with 53 stolen bases in 57 attempts at triple-A Buffalo this year, he could make a huge impact as a pinch runner for Alejandro Kirk or Brandon Belt, both of whom are likely to start every game.
Faith in Richards despite recent struggles
It’s been a tough stretch for Richards, who has allowed 22 runs on 23 hits for a .934 OPS in just 18.1 innings since returning from the injured list on Aug. 19. But his change-up still plays and the Twins have a lot of left-handed hitters against whom Richards’ out-pitch could work well.
It’d be a surprise to see him in high-leverage moments for the time being, but the Blue Jays clearly believe in him despite the recent struggles. Speaking at Target Field Monday, Schneider said Richards will see better results so long as his fastball command gets back to where it should be.
Despite smaller bullpen, Jays can and should be aggressive
After a year of incredible starting pitching, the Blue Jays will rightfully look forward to handing the ball to Berrios in Game 2 followed by Bassitt in Game 3. At the same time, they should be wary of over-relying on those two starters when they have nine capable relievers available and rested.
Consider that lefties (.774 OPS, 16 home runs) hit Berrios much better than righties (.616 OPS, nine home runs). For Bassitt, it’s a similar story with lefties (.842 OPS, 21 home runs) enjoying far more success than righties (.573 OPS, seven home runs).
Meanwhile, the Twins are a team loaded with lefties like Edouard Julien, Alex Kirilloff, Max Kepler and Matt Wallner plus switch-hitters Jorge Polanco and Willi Castro. It’s not ideal. So while the Blue Jays should absolutely trust Berrios and Bassitt to give them quality innings with the season on the line, they shouldn’t push their luck. After all, Toronto’s relievers are here for a reason, too.