Mapping out how Blue Jays can juggle their offensive surplus

Shi Davidi explains why Hyun-jin Ryu could be the most important player on the Blue Jays roster.

Less than a month before the regular season, the Toronto Blue Jays are in a pickle they haven’t faced in some time: Charlie Montoyo has more starting-calibre position players than he can write into a lineup.

That’s a problem the majority of MLB teams would beg for, and nobody is feeling sorry for the Blue Jays. In recent years, clubs like the Los Angeles Dodgers and Tampa Bay Rays have fit this mold, which has allowed them to keep their players rested and exploit matchups better than their opponents. The results speak for themselves, but this model does create more day-to-day uncertainty, and it will result in tough choices for Montoyo — at least until an injury or two takes away some options.

The discourse around the team right now supposes that the Blue Jays’ players most likely to see their at-bats pared down are Rowdy Tellez and Randal Grichuk — the former due to his lack of positional versatility, and the later thanks to the presence of three more reliable offensive options in the outfield. These two have been singled out for good reason, but focusing on Tellez and Grichuk doesn’t give enough thought to how other players will be cycled through due to matchups or rest.

In order to conceptualize how the Blue Jays might deploy their position player group, I mocked out what the first two series of the season could look like. In order to do that, I used FanGraphs’ invaluable RosterResource pages as a starting point for the team’s batting order, pitching rotation, and the pitching rotation of their opponents. The only alteration I made was picking Alejandro Kirk over Reese McGuire as Toronto’s second catcher.

Injuries and spring training roster battles could change what we see here (particularly when it comes to a possible Nate Pearson return, and the back half of the Texas Rangers’ rotation) but this exercise is to show how things could work as opposed to predicting the future with 100 per cent accuracy. That’s just a touch above my pay grade.

Without further ado, here’s a look at six games in Montoyo’s shoes — at least when it comes to lineup construction:

Game 1

Blue Jays SP: Hyun-Jin Ryu

Yankees SP: Gerrit Cole

Lineup

CF George Springer
SS Bo Bichette
2B Marcus Semien
RF Teoscar Hernandez
1B Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
3B Cavan Biggio
LF Lourdes Gurriel Jr.
DH Rowdy Tellez
C Danny Jansen

Rationale: This is your vanilla lineup, so it makes sense to go with it on opening day. There’s an argument to be made for Kirk over Jansen as a matchup play against Cole — thanks to the flashes he’s shown against high velocity — but the Blue Jays would rather see Jansen behind the plate when Ryu is on the mound. You could also make the case for Grichuk over Gurriel Jr. based on his ability against fastballs, but he’s punished sinkers more than high heat, and the difference may not be enough to justify a shakeup.

As a rule, when you’re at Yankee Stadium and the Bronx Bombers are starting a right-hander, taking any left-handed bat out of the lineup is a bad idea, so Tellez and Biggio are locked in for this series. When Ryu is on the mound, Guerrero Jr. might be better off DH-ing thanks to all the likely action on the infield, but after all his work this off-season that could be a tough message to send on Day 1.

Game 2

Blue Jays SP: Robbie Ray

Yankees SP: Corey Kluber

Lineup

CF George Springer
SS Bo Bichette
2B Marcus Semien
DH Teoscar Hernandez
3B Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
LF Cavan Biggio
RF Randal Grichuk
1B Rowdy Tellez
C Danny Jansen

Rationale: Kluber is a tough guy to figure out matchups for because he pitched all of one inning last year and it’s unclear what his stuff will look like. That said, he’s delivered a heavy dose of sinkers, cutters, and four-seamers, with the sinker tending to lead the way. Grichuk draws back into the lineup due to his +18 run value against sinkers in his last full season — good for the fourth-best mark in the majors behind Anthony Rendon, Mike Trout and Nolan Arenado.

Because we’re looking to keep Tellez in the lineup as well, the defensive alignment gets a bit funky. That’s OK when Ray is on the mound due to the lack of balls in play he allows. When hitters do make contact it tends to be in the air, making him a good fit for Guerrero Jr.’s days at third base.

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Game 3

Blue Jays SP: Tanner Roark

Yankees SP: Jameson Taillon

Lineup

CF George Springer
SS Bo Bichette
LF Lourdes Gurriel Jr.
RF Teoscar Hernandez
1B Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
3B Cavan Biggio
2B Marcus Semien
DH Rowdy Tellez
C Alejandro Kirk

Rationale: Taillon’s another guy who’s tough to get a read on due to injury, so this lineup isn’t particularly exotic. Last time we saw him in the majors he was exceedingly slider-heavy, so the Blue Jays’ best hitter against sliders in 2019 and 2020 — Gurriel Jr. — gets a bump up the lineup. Kirk also gets his first start, primarily to give Jansen a breather, and due to the fact that Roark is a pretty straightforward catching assignment.

Game 4

Blue Jays SP: Steven Matz

Rangers SP: Dane Dunning

Lineup

CF George Springer
SS Bo Bichette
1B Rowdy Tellez
RF Teoscar Hernandez
DH Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
3B Cavan Biggio
LF Lourdes Gurriel Jr.
2B Joe Panik
C Danny Jansen

Rationale: Dunning has just 34 MLB innings to his name, but one early trend is that left-handers hit significantly better against him than right-handers. In 2020 he faced 71 hitters from each side and lefties managed a .246/.345/.393 line while righties hit .152/.211/.242.

That makes this a good opportunity to throw Panik into the mix with either Bichette or Semien taking a seat on the bench. Matz, despite his struggles last season, has traditionally been a groundball pitcher, which means that it’s not a bad day for Guerrero Jr. to DH.

Ben Nicholson-Smith is Sportsnet’s baseball editor. Arden Zwelling is a senior writer. Together, they bring you the most in-depth Blue Jays podcast in the league, covering off all the latest news with opinion and analysis, as well as interviews with other insiders and team members.

Game 5

Blue Jays SP: Ross Stripling

Rangers SP: Mike Foltynewicz

Lineup

CF George Springer
SS Bo Bichette
2B Marcus Semien
DH Teoscar Hernandez
1B Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
LF Lourdes Gurriel Jr.
3B Cavan Biggio
RF Randal Grichuk
C Alejandro Kirk

Rationale: The Blue Jays’ projected days of starters includes a plethora of bounce-back candidates that are tricky to game plan for, and Foltynewicz is no exception. Kirk gets the nod because Jansen is locked in to catch Ryu and Ray in the next two games — and in case Folty finds his heat. Tellez takes a seat because he hasn’t yet, and to ensure Grichuk gets some at-bats. Having the team’s best defensive outfield is helpful here if Stripling allows a heavy dose of flyballs like he did in 2020.

Game 6

Blue Jays SP: Ryu

Rangers SP: Kyle Gibson

Lineup

DH George Springer
SS Bo Bichette
2B Marcus Semien
RF Teoscar Hernandez
LF Lourdes Gurriel Jr.
3B Cavan Biggio
CF Randal Grichuk
1B Rowdy Tellez
C Danny Jansen

Rationale: Gibson has just about the most vanilla repertoire you can imagine for an MLB starter, so there’s no need to play matchups here based on the right-hander’s weapons. The only significant wrinkle here is giving Springer a day off in centre, which should happen once in a while to keep him healthy — and is best done with Ryu on the mound. Tellez or Guerrero Jr. are valid options to take a seat, but we’ll go with Vladdy in this spot because Tellez just sat.

What does mapping all this out tell us?

This exercise is not definitive in the slightest, but what it shows is how 10 players can flow through a lineup without anyone getting nailed to the bench. If anything, this projection undersells how much Grichuk will play due to the Yankee Stadium effect in the first series. Even with that in mind, the veteran starts three of the six games, which results in rest days for three different players. There isn’t a Grichuk-Tellez binary when it comes to at-bat distribution.

There are also going to be tough southpaws that keep one of Tellez and Biggio on the bench, or both if Montoyo is bold enough to throw Kirk in the DH spot — and that isn’t reflected here. Days off for Springer, Bichette, and Hernandez would also come along, but thanks to the presence of Semien and Grichuk it’s pretty easy to move the pieces around without Panik getting too many starts.

Even with a group of position players that’s 10 starters deep, there are plenty of at-bats to go around, especially considering the positional versatility this group brings to the table.

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