TORONTO – Until the Blue Jays clinch, there’s still work to be done. But with the AL East now officially out of reach and their magic number now down to two, a celebration could happen as soon as Wednesday night. Barring a shocking reversal, the Blue Jays will begin a three game wild-card series starting Oct. 7.
Before team decision makers can plan their playoff roster in much detail, some significant questions must be answered. Their opponent will “definitely” factor in to an extent, according to GM Ross Atkins, especially where final roster spots are concerned. And health will help shape the rosters, too, as Lourdes Gurriel Jr. and Santiago Espinal are currently on the injured list.
Within a week, the Blue Jays will have clarity on both fronts. In the meantime, they’re pushing to clinch – while also being mindful of the long road ahead.
“We’re focused on how we can set ourselves up for the most success for a push deep into the postseason,” Atkins said at Rogers Centre on Tuesday afternoon. “So obviously that starts with hopefully Game 1 of the playoffs, but we want to make sure that we’re cognizant of being able to play as long as possible, as deep as possible.”
Step one will be setting the roster for three games in three days against either the Rays, the Mariners or the Guardians. The final decision will likely go down until the day before the post-season begins, but here’s an informed early guess as to how the Blue Jays will use those 26 roster spots, which can feature up to 13 pitchers:
Position Players (14)
Danny Jansen, C
Alejandro Kirk, C
Vladimir Guerrero Jr., 1B
Cavan Biggio, 2B
Santiago Espinal, 2B
Matt Chapman, 3B
Bo Bichette, SS
Lourdes Gurriel Jr., LF
George Springer, CF
Teoscar Hernandez, RF
Jackie Bradley Jr., OF
Bradley Zimmer, OF
Raimel Tapia, OF
Whit Merrifield, Util
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
Notable omissions: RHP Mitch White, RHP Julian Merryweather, RHP Nate Pearson, LHP Yusei Kikuchi, C Gabriel Moreno
Once again – that’s an educated guess at one of many scenarios in play. This option works nicely, but could White be on the roster instead of Pop? Sure. Or how about both? Maybe if the Blue Jays don’t roster quite so many outfielders that becomes possible. And wouldn’t it be nice to also carry Gabriel Moreno, who has quietly been taking fly balls in centre field and doing some drills with Blue Jays infielders? Well, yeah, ideally.
But in trimming the roster from 28 to 26, some tough decisions will have to be made. Good players will be left on the Blue Jays’ taxi squad. It’s the nature of October baseball.
So, why this particular configuration? Let’s start with the pitchers. The Blue Jays could roster up to 13 arms, and it’s hard to see them rostering fewer than 12.
Even if the wild-card series lasts just three games, carrying four starters seems logical in case injury strikes unexpectedly or a game goes extras (remember, there’s no automatic runner in the post-season). That means you’re taking both Berrios and Stripling, which leaves either eight or nine spots for relievers.
Six relievers have been fixtures in the bullpen all year: Romano, Garcia, Mayza, Cimber, Richards and Phelps. Bass, a deadline acquisition, will also be on the roster. That leaves one or two spots for more pitchers.
If the Blue Jays want length, they could go to White. In theory, Kikuchi’s another bulk option, but he appears to be on the outside looking in. The same goes for Pearson, who’s not likely to pitch for the Blue Jays barring injuries.
The Blue Jays optioned White earlier this month, so they’re willing to do without him, but the same can be said for Pop, who was optioned in August, and Merryweather, who was sent down last week. As such, at least one bullpen spot appears to be up for grabs and since the leading candidates for it are right-handed there’s a chance Mayza is the Blue Jays’ lone lefty.
If the Blue Jays roster just 12 pitchers, they’d have room for a massive bench that would create flexibility for manager John Schneider. There’s real value in the defence Zimmer and Bradley Jr. offer late in games, so while multiple defensive specialists might normally be considered overkill, there’s still a clear role for those two.
It’s perhaps less obvious how Tapia fits in if Gurriel Jr. is fully healthy, but he offers a different look from the left side of the plate as well as insurance should Gurriel Jr. need to DH. And while Merrifield’s role looked uncertain as a couple of weeks ago, his recent play has reinforced his value as a utility player.
Of course if all of those outfielders are on the Blue Jays’ roster, there’s likely no room for a third catcher – a luxury any manager would want, especially when there are very real scenarios where the Blue Jays might want to pinch run for a catcher without losing their designated hitter. Rostering Moreno would solve that problem, but at what cost?
Ultimately, the Blue Jays must weigh the value of having another catcher on hand against the value of an extra bullpen arm and the value of their various outfielders all while taking into account health and the relative strengths of their opponents.
Right down to that final spot, the stakes are high.