Starting Tuesday, the Toronto Blue Jays play the Tampa Bay Rays in a best of three series for the right to advance to the American League Division Series.
That much we know, but there are still plenty of unanswered questions surrounding the Blue Jays’ roster, pitching plans and lineup decisions. Plus, there are 15 other playoff teams to keep an eye on, too.
With MLB’s expanded playoffs about to unfold, we polled our Sportsnet baseball writers for their thoughts on the post-season ahead…
As the Blue Jays prepare for their first playoff series in four years, who or what do you consider the team’s biggest strength?
This is an interesting question, because at different points you can say it was the bullpen that carried them, and the rotation has had its moments. But really, it’s the lineup and the Blue Jays need to hit to be successful. The depth they have with Cavan Biggio, Bo Bichette, Teoscar Hernandez, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Lourdes Gurriel Jr., and Randal Grichuk allowed them to overcome injuries and keep rolling, like when they lost Rowdy Tellez recently and didn’t miss a beat. That’s why they’re in this spot now.
It has to be the bullpen. No, check that: it had better be the bullpen. More velo than any Jays bullpen of recent vintage; a little bit of quirkiness and added depth depending on how manager Charlie Montoyo deploys his starters.
Power. From Teoscar Hernandez to Randal Grichuk to Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and practically everyone in between, Toronto’s offence is built to hit the ball hard. Put it in the air and you’ve got a better chance of an extra-base hit. Put it on the ground and the defence is more prone to committing errors. That’s the basic design and for the Blue Jays to be successful the club’s hitters will have to be selective, discerning, and tenacious against Rays pitching, battling to get to balls on the plate they can drive. Toronto’s pitching will obviously have to keep up with Tampa Bay’s for the club to be competitive. But whether Blue Jays hitters can execute their approach or not may ultimately decide whether they move on.
This team can hit. They finished the regular season with a 108 wRC+ that ranked 11th in baseball, but I think that sells them short. When fully healthy, this lineup runs seven or eight hitters deep and creates breathing room to overcome some of the mistakes that inevitably happen with a young team.
We’ve heard Ross Atkins say the club will be “open-minded” when it comes to “some very interesting options” on the pitching staff. In your view, does it make sense to go outside-the-box with pitching strategy, or is there something to be said for a more traditional approach?
It depends. I’m not a big fan of the gamesmanship with Hyun-Jin Ryu. He’s your clear ace and unless there’s a physical reason we don’t know about to push him back, he should start Game 1. In the wild-card era, the team that wins the first game is 126-49 in the series and in a best of three, that should matter more. Don’t get cute. But I can see the reasoning behind a Matt Shoemaker/Robbie Ray tandem and how that forces the Rays into a bunch of platoon decisions. Ultimately, though, I’m a believer in going with the guys you trust most. Maybe teams can tweak their algorithms to account for the emotions of playing in the post-season, but you better have a sense of your players’ heartbeat and ride your most trustworthy arms.
You should always choose the strategy that plays best to your team’s strengths and puts your pitchers in positions in which the probabilities are on their side. Is the strength of this Blue Jays staff traditional starting pitching? Nope. It’s versatility. The ability to mix-and-match with a variety of styles and repertoires from leverage-capable pitchers who could face as few as one batter and as many as 12. So, I think in this scenario — not to mention the context of a three-game, winner-take-all series — an unconventional approach makes sense. And from a purely observational standpoint, I’m hoping they go that route. Let’s test some novel strategies and see how the science experiment plays out.
To me, this depends on Hyun-Jin Ryu’s health. If he’s fine, as the Blue Jays say he is, then he should start Game 1 and be ready to go deep into the game. If not, they’ll have to get creative. Regardless of when Ryu starts, he should be the one Blue Jays starter who faces a lineup three times. While Matt Shoemaker, Taijuan Walker and Robbie Ray are the Jays’ most trusted starters beyond Ryu, there’s no reason to let Rays hitters get too comfortable. Instead, the Blue Jays should tell their non-Ryu starters to prepare for three or four max-effort innings and hope they can piece together some wins.
I think you can have it both ways, given the availability in the bullpen of pitchers with starting experience such as Robbie Ray and Ross Stripling. I’d prefer to go the traditional route in Game 1 if Hyun-Jin Ryu is healthy but after that … have at it. It’s 2020.
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What do you see as the best role for Alejandro Kirk in the wild-card round?
Based on Kirk’s ability to square up velocity, I think he belongs in the lineup against Blake Snell in Game 1. If Ryu’s on the mound for the Blue Jays, Danny Jansen will be catching but Kirk can still DH. In Game 2, the Blue Jays might want Travis Shaw in the lineup, so the DH spot might go to Vladimir Guerrero Jr., but Kirk could either start behind the plate or be available to pinch-hit. One way or another, Kirk should be getting lots of at-bats.
In the lineup every day against a lefty. How, I don’t care.
Designated hitter in Game 1, bench bat in Game 2, either or if there’s a Game 3. I’m not here to piss in anyone’s Alejandr-oh’s, but we have to maintain perspective. He’s caught 52 innings at the big-league level. He caught his first game above high-A two weeks ago. The postseason demands skill and savvy behind the plate in game-calling, receiving, and controlling baserunners. And so far we’ve seen Kirk challenged by all three of those areas. He’s just not there yet defensively, which is no fault of his own — he lacks experience. I’m here for Kirk getting DH plate appearances or coming off the bench to hit for Joe Panik or Travis Shaw against a left-handed reliever. But if it were up to me, Danny Jansen would catch every inning of this series.
Well, DH against Blake Snell in Game 1 to start, and maybe against Tyler Glasnow in Game 2, as well, since he’s shown a good ability to handle velocity. I’d be wary of throwing him in at catcher given how crucial defence will be and that Danny Jansen has been a plus defender. Fun fact: Kirk would be the youngest catcher to ever start an American League post-season game and fourth youngest overall.
Beyond the Blue Jays and Fernando Tatis Jr., which player are you most looking forward to watching in October?
C’mon: how can you not like White Sox’s 5-foot-8 rookie Nick Madrigal? His team is on fumes but he’s finished with a kick. Kid doesn’t strike out and leads the Majors with a .333 average with two strikes.
If the White Sox play deep into October, people are going to realize Tim Anderson is as entertaining as anyone in the game. On the pitching side, Brewers right-hander Devin Williams has an unbelievable changeup and plays some of the most fun cat-and-mouse games with hitters that you’re going to see. I also can’t wait to watch the idiosyncrasies of James Karinchak pitching in a big spot out of Cleveland’s bullpen. And please give me Zack Greinke calling his own game on a postseason mound, telling opponents what’s coming and still getting them to make outs.
Aside from Tatis Jr., I’m interested in Cy Young candidates Yu Darvish, Trevor Bauer and Shane Bieber, bullpen aces Devin Williams and James Karinchak, elite hitters Mookie Betts, Aaron Judge, DJ LeMahieu, Freddie Freeman and Ronald Acuna Jr. and the one and only Joey Votto.
Trevor Bauer and the Cincinnati Reds to start, and not just because I mistakenly picked them to win the NL Central. Joey Votto wasn’t wrong when he said they’re going to be a bad-word nightmare for someone in the playoffs and what a brutal matchup for second-seeded Atlanta. Bauer is a pitching machine and as a pending free agent, has a lot riding on all this.
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.
On a team level, which non-Blue Jays club intrigues you most this post-season?
The Padres, of course, but the A’s are high on this list for me, too. I’ll admit I don’t totally understand how they do it – are Robbie Grossman and Chris Bassitt really this good? – but that mystery adds to the appeal and I enjoy their green and yellow colour scheme. If only they could play at the Coliseum beyond round one.
Of the 16 playoff teams, only the Marlins and Astros are really boring to me even if you have to give Miami credit for getting this far.
The White Sox have scuffled down the stretch but they have a mix of youth – Madrigal, Luis Robert, Eloy Jimenez – and veterans such as Jose Abreu. They are, I think, the American League’s version of the Padres.
The Reds are one, but the Los Angeles Dodgers have to win it all at some point, you would think. They were stupid dominant this year with a plus-136 run differential, and none of it matters without a championship. That’s why they got Mookie Betts and combined with an absurdly deep roster, I’m fascinated to see if it will all come to fruition.
Easy picks are the White Sox and Padres — it’s always interesting to see young, emerging teams tested on a new stage. Cleveland’s pitching is outstanding and entertaining. The Reds are dangerous and on form. And just because I’ve spent so many late nights watching them, I wonder if this is the year that the perpetually overlooked Athletics breakthrough.