After an intense series against the Red Sox, the Blue Jays get a day off ahead of the American League Wild Card game. Today will give Jays fans lots of time to contemplate what tomorrow night’s roster should look like. If I were to play manager for a day, then this is how I would set it up. Additionally, I have provided my best guess for how John Gibbons will actually use his players.
When you play a one-game playoff, the starting pitcher will always be the centre of attention. The Jays’ situation is a little more complicated than the Orioles. For Baltimore, they have to decide whether to go with staff ace Chris Tillman, or Ubaldo Jimenez, who has recently had success against the Jays. No disrespect to Jimenez, but I still don’t think it’s a tough choice. Tillman also fared well agains the Jays last week, and has been the Orioles’ top pitcher this year. I would be surprised to see Jimenez get the nod.
The Blue Jays have an embarrassment of riches in their starting rotation. In an ideal world, J.A. Happ would be on the mound. The Orioles struggle against lefties, and there aren’t many better than Happ in the American League. With Happ unavailable, the Jays will have to choose between Francisco Liriano and Marcus Stroman.
My vote goes to Liriano. It basically comes down to the aforementioned troubles that the Orioles have had. They have been held to an 83 wRC+ against left-handers this season (compared to a 107 again right-handers). Beyond that, Liriano dominated them just last week. Liriano has been consistently strong since joining the Jays. That might be underselling him, as he has posted an ERA of 2.92 since joining the club. Since returning from the bullpen in mid-September, his ERA sits at 0.98. Finally, Liriano has history in Wild Card games. He led the Pirates to victory back in 2013. On that night, he pitched 7.0 innings of one-run ball. If I was the manager, then I would stick with the matchup advantage, as well as Liriano’s experience in these situations.
Aaron Loup and Danny Barnes
With Liriano in the rotation, the Jays will need some help in the bullpen. At first blush, the response would be for Scott Feldman to serve as a long man. But there isn’t time for traditional long men in a Wild Card. Besides, that’s what Stroman can do. Instead, with Liriano out, the Jays will need to provide cover for left-handed matchups later in the game.
Brett Cecil is the first answer for that. However, Cecil has been entrusted with higher leverage work lately. I can’t see him used purely as a LOOGY, unless it’s to face Chris Davis. As such, Aaron Loup can serve a valuable role in this game. It should be noted that Loup had an ERA of 0.00 in September while serving as a LOOGY.
Danny Barnes gets added to the roster based on merit. He was surprisingly adequate for the Jays over the last two months of the season. His biggest strength is his ability to pick up a strikeout. It is unlikely that Barnes would ever be asked to actually pitch in this game. At any rate, he would provide decent insurance, especially compared to Feldman or Bo Schultz.
Changing the Order
I have been a big advocate of moving Devon Travis down in the order, and putting Jose Bautista at leadoff. However, at this point in the season, that would be a drastic change. I’m content to leave there where they are from here on out. One area that I would change, however, is the order for Russell Martin and Troy Tulowitzki. The pair have not had much success there lately. Martin has shown the ability to walk, but that isn’t what I look for in a #5 hitter. Conversely, Tulowitzki has struggled at the plate, but has still been able to deliver some timely hits. As such, I would switch them for this game.
Josh Thole and Co.
How does Josh Thole crack a playoff roster? Well, when you don’t have five starters, there can be some flexibility. My concern is that Martin could get injured, and then Darwin Barney would become the backup catcher. That is less than ideal. Instead, Thole should be added, just in case of emergency. It’s not as though he should be expected to make any more of a contribution than Darrell Ceciliani or Andy Burns.
The rest of the bench is self-explanatory. Justin Smoak provides a power bat, Barney and Ryan Goins can cover the infield defence, and Melvin Upton Jr. and Dalton Pompey do the same for the outfield. Upton and Pompey provide the added bonus of two tremendous baserunners in late-inning situations. There isn’t one particularly potent bat sitting on the bench, but it is full of strong defenders.
Having gone through how I would assemble the team, here is how I anticipate Gibbons will actually structure the roster.
Despite Baltimore’s splits, I believe that Gibbons will give the ball to Stroman. It’s easy to see why. Stroman has had a strong second half, which has been highlighted by an ERA of 2.70 over his last three starts. Furthermore, Stroman has pitched in big situations for Gibbons in the past. He had tons of success down the stretch last year, and in the playoffs. If Gibbons chose to go to Stroman in Game 5 of the ALDS instead of David Price, then I think it’s safe to say that he will make the same choice over Liriano. Sunday’s game might offer a further clue, as Liriano started to warm up in the bullpen. Maybe it was a regular side session taking place during the game. I doubt it. Since Liriano warmed up on Sunday, it seems as though he won’t start on Tuesday.
Stroman had a decent outing in his last start agains the Orioles. He allowed four runs over 7.0 innings. That said, he also allowed 11 baserunners, and only struck out three. Stroman had more success against them back on April 19th, before he had two poor outings in June. Of course, all of Stroman’s starts in June were poor. Even so, he has had an inconsistent season against Baltimore. Hopefully he has results that are more in line with April.
There is only one change in the bullpen. While I don’t put much stock in Feldman, I believe that Gibbons will trust him more than Barnes. Again, that spot in the relief corps is unlikely to factor into the game at all. In that sense, either choice should be fine.
Beyond the starting pitcher, I don’t expect Gibbons’ roster to be radically different from my own. That said, I cannot see him swapping Martin and Tulowitzki. I expect him to continue to ride Carrera’s recent hot streak, which will force Bautista into the DH spot. I have not provided a picture of Gibbons’ bench, as I believe it will be identical to mine. Gibbons will look for catching depth, and will want to keep his speedsters on the bench so that they can be used late in the game
It’s important to remember that the rosters reset after Tuesday. If the Blue Jays can win and advance to play Texas, then it becomes a whole picture. They will need to carry four starters, and consequently readjust their bullpen and bench. But let’s take this one step at a time. How would you design the Wild Card roster?