Ideal pitching alingment will soon come into focus as Blue Jays’ playoff berth nears
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By Thomas Hall2 months ago
The debate around whether the Toronto Blue Jays will make the playoffs this season could draw to a celebratory end over the next few days. If it does, that should breathe a massive relief to the starting rotation and bullpen – both of whom have carried the torch throughout 2023.
Following the final off day of the regular season, the Blue Jays remain in control of the second American League wild-card seed, holding a 1.5-game lead over the Houston Astros. With only six games left, split between the New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays, this franchise’s post-season odds sit at 97.7 per cent heading into Tuesday’s slate, per FanGraphs.
That’s a more-than-favourable position amid the final week of the 2023 campaign. As long as Toronto plays .500 ball the rest of the way, the club should easily cruise into a playoff berth before the calendar flips to October. Plus, given the current environment in the wild-wild AL West Division, reaching 90 wins may not even be required to clinch one of the final two wild-card spots.
At 87-69, the Blue Jays can secure their post-season fate as early as Wednesday if a few things fall their way. The most critical facet, of course, is winning the first two contests over the Yankees – a team they took two out of three against last week in the Bronx.
Once that happens, Toronto will seek help from the Houston Astros on the out-of-town scoreboard. That process, however, has already begun as they proved victorious against the Seattle Mariners on Monday, taking the opener of the three-game series. But they’ll also need to win the next two, as well.
Since the Mariners own the tiebreaker over the Blue Jays, it’ll be vital for the Astros to complete the sweep at T-Mobile Park, ensuring they can not finish with more than 88 wins. That’d eliminate a potential scenario where Seattle could catch Toronto in the wild-card race or Texas – which has already won 88 games and holds the tiebreaker – for the division.
Even if that plan falls through, another one is destined to replace it shortly afterwards. As such, this situation appears likely headed for an outcome that’ll deem this weekend’s final series of the regular season against the Rays insignificant.
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Not only would that prevent the Blue Jays from tipping their hand to a potential first-round opponent, but it would also allow them to prioritize rest across those last three games, especially on the pitching side. That group, above any other, could significantly benefit from a lighter workload heading into the playoffs, with how heavily they’ve been relied upon all year.
Kevin Gausman, tentatively scheduled to start Game 162, would be the primary beneficiary of an early clinching scenario as his outing could be pushed from this Sunday to Game 1 of a wild-card series. Since the opening round is slated to begin on Oct. 3, he’d receive six days of rest following one final regular-season start on Tuesday against the Yankees.
It’s no secret that Gausman’s production has typically fared better on extra rest this season, as evidenced by his 1.62 ERA and 38.3 per cent strikeout rate in 14 games with five days in between starts. For context, the right-hander owns a 5.21 ERA and a 25 per cent strikeout rate on regular rest in 2023.
Moreover, the 32-year-old surely wouldn’t be available in Games 1, 2 and possibly 3 of the wild-card round if he’s needed to pitch in the season finale versus Tampa Bay. That’d mean having a starting rotation of José Berríos, Chris Bassitt and Hyun Jin Ryu or Yusei Kikuchi in a best-of-three series.
But as long as Toronto clinches before then, the team should be able to avoid that adverse outcome while having Gausman at his full capacity.
The only dilemma it would create is the need for a sixth starter. With Alek Manoah shut down for the remainder of 2023, the Blue Jays’ lone option would probably be Bowden Francis, who’s currently assigned to triple-A Buffalo and last pitched in the Bisons’ season finale on Sunday.
Francis, however, would be an excellent candidate to take the ball for the Blue Jays during the final day of the major league regular season. The 27-year-old has impressed out of the bullpen throughout the 2023 campaign, resulting in a 1.73 ERA and a 19.9 per cent K-BB rate difference across 20 relief appearances.
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In addition to those dazzling results, Francis has recorded more than three outs in 11 of his 20 outings with the big-league club, which helped to preserve a taxed bullpen on numerous occasions. He hasn’t logged more than 4.2 innings in a single game – in the minors or majors – this season, though. So it’d probably make sense to pair him with an opener like Trevor Richards, perhaps.
Securing a playoff berth after Wednesday’s contest could also have a trickle-down effect on a Blue Jays rotation that has compiled the fifth-most innings pitched (862.0) in the majors in 2023.
It may entice manager John Schneider to operate cautiously with Bassitt’s final start of the season on Thursday, considering his career-high 192.1 innings pitched are sixth-most among big-league pitchers. If that game becomes meaningless, having the veteran righty extend beyond six innings – a feat he’s accomplished in four of his last five starts – would make very little sense.
This could also positively impact Toronto’s bullpen, which has logged the fifth-most high-leverage innings (111.0) across the sport. Closer Jordan Romano, in particular, has carried the brunt of that weight as his 29.2 innings in high-leverage situations are tied with Cleveland’s Emmanuel Clase for the seventh-most among qualified major-league relievers.
Fewer competitive games, though, would mean fewer occasions where Schneider meticulously disperses his bullpen down the stretch like he would during the post-season. Thus, that’d lead to additional reps for hurlers like Chad Green, Jay Jackson and Génesis Cabrera. It could also be get-right opportunities for recently struggling arms Yimi García and Trevor Richards.
While there’s still work to be done, the Blue Jays have a clear path to punching their ticket to a second consecutive playoff berth and putting their roster in the most favourable position to contend for a deep run through October.
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