With the euphoria of winning the AL East for the first time since before Roberto Osuna was born now fading to a happy glow, there’s still work to be done. On field and off. I assume tonight’s game in Tampa will see a return of the regular lineup needed to win after a couple of games showcasing more Buffalo Bisons than Blue Jays. Although at first glance it might seem wise to rest up the aching regulars we have to hope that the lure of home advantage throughout the playoffs will be enough to have them back in the lineup and fired up. I’d expect nothing less from John Gibbons and his crew.
The advantage is distinct. Make no mistake about it, edging out Kansas City (with whom they are tied as of this morning) for top spot overall would be large. For starters, top team will play the wildcard winner; the #2 team will play the #3. While the visitor in the wild card game is still up for grabs between the Angels and Astros, the Yankees will be hosting it. The Texas Rangers have all but ensured they will be the West champions and thus be the #3 team; while Toronto did OK with them this year (4-2, outscoring them 34-21) the R’s have been on a bit of a tear of their own of late,being some 34-16 since the trade deadline. Not to mention their starting rotation of late, with Colby Lewis having a career year and Cole Hamels rounding into post-season form, has been more solid than any of the wild card contenders. The likely four-man squad for Texas in the playoffs of Hamels, Lewis, Holland and Gallardo have collectively logged 201 playoff innings and won 15 games, eclipsing any of the other AL team pitching staffs in October depth. Much better to face a slightly more tired, and less-hot team. In particular, we can hope for a Yankees win in the wildcard, setting up as good a matchup for Toronto as possible , since the Jays all but owned New York this season, being 13-6 against them including 8 wins in the Bronx.
Moreover, the advantages of that top spot overall would carry on to the ALCS if Kansas City prevail in their opening series. Like Toronto, the Royals are a team that thrive on home cooking. Toronto finished with 53 home wins, KC 51. By contrast, the Jays enter the final weekend of the regular season a .500 team on the road. Head to head this year, Toronto won 3 of 4 at the Rogers Centre but just one of 3 in Kauffman Stadium.
The importance of this weekend’s series on field is obvious then; important too is the work going on upstairs. Like every playoff-bound team, Toronto will need to figure out how to cull the bloated September bench down to a 25 man October squad. Names will have to be erased and feelings hurt. Here’s my suggestions for the best 25 to take to the ALDS. Most are obvious, of course, but the last couple of spots are where it gets interesting. For example, there is the question of how many pitchers to take along. Given the increased days off during the post-season, it should be easy enough to get by with just 4 starters; although it’s great to have a huge bullpen, I’d opt for just 7 relievers to begin with, thus allowing a bit more flexibility on the regular bench, something of added worth with Troy Tulowitzki being questionable still.
Catcher- Russell Martin
First Base – Justin Smoak . Recent power surge has helped his cause and having EE play too many games on the field seems a bit worrisome health-wise
Second Base- Ryan Goins. He’d be the pick even hitting like he did in the past, given his plus-factor defense but he’s been hitting pretty nicely lately (7 for 15 in last 5 games, upping his average to .252 compared to .213 in previous two seasons).
Shortstop- Troy Tulowitzki. Would be a no-brainer ordinarily but a bit of a question mark with his shoulder injury. However, he’s expected to get some game time this weekend and according to Gregor Chisholm, took 6 at bats in a simulated game yesterday with little problem. Tulowitzki at 80% is probably better than the alternative at 100%
Third Base– Josh Donaldson
Left Field- Ben Revere, the leadoff man AA hoped he was trading for has arrived
Center Field– Kevin Pillar, last week’s AL Player of the Week
Right Field – Jose Bautista
Designated Hitter – Edwin Encarnacion
That’s the easy part. Tougher, the subs. As said, I’d go with five bench players, crossing fingers that 7 bullpen arms will be enough.
Backups – Dioner Navarro. A competent enough backstop and good bat to have on the bench, plus Estrada’s favored catcher lately.
Chris Collabello . An easy choice given how good his bat’s been all year and his versatility, if not grace, at different positions
Cliff Pennington . Not hitting much since arriving in Toronto, but has played 4 positions and has nearly 800 career games under his belt. The best bet to take over at short should Troy T. not be as healthy as thought
…which leaves two spots. There’s a need for a backup outfielder , and either Dalton Pompey or Ezquiel Carrera could qualify. Although the latter is a better all-around player, I’d have to defer to the Torontonian and bring along Pompey based on his speed. No wonder his last five appearances have all been pinch run situations; he’s 6 for 6 in steals in his brief tour with Toronto. Carrera’s a steadier bat but Pompey could be invaluable in a tie game, ninth inning should Navarro be the winning run…
for the fifth and final backup player, although it’s tempting to bring along Josh Thole in case R.A. is pitching and ’cause it’s never a bad thing to have a third catcher, Tulo’s health would make me lean towards another infielder. Since Darwin Barney is ineligible (arriving after Sep.1), that leaves the crowd-pleasing Munenori Kawasaki. Besides being able to play any infield spot, Kawasaki can lay down a bunt and you never know when that might come in handy if pinch hitting is called for.
There we have 14 position players to bring home the hardware for the fans. Next up, we’ll look to the 11 pitchers whose arms can get it done for the Jays…bl