Nothing like being swept in the Bronx to take the air out of the party balloons, so we Jays fans aren’t feeling too swell today. Nevertheless, Toronto, as I write this hold onto a share of first place in the division and seem like a lock to make the playoffs again in consecutive years for the first time in over two decades. All is not lost, but watching the team sputter along lately hasn’t filled anyone with a lot of confidence in watching a parade down Yonge Street in November.
As a fan and critic, the irksome thing is it is hard to criticize the team. They seem to be giving it their all and not much John Gibbons has done is really open for a lot of second-guessing. That said, it does seem to me there are two things they could do that might help improve their chances of playing deep into October.
First, put Francisco Liriano into the starting rotation in place of Marcus Stroman. Stroman might be the future face of the franchise, but for now is a young, tired pitcher struggling. Although tagged with an “L” tonight against the Yanks , for which he can’t be faulted too badly (you can’t win if your team doesn’t score you any runs!), his season has been more full of ups and downs than a 3D topographical map of California. Before tonight he’s allowed 8 earned runs over 12 innings in his previous two outings, against light-hitting Minnesota and Tampa. His ERA at 4.55 is less than stellar and, for all the talk about the risk of Aaron Sanchez being fatigued, Stroman seems the more worn out. And little wonder, he’s logged 178 innings this season, well more than his previous career high at any level of baseball. Put him in the bullpen for now, let him log maybe 6-10 more innings in the regular season and then re-evaluate come October as to whether he’s the right man to be the #4 guy in the playoff rotation.
Meanwhile, the Jays went out and got journeyman starter Francisco Liriano at the trade deadline, why not let him start for now? His 4 starts with the team have been decent, going 1-1 with a 3.96 ERA and 23 K over 22 2/3 innings and he’s an innings-eater. By today’s standards at least. He’s pitched 150 or more innings every year since 2012, and posted a good 3.38 ERA over the past two years. A strong lefty to compliment JA Happ would be a good way to vary the rotation for the remaining three weeks and ease the burden on the bullpen in all likelihood. His two outings from the ‘pen so far have been half and half, a terrrible outing against Tampa paired with two good innings against the Yanks, but he’s not worked regularly out of the bullpen since 2006.
If the bullpen is still hurting for reliable southpaws, the team could always recall Chad Girodo who is not unknown in Toronto and was decent, albeit not remarkable (2-1, 3.79 in 29 appearances although allowing 45 hits in about 35 innings) with Buffalo this year.
Second, and looking at today’s boxscore, maybe Gibbons is one step ahead of me on this , stop batting Jose Bautista leadoff. Yes, we know the team lacks a Rickey Henderson-style prototypical leadoff hitter and yes, we know Jose is a good team player who will hit where he’s told. And that he walks a lot, making for a good on base, which might make him a good #1 hitter. But the experiment hasn’t worked. Even taking the injuries into account, Bautista is having his least effective year since 2009 and having him hit lead off hasn’t propeled the offence. While his 64 walks is more than respectable for the number of games played, his OPS of .793 is lowest in 7 years and his RBIs are down to one perh 6.2 at bats this year from one in 5 the past two years. And the reason seems clear- hitting leadoff in 40 games, he’s hitting .239 but has an .800 OPS and 22 RBI in 158 AB, or about one RBI per 7 at bats. Hitting his traditional third, he’s hitting only .227 but has an OPS of .844 and 28 RBI in 141 AB, or one per 5 at bats. No wonder. In situations with men in scoring position, clutch times, Bautista is right there where he’s always been, hitting .300 with a .430 on base and .543 slugging percentage. Bautista delivers in pressure, rBI situations, not with bases empty. Besides, his knee and foot problems coupled with his age have slowed him down somewhat so he’s not a base stealing threat anymore. Hit Kevin Pillar (disappointing .294 on base but 11 steals this year after 25 last year) or Melvin “BJ” Upton (25 steals this season) lead off and have Joey Bats bat third. Or maybe even fourth, as tonight…
Three more Liriano starts in place of Stroman, a fresh Stroman come ALDS time, and a handful more at bats with Jose Bautista hitting with men on base might not turn this team from adequate but not great (as they have been lately) to unstoppable, but might win one or two more close ones. and this season, one or two games looks like the difference between being the road team in the Wild Card game and being on home turf in the ALDS.