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Steve Phillips

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They did it!  This young Toronto Blue Jays team has taken advantage of Major League Baseball’s expanded playoffs structure and have clinched a spot in the 2020 postseason. 

The Jays officially secured a playoff spot – their first postseason berth since 2016 – with a 4-1 victory over the New York Yankees Thursday night in Buffalo.

It’s quite an accomplishment, considering all that they have endured during the 60-game season, shortened due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

They were homeless at the start of the season after the federal government in July denied the club the use of their Rogers Centre home ballpark in Toronto. The decision forced the Blue Jays to become road warriors while they waited for Sahlen Field in Buffalo, the home of the team’s Triple-A affiliate Bisons, to be modified to meet MLB standards. 

They will likely go into next week’s playoffs as the eighth-ranked team – they still have a shot at improving their seeding during the last three games of the regular season - among the eight American League teams that have qualified, but it doesn’t matter. They have made the 16-team MLB tournament and will likely face the top-ranked Tampa Bay Rays in the first round, best-of-three series.

The Blue Jays are now in the postseason but their ability to compete in this expanded playoff format feels like it has been compromised. The loss this week of star closer Ken Giles (Tommy John surgery), Julian Merryweather (elbow) and Jacob Waguespack (back) to the injured list depletes the depth of the bullpen. 

Without off-days during the wild card, Division and Championships Series, there is a premium on quality starting pitching, which is not necessarily the Jays’ strength. Clubs that don’t have impactful rotations need a large quantity of competent relievers to win.

Despite the loss of key pitchers, there is hope, however, as Nate Pearson makes his return to the active roster. There isn’t time to get him stretched out to be part of the starting rotation at this point, but he has a chance to be a real weapon for manager Charlie Montoyo. 

Pearson’s big arm could play even more powerful in short intense spurts out of the bullpen. He has swing and miss stuff that could be valuable in critical situations. He could become the Jays’ version of Milwaukee Brewers reliever Josh Hader. I can see Pearson coming in with the game on the line anywhere from the fifth to the ninth inning. 

Other potential good news is that reliever Jordan Romano is also close to returning. Prior to his injury, he was handling high-leverage innings with conviction. Under the new rule this season, relief pitchers have to face at least three batters per outing (unless the inning ends prior to that) when they’re brought into a game. Romano is a great option for Montoyo. He has held right-handers to a .214 batting average and lefties to an amazing .083 average. 

With Rafael Dolis, Anthony Bass, Ryan Borucki, A.J. Cole and Ross Stripling, as well as Romano and Pearson, the Blue Jays have enough bullpen depth to have quality arms hold leads and deficits in every game of a series.
 

Yankees, Blue Jays display resiliency

In the final week before the playoffs begin, the October-bound teams are looking to sharpen their teeth in preparation while still jockeying for position within their divisions and the playoff seeding structure. 

Coming into the season, many believed the World Series would be a matchup of two iconic franchises: the New York Yankees and the Los Angeles Dodgers. And they are both still alive.

It has been an easier road for the Dodgers as they have the best record in baseball. The Yankees have dealt with injuries again this year as they did in 2019. Things looked dire for the Yankees two weeks ago when they hit rock-bottom. They had lost five games in a row and allowed 10 runs in an inning against the Jays. It looked really bad for New York. But they did what good teams do - they showed resiliency. They went on a 10-game winning streak, reclaimed second place in the division from the Jays and look locked-and-loaded to make their run to the World Series. 

But give some credit to the Jays as they have shown the same resiliency. The Yankees bludgeoned the Jays in New York over a three-game series earlier this month. They slugged an MLB record 19 home runs and outscored the Jays 43-15. Toronto went on to lose three more to the Philadelphia Phillies as they licked their wounds. 

But the Jays have displayed the same toughness that winning franchises exhibit. They have won four of their past five games, including three of four against those same Yankees. Toronto is not likely to win the World Series this year, but this experience is immeasurable in the club’s development to win over the next several years.    
 

Guerrero’s move to first makes sense now

I wrote prior to the start of this shortened season that I didn’t understand why the Blue Jays would move Vladimir Guerrero Jr. to first base on such short notice without an appropriate runway to prepare him for the new position. In a season where the goals should have been all about improving his defence at third base and increasing his launch angle and damage-to-contact ratio at the plate, it has been about learning a new position. 

But then I got to see him. The Vladimir Guerrero that showed up to summer camp was not the same guy who was in Spring Training 1.0.  He had put on quite a bit of weight and his mobility was not nearly the same. Credit the Blue Jays for not saying it as bluntly as that. But it is understandable why they made the move they did. 

Sources indicated that Guerrero was up to 265 pounds. Every player has an optimal weight at which they should play. They don’t have to be skinny, lean or musclebound. This is not about shaming anyone about their weight. There is a physical condition at which each individual player can best perform over the course of a season and for as many years as possible.

Although he has trimmed up a bit since the beginning of summer camp, my eyes and experience tell me this is not the optimal condition for Guerrero. The numbers indicate he is slower and less mobile this year, too. He has shown a lack of mobility around the bag and his sprint speed has dropped from 26.3 feet/second to 25.3 feet/second. I know that speed really isn’t part of his game, but every inch counts when running the bases. The slowdown will cost him extra bases and lead to more outs on the bases. 

It also appears to me that Vlad Jr. can’t get to the inside pitch the way he could in the minor leagues. His bat path is different when he attempts to get to that pitch, which is why he tops so many balls on the ground. He needs to add some launch angle to his swings so he can start to drive the ball over the wall instead of grounding it down the line. 

The other thing I notice about Guerrero is that despite being the youngest Blue Jay ever to reach 100 RBI in his career, he doesn’t look as confident as he did in the minors. He often chases pitches out of the zone and is overaggressive. He taught us to expect greatness. He hit for average in the minor leagues. He hit for power. He walked more than he struck out. There is no reason why he can’t still be that hitter at the major league level. He is letting pitchers dictate at-bats. 

He is starting to heat up a bit and the home run he hit on Thursday night in the clincher is a good sign. I still believe he will be a perennial All-Star; it’s just going to take a while before he becomes the slugger we saw in the minors. He needs to remember that the first strike he sees in an at-bat is not necessarily the best strike he will see. You will be able to tell that he’s back on track when his base on balls and home runs increase and his strikeouts decline. 

Guerrero showed us he has the ability to rise to the occasion, as he did in the Home Run Derby in 2019. I wouldn’t be surprised if the playoffs bring out the best in him.