The dismissal bell will soon ring to end Toronto’s season. No matter if it tolls for an early dismissal or after some extracurriculars-the Blue Jays need to welcome some new participants in September to graduate from ‘pretenders’ to ‘contenders” in 2022.
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The month of September brings to mind images of back to school, assessment exams, and promotion to higher levels of learning. No doubt the Toronto front office and field staff are more focused on October glories than the lessons learned during a challenging 2021 season. But management should also be adding some pages to the lesson plans for Charlie Montoyo to utilize over the final 4 weeks of the regular season. Not just to teach a maturing major league roster how to be a playoff team – the organization needs to promote minor leaguers whose prospects can brighten the future successes we all believe are inevitable.
There is no absolute formula to apply to the integration of unproven potential into the lineup and bullpen. Thank the Baseball Gods fans no longer have to sort through 40 variables over 30+ days to arrive at answers to the September equation. By capping the roster maximum at 28 (just 2 more than teams normally employ during the season), fans can catch glimpses of players who may play extended roles next season and beyond. For the Jays, a re-invented Nate Pearson has joined the bullpen mix along with the less heralded Bryan Baker.
Big Nate has long been considered one of the best prospects in MLB, but inconsistency and nagging injuries have kept Pearson a distant hope. Since being activated from the AAA IL on August 24th, he has been used exclusively in relief. This is a role many Blue Jays fans and analysts (myself included) have championed for Toronto’s top prospect to make on a permanent basis. For September, using Pearson in leverage relief situations is a no-brainer option to bolster a troubled bullpen.
At first glance, the promotion of Baker is baffling. Acquired from the Colorado Rockies in the 2018 trade of Seung-hwan Oh, Baker has worked out of the bullpen at AA and AAA levels and battled command issues. A closer look at his performance this year for the Buffalo Bisons reveals a minuscule 1.32 ERA and an impressive strikeout rate of 22.8%. While Baker may not be a back-of-the-bullpen option, he can can in to finish innings and serve as bridge to Romano and Pearson.
You may be asking yourself, “With reduced September call-ups, the Blue Jays are done making moves, right?” If this is the answer you wrote for this exercise, I’m afraid I will have to assign a failing grade. There are still a number of players on the expanded 28 man roster. Recent days have demonstrated that GM Ross Atkins is still seeking possible tools to help teach the playoff lessons. Atkins has worked the waiver wire to add veterans Jake Lamb and Jarrod Dyson, made the curious signing of Pirates flameout Gregory Polanco to a minor league contract, and DFA-ing bullpen failures Brad Hand and Connor Overton.
The designation for assignment gambit has been a favorite of Atkins and could be utilized to test roster theorem for 2022 applications. For example:
DFA Reese McGuire, Promote Gabriel Moreno
Blue Jays baseball operations people and minor league geeks knew Gabriel Moreno would show significant improvements with the bat and behind the plate. I’m not sure anyone expected the .373/.441/.651 slash line he has put up at AA New Hampshire. In his 237 innings behind the plate, Moreno has not committed an error and has thrown out 44% of base stealers. McGuire, on the other hand, has been, well, Reese McGuire.
The injuries to Alejandro Kirk and Danny Jansen kept McGuire on the major league roster in 2021, but having him sit on the bench in September is a practical example of a player taking up space. McGuire has had some moments during his stay in Toronto, but Moreno has the abilities to be a part-time catcher in the big leagues right now. Even if the Jays would show caution and start Moreno at AAA Buffalo next season, it is truly just a matter of time before he takes regular turns as the Toronto catcher. Why not see how ready Moreno might be in the midst of a playoff push, as they did with Kirk in 2020?
DFA Breyvic Valera, Keep Kevin Smith on the roster after Cavan Biggio or Santiago Espinal return from the IL
The 25 year-old Kevin Smith is the #10 prospect in the Blue Jays organization according to MLB.com. But with the impending free agency of Marcus Semien slotting Cavan Biggio as the Opening Day 2B in 2022, Smith is the #1 option to serve as an infield utility man next season. Smith has struggled mightily with the bat thus far (.120/.241/.481), but he has demonstrated he is an above-average defender at all four infield positions. An outstanding college hitter at Maryland, Smith is a career .267 hitter in the minor leagues so profiles to be an effective hitter off the bench and during spot starts resting the infield regulars.
Breyvic Valera has turned in some big at bats during his time in Toronto and held his own sharing third base with Santiago Espinal. Like Reese McGuire, Valera is what he is. By releasing Valera and giving Smith regular starts down the stretch, the Blue Jays would be maximizing September opportunities to solidify a roster need in 2022.
Play Corey Dickerson at all 3 Outfield Positions
Corey Dickerson is a proven veteran hitter who has won a Gold Glove in left field. When he was acquired from the Marlins in June, the common thinking placed Dickerson on the bench as the dangerous left-handed bat off the bench. But with (another) injury to George Springer, Dickerson has proven himself to be a lineup stabilizer (.284/.321//486), contributing 2 homers, driving in a dozen and scoring 10 runs. But this is what fans of every team Dickerson has played for has come to love about him. What will make Montoyo and Atkins really fall in love with him would be taking regular starts at all 3 outfield positions. The presence of Dickerson in centerfield on Saturday afternoon is an intriguing September learning opportunity.
While predominantly a leftfielder for the bulk of his career, Dickerson could play himself into the 4th outfielder role next season. Given the penchant of Montoyo to rotate regulars through the DH spot, Dickerson would give Montoyo a productive outfield starter and a dangerous left-hand weapon late in games when he isn’t starting. There are an additional 20,666,666 reasons for the Dickerson experiment to be conducted this September; Randal Grichuk is owed $10,333,333 in 2022 and 2023. If Dickerson is successful playing at all 3 outfield spots, and can be convinced to sign on for a full 2022 season in a Blue Jays uniform, then Grichuk can be moved this off season for the pitching help Toronto desperately needs if they are to contend.
Remember the dread you experienced in September of every school year, convinced you could not handle the demands of the new curriculum? September baseball and roster management should not cause the butterflies to stir in your stomach. Even if some of the new lessons outlined in this article prove too challenging for the players involved, any and all of them can take hold and produce above average results. Not only for a quixotic race for a wild card berth in 2021. But as the means of propelling the Toronto Blue Jays to the top of the AL East class and assure their graduation as legitimate playoff contenders for years to come.
*Featured Image Courtesy Of DaveMe Images. Prints Available For Purchase.
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