AL Wild Card Series Preview: Blue Jays vs. Mariners

Bo Bichette
John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

While the postseason drought spanning more than two decades is over, so too is the celebration in Seattle, as the Mariners travel to the other side of the continent to face the slugging, battle-tested Blue Jays, who emerged from baseball’s best division as the top wild card.

Toronto’s lineup is dangerous from top to bottom, stacked with marquee names who have thirteen combined All Star appearances (George Springer has four of his own, Matt Chapman somehow only has one). The group had the fifth-lowest strikeout rate in baseball during the regular season, ranked third in slugging, and were second only to the Dodgers in team wRC+. Except for Raimel Tapia and Whit Merrifield, every member of the Blue Jays’ regular starting lineup posted a wRC+ over 100 on the season, and Merrifield closed the season on a .361/.385/.639 heater. If Lourdes Gurriel Jr.’s hamstring is healed in time for him to be inserted in the lineup, he’s an easy offensive upgrade on Tapia, though he may not have his timing immediately due to his lack of at-bats.

While Toronto’s lineup has undeniable star power, it may have an unexpected fault at its core. While his season, overall, was very good, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is ice cold right now. During the last month of the season he slashed a paltry .235/.290/.390 and struggled with plate discipline. Vladdy’s chase rate during September (40%) was a full ten percentage points higher than his career norm (31%), as he struggled to lay off sliders away from him and well off the plate. Two-pitch Robbie Ray should be a great matchup for Vlad, as he doesn’t have a secondary pitch that moves away from right-handed hitters aside from an unfamiliar changeup. But the Mariners have bullpen weapons that are well-suited to exploit his recent issues in Penn Murfee, Diego Castillo, and Matt Brash, who all have sliders that finish in a spot Guerrero can’t seem to get to right now. Streaky Jays shortstop Bo Bichette has been the polar opposite, second only to Aaron Judge in WAR since the calendar flipped to September, slashing .405/.443/.664 and clubbing 19 extra-base hits during that span and entering postseason play as one of the planet’s most dangerous hitters.

Because this is a three-game series, teams can leave a starter or two off the roster and supplement their bench or bullpen. Depending on how Gurriel and top-shelf utility man Santiago Espinal return from injury, Jays manager John Schneider might have several different levers available to him throughout the game. If Gurriel’s hammy is still tender, he can turn to one of the many left-handed hitting outfielders on the roster (Tapia, Jackie Bradley Jr., and Bradley Zimmer). While Gurriel has an incredible arm, Zimmer and Bradley are comfortable defensive upgrades at the corner outfield spots from a range standpoint. Toronto’s ability to carry three good catchers (Alejandro Kirk, Danny Jansen, and top prospect Gabriel Moreno) also allows Schneider to be situationally aggressive in pinch-running for that group. Merrifield has played second base and all three outfield spots since joining Toronto, though he’ll be fixed at the keystone unless Espinal is healthy. All this versatility lets the Blue Jays play matchups in key spots with ease, especially if both Gurriel and Espinal turn out to be healthy enough to play.

With Game 1 starter Alek Manoah and Kevin Gausman (fifth among pitchers in WAR this year) spearheading their rotation, the Blue Jays have two starters who can stand toe-to-toe with any others in baseball. Manoah’s slider and Gausman’s splitter are both among the nastiest pitches in baseball, with Gausman throwing his split more than any other starter in the league.

Is Toronto’s bullpen good enough to make a deep run? Closer Jordan Romano passes the late-inning smell test, and the limber Adam Cimber is an excellent, disorienting “look” reliever. The rest of the bullpen is fine, but not typical of a contending team. Toronto is in the bottom third of baseball in bullpen fastball velocity and contact rate and in the middle of the pack in strikeout rate. The group, as a whole, throws strikes (for all the middling other statistics, they’re top five in bullpen walk rate, and the pitching staff as a whole is third), but the Jays have just one lefty to call on (Upper Perkiomen’s Tim Mayza) and have leaned heavily on Yimi Garcia, who’s more of a low-leverage middle inning type at this point. Nate Pearson, who would have the second-best stuff in this bullpen, looms in Dunedin, coming off a lat injury and mononucleosis, having made just eight Triple-A appearances since returning.

Seattle finished closer to the middle of the pack in most offensive categories but, as a group, controls the strike zone as well as any team in baseball. Second in the big leagues in walk rate and third-best in O-Swing%, the Mariners were still only average in OBP because they have so many low batting average players. Just three of their hitters finished above .240 on the season: sunny young superstar Julio Rodríguez, contact/power machine Ty France (who, ironically, has the most aggressive approach on the team), and glove-oriented shortstop J.P. Crawford. Adam Frazier is still a plus bat-to-ball guy; he’s just running an unusually low BABIP this year, which has tanked his average. Remember, though, that Toronto’s pitching staff throws a ton of strikes, which may neutralize the most exceptional (and perhaps lone) feature of the Seattle offense. Eugenio Suárez, Cal Raleigh and Carlos Santana are dangerous hitters despite their low batting averages, and all have a flair for the dramatic, but Toronto’s tendency to avoid walks makes it less likely that Seattle will score runs in huge chunks. I think it’s fair to say Seattle’s offense (and defense, aside from Crawford versus Bichette) is inferior to Toronto’s.

The Mariners enter the postseason a little bit banged up. Outfielder Jesse Winker was put on the IL in the middle of the week with discomfort in his neck. Additionally, a groin strain will keep speedy, switch-hitting sparkplug Sam Haggerty from seeing the field during the postseason. This makes prodigal sons Taylor Trammell and Jarred Kelenic, the latter recalled to the majors on September 22, especially important to Seattle’s October push. As detailed by Esteban Rivera, Kelenic was struggling badly against breaking balls (even ones that were finishing in the bottom of the strike zone rather than below it) early in the year and made some adjustments to try to remedy this while down in Triple-A. Whether they actually make a difference or if his lower half is too stiff for him to get to those pitches is still up for debate. Trammell, meanwhile, will pick up Haggerty’s pinch-running duties.

Two of Game 1 starter Luis Castillo’s final three outings during the regular season were clunkers, with eighteen baserunners and nine runs allowed across just ten innings against Oakland and Kansas City. The movement on his stuff deviated from the norm in each of those outings but was closer to baseline in his final start of the year, in which he was once again nails. If any one of Seattle’s starters has a chance of shutting down the Jays’ potent lineup, it’s Castillo and his all-world changeup and gigantic arm strength.

Seattle’s rotation depth is wasted in the Wild Card round since only two of George Kirby, Logan Gilbert, and Ray can start behind Castillo. The M’s are better suited for a five- or seven-game series, where they can leverage their starter depth. The bullpen, however, is dynamic, much more typical of a playoff club than Toronto’s. Chris Flexen and Brash can provide length, and he, Castillo, Andrés Muñoz, and Paul Sewald all have late-inning stuff and/or huge on-mound presence. Erik Swanson’s splitter gives the Mariners another de facto lefty to pair with local guy Matthew Boyd, since it neutralizes opposite-side hitters. Even if things go awry early in a game, the Mariners have the pieces to throw baking soda on the grease fire without taxing the bullpen so much that it impacts them later in this series or the next.

How Seattle’s cross-continent travel and relative postseason inexperience interacts with its performance will probably vary, player to player. It’s possible that being completely removed from the pomp and circumstance that would surround games at home will allow the team to focus on baseball in a way that is helpful for some, though others may have gotten a lift from the energy of a home playoff game. Some players will be comfortable with the moment (everything seems free and easy for Rodríguez, and I’ll bet Sewald can channel the stress of late-game situations into useful juice), and others may take time to get acclimated or not get there at all (Kelenic wears a constant scowl of what looks like self-loathing). But I don’t have a soul read on the young Mariners, and neither do you; this is one of those things that’s impossible to know until it happens. We’ll start to learn on Friday.





Eric Longenhagen is from Catasauqua, PA and currently lives in Tempe, AZ. He spent four years working for the Phillies Triple-A affiliate, two with Baseball Info Solutions and two contributing to prospect coverage at ESPN.com. Previous work can also be found at Sports On Earth, CrashburnAlley and Prospect Insider.

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thebearproofsuit
1 month ago

Smilin’ Jarred Kelenic