For the first time since 2001, the Mariners are in the postseason, and that’s obviously going to be the primary story of the Seattle-Toronto Wild Card Series this weekend. On the other hand, this is also the first time since 2016 that the Blue Jays have hosted a postseason game at Rogers Centre, and while “since 2016” is hardly “since 2001,” it does seem to hold some extra meaning given what the franchise had to go through 2020 and ’21, playing “home games” in Dunedin, Fla., and Buffalo, NY, before finally returning to Canada.
The dome is going to be rocking, is the point. Which team has the edge? Fortunately for the Blue Jays, the fact that they dropped five of seven head-to-head matchups this year has been well proven to have little predictive qualities. (One of those losses, for example, came with Anthony Banda as an opener, getting all of one out.) Instead, let’s go position by position to see how these two match up.
The Blue Jays might just have the best catching situation in baseball, so that’s a good place to start. You might not take either Alejandro Kirk (127 OPS+, one of just six hitters with more walks than strikeouts, and massively improved framing) or Danny Jansen (145 OPS+) over JT Realmuto or Will Smith individually, but given that the Jays have not only both of them but also rifle-armed rookie Gabriel Moreno, this is clearly the deepest catching group in the game. It allows them to use their roster in flexible ways that most other teams wouldn’t risk.
That’s no disrespect to Seattle backstop Cal Raleigh (118 OPS+), who now owns one of the biggest hits in franchise history, but neither he, nor Curt Casali, nor Luis Torrens can compare to what the Jays are rolling with here. This might be the biggest advantage at any spot.
If we’re going by name value, then Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (highly touted son of a Hall of Famer who finished second in the MVP ballot last year) trounces Ty France (34th-round pick mostly known before 2022 because his last name is France). On the other hand, Guerrero is having a season that’s more good than great (32 homers, 131 OPS+), at least by his own lofty standards, while France (20 homers, 127 OPS+) had a breakout season that ended with an All- Star appearance.
Given that there’s not much separation on defense here, we’ll give a small edge to Guerrero in part because of track record, but mostly because he’s outslugged France by 40 points while they’ve shared a nearly identical on-base percentage. It’s more than a little surprising how close this one is, though.
Edge: Blue Jays, but it’s closer than you think
There are a lot of moving parts on both teams here, but ultimately, this has been one of Seattle’s weakest spots, since Adam Frazier hasn’t hit much (81 OPS+) and Abraham Toro (60 OPS+) might not even make the roster after being optioned to Triple-A. Overall, Seattle second basemen ranked 27th in Wins Above Replacement.
On the Toronto side, this started out as Santiago Espinal’s breakout season, before he ceded time back to Cavan Biggio, but recently, this has been Whit Merrifield’s spot, and he’s been excellent as a Blue Jay (.289/.333/.465 ). That’s not a reasonable expectation for him long term, since he was hardly doing that with Kansas City, but he’s playing well right now, and if Espinal can return from an oblique injury, then John Schneider has three options to mix and match here.
There’s not a lot of mystery about who you’ll see here, since Bo Bichette has started all but four Toronto games and JP Crawford has started all but 18 Seattle games. That makes the comparison easy, then, and the choice here is clear too. Bichette has hit well (127 OPS+, 27 homers) especially in the second half; Crawford has hit less (101 OPS+), and defensive metrics don’t grade either one particularly well. When in doubt, take the bat.
Toronto and Seattle each acquired a new third baseman within days of one another in March, but for very different reasons. For the Blue Jays, trading for Matt Chapman was a masterstroke to fill out an excellent infield. For the Mariners, trading for Eugenio Suárez, coming off a brutal 2021, was more of a requirement in order to achieve their real goal of adding Jesse Winker.
Chapman’s had a weird but ultimately successful year, starting slow (.640 OPS the first two months) and ending slow (.676 OPS the last two months) around a red-hot middle two months (.971 OPS in June and July), all while the defensive metrics were oddly lukewarm on his fielding. Suárez, meanwhile, has been a revelation, out-homering Chapman (31 to 27), out-producing him (131 OPS+ to 116 OPS+), and having his best two months being the most recent two months.
You know what? This won’t be popular. We’re going Suarez.
Fifteen different players have started in the left field for these two clubs this year. Both have some injury concerns to work past. This spot is a revolving door.
For the Mariners, their primary left fielder has been Winker, except he hasn’t hit that much (14 homers, 103 OPS+), and his fielding has been abysmal, one of the weakest ratings of any outfielder. You could easily see Seattle choosing the defensively versatile and speedy Sam Haggerty instead … except he had to be helped off the field with a leg injury on Monday. Given that Winker himself is dealing with a neck injuryit’s not even clear who a healthy option might be — perhaps Jarred Kelenic, who was in the Minors two weeks ago and has two hits in his last seven games.
It’s not quite as messy for Toronto, who hopes to get back Lourdes Gurriel Jr. (113 OPS+) from a hamstring injury in time for the Wild Card. In his stead, he’s not like Raimel Tapia (92 OPS+) is a star, but he’s competent, and Merrifield could just slot here as well.
Welcome to star town. George Springer is almost always banged up (most recently with a right elbow issue), but he’s managed to take 583 plate appearances this year, and they’ve been good — his 131 OPS+ almost exactly matches his career average. You might have heard he ups his game in the postseason. This is a strength for Toronto.
It would, then, be difficult to outshine Springer unless you had a star of equal or greater value … which Seattle has in Julio Rodríguez, who returned from a back injury to collect three hits on Monday night. Rodríguez is in the midst of a truly special debut season — he got to 20/20 back in August, he’s got a 146 OPS+, he’s played quality defense in center, and you saw what he did in the Home Run Derby — and he’s quite likely to win the Rookie of the Year award in a loaded field.
Mitch Haniger has had some big years for Seattle, but he’s regularly been plagued by injuries — this time, an ankle injury that sidelined him for 14 weeks. While he’s back now, he hasn’t hit all that much (.242/.307/.379 since returning), while Toronto has Teoscar Hernández not only having a good season (129 OPS+, 25 homers) but in the midst of a hot streak, having hit three homers against Boston over the weekend and posting an .874 OPS since Sept. 1.
Neither team really uses a regular DH, preferring instead to mix and match. For the Mariners, that’s mostly Carlos Santana when he’s not filling in for France at first base, and he’s been a league-average bat for Seattle, though it’s almost entirely about power. (That is: he’s hit 15 homers with a .399 slugging, but with a .181 average.) Because the Blue Jays are so deep at catcher, they’ll likely start Jansen or Kirk here, with the option available for Gurriel if he’s ready to hit but not play the field. The Jays have a better offense, and thus better options.
In a best-of-three series, you know you’ll use two starters, and possibly three, but you’re not touching your fourth or fifth starters, so we’ll just focus on the top end. If we’re just looking at the top two, there’s probably not a huge separation between Seattle’s Luis Castillo/Logan Gilbert and Toronto’s Alek Manoah/Kevin Gausman. They’re four quality pitchers, having good seasons. If you just look at the four of them since Castillo’s arrival in Seattle, there’s just not much to separate the two pairs.
But it’s not a best-of-two. Consider the options if a third starter is needed. Can the Blue Jays really trust José Berríos, who had a terribly inconsistent season that ended with a 5.23 ERA? It seems more likely they’d go with veteran Ross Stripling, who has been a revelation after Hyun Jin Ryu got injured and Yusei Kikuchi proved to be unreliable. Stripling, to be clear, has been very strong for months. But he’s not Robbie Ray, the defending AL Cy Young winner. He might not be George Kirby, having an impressive rookie season of his own. Toronto has a box at the top end. The Mariners own the argument for depth.
Edge: Tied in 2 games, but Mariners in 3 games, so Mariners
For the second year in a row, the Mariners have thrived with an excellent bullpen, though the names this year look very different around Paul Sewald than they did last year. No group of AL relievers allowed a lower on-base percentage. They have the sixth-best strikeout rate in the Majors, and the seventh-lowest walk rate. If you’re outside of the Pacific Northwest, guys like Andrés Muñoz, Penn Murfee, Erik Swanson, and Matt Brash may not exactly be household names, but they’re a strength of the team, especially if Kirby is available should he not get a start.
This is not to say that the Toronto bullpen is poor, because it’s not, particularly closer Jordan Romano, who has been one of the more effective high-leverage arms in the game this season. There are things to like about Adam Cimber, or Yimi Garcia, or Tim Mayza, and so on. But this is an average bullpen being compared to a very good bullpen.
In a short series like this, any team can take two of three from any other team; the Dodgers, for example, beat the Rockies on Saturday, then lost to Colorado on Sunday and Monday. That’s even more true when it’s two postseason-caliber teams, as these are. There’s probably a moderate home field advantage for Toronto, but ultimately we’ll take the pretty big lineup advantage the Blue Jays have over the bullpen advantage the Mariners have. It’ll be a close one, either way.