Blue Jays must decide how to use struggling Morales

MLB insider Ben Nicholson-Smith tells Sportsnet’s Starting Lineup that Kendrys Morales has only started 28 of 41 games at DH, and if he continues to struggle, will be limited to a pinch-hitting off the bench gig.

TORONTO – To begin with the obvious, Kendrys Morales isn’t hitting.

His .500 OPS ranks 227th among the 233 hitters who have batted at least 100 times this season. He’s hitting more ground balls than ever and fewer line drives than usual – a bad combination for nearly any hitter, and an especially troubling pairing for someone with Morales’s speed.

These struggles lead to the question of what his role should be on the Blue Jays. And he’s quite clearly no longer the team’s everyday DH, having started there in just 20 of the club’s first 41 games. At the same time, his track record of success and work behind the scenes give the Blue Jays some confidence that better results await the 34-year-old veteran.

“First and foremost, one of the most encouraging things we’re seeing from him is his work ethic and his professionalism,” Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins said. “The teammate he’s being. He has not reacted negatively. He’s only reacted with more work, more focus (and) attention to detail.”

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On the Blue Jays’ off day last week, for example, Morales arrived at Rogers Centre at 9:00 a.m., then spent the day working out and watching video before leaving at 6:00 p.m. Even so, Morales has struggled to realize the goals he established for himself entering the season, complicating lineup decisions for the Blue Jays. How do you use a bat-first player who’s not hitting?

Morales’s ground-ball rate has climbed to 53.8 per cent, which works great if you’re Dee Gordon, but not nearly as well if you’re a below-average runner against whom teams shift extensively. Laying off low pitches could help Morales turn some of those ground balls into fly balls in Brook Jacoby’s view.

“There’s still work to do,” said the Blue Jays hitting coach. “He’s got to stay positive and I do, too. It’s one of those things where there’s not a quick fix to it. It’s a process and hopefully we can find something that works.”

Kendrys Morales 2018 spray chart (Source: Baseball Savant)

More specifically, Morales has been attempting to lay off low curveballs this year. He doesn’t have a hit on a curve yet in 2018, but Jacoby says he’s at least chasing less often now. That selectivity could help Morales build some momentum at the plate.

“There’s got to be some confidence involved in what he’s doing, too,” Jacoby said. “For me, what’s going to bring confidence to him is hitting the ball in the air. I don’t feel his confidence is where it needs to be right now, and I think success will build his confidence.”

This isn’t the only time in Morales’s 12-year career that he has endured an extended slump. Two seasons ago he posted a .474 OPS over a 30-game stretch spanning the end of April and much of May, and yet from that point on, he hit .296 with an .893 OPS and 25 home runs.

“He has had struggles like this in the past,” Atkins said. “This one’s a bit more prolonged than most, but he has actually had struggles nearly this prolonged.

“We still see a lot of signs of the potential for him to be a productive major-league hitter and hopefully we’ll see that sooner than later.”

But as long as the Blue Jays are waiting for that turnaround, there are days that there’s not room for him in the lineup. Josh Donaldson needs to DH at times, which forces Morales to the bench. There will also be times that Yangervis Solarte earns starts at DH despite the fact that the Blue Jays signed Morales to a $33-million contract that pays him $11 million this year and $12 million next year.

On occasion, the Blue Jays have even shied away from using Morales off the bench. Manager John Gibbons let light-hitting backup infielder Richard Urena hit for himself with the Blue Jays down three runs when Morales was available Saturday, reasoning that he would have used Morales with runners on but preferred Urena’s swing with the bases empty. That in itself might say something about the Blue Jays’ confidence in Morales.

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For a team that hopes to contend in 2018, production matters more than history. It might be different if Morales were getting robbed at every turn, but he hasn’t been making quality contact. Plus, the rest-of-season ZiPS projections forecast a below-average .249/.310/.441 batting line the rest of the way. And as players such as Devon Travis and Steve Pearce return to the roster, the Blue Jays will have even more options for DH at-bats.

“It ultimately will depend on alternatives,” Atkins said. “If we have better alternatives, that’s going to become very challenging if (this slump) does extend.”

Otherwise, the Blue Jays’ patience will continue being tested. The Padres recently designated Chase Headley for assignment despite his $13 million salary, a reminder that teams will eventually cut bait with struggling veterans. That said, the Blue Jays sure don’t seem to be on the brink of giving up on Morales entirely even if he has no guarantees of the everyday at-bats he got last year, when he stepped up to the plate 608 times. If necessary, there are more expendable players on this roster.

If Morales starts producing in line with his career norms, a difficult problem resolves itself rather simply. He plays more; the Blue Jays improve offensively. If this extended slump continues, however, his playing time will likely diminish further and prompt even tougher questions for the front office.

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