As Blue Jays win again, Jansen, Ryu injuries create questions and possibilities

Arash Madani and Arden Zwelling provide an update on the Toronto Blue Jays' catcher situation after placing Danny Jansen on the 10-day IL and recalling Zack Collins from Triple-A.

KANSAS CITY — The Alek Manoah show rolled into Missouri on Tuesday, and in a rare matchup with a team that isn’t among MLB’s best, the big man didn’t disappoint. Six hits and three walks scattered across six scoreless innings. A near-even mix of four-seamers, sinkers and sliders that had Kansas City Royals hitters pounding soft contact into the ground all night. The odd changeup, too, within a strong 90 pitches, 56 of them strikes.

Now, only two of those came swinging — the second-lowest total of Manoah’s young career — against a contact-oriented lineup. This was not him at his most dominant and overpowering. He’s set his own bar much higher. But it was the kind of solid, workmanlike outing he’s building an all-star season on. His 10th time in 11 starts finishing at least six innings; his 11th time allowing three earned runs or less. An ERA lowered to 1.81; FIP dropped to 3.05. Still only five homers allowed over 69.2 innings. What a skillful, dependable workhorse the 24-year-old’s become for the Blue Jays.

Offence arrived via two-run doubles off the bats of Matt Chapman and Teoscar Hernandez, a one-run double from Raimel Tapia, plus Bo Bichette’s bases-loaded walk. Relief was provided by Yimi Garcia, David Phelps, and Jordan Romano, who combined to allow a lone baserunner over the final three innings. And Toronto won for the 15th time in its last 20 games, 7-0, over the semiconscious Royals. There’s your ballgame.

And now, everything else. Because the biggest storylines for the Blue Jays on Tuesday weren’t on the field but off it, where injuries to the club’s 2021 opening-day battery presented a bevy of questions and possibilities going forward. And in considering all that, we begin with poor Danny Jansen, who’s hit the injured list with a fractured finger on his left hand after getting hit by a pitch on Monday.

“It flipping sucks,” said Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo. “Not only as a player, but as a human being. I love that kid. I really do. He’s having a good year and all of a sudden that happens. Just like last year with the hamstring — it’s been injury after injury. And then he comes back and he gets going. It’s a credit to him and his work ethic and what he does while he’s hurt trying to get better. And he was doing great. He was probably one of the best catchers in baseball. It’s just tough luck, you know?”

Jansen certainly can’t catch a break, having missed over a month earlier this season with an oblique issue and now staring at another absence of at least two weeks due to the broken finger. In between the injuries, Jansen’s been a prolific home run hitter, tied for third among all MLB catchers with seven despite making only a third of the plate appearances (62) as the three players who have hit more than him: Willson Contreras (9 homers over 197 plate appearances), Daulton Varsho (eight over 204), and Salvador Perez (eight over 178).

Dating back to his return from yet another IL stint late last season — that time due to a recurring hamstring issue — Jansen’s hit .278/.339/.696 with a 177 wRC+ and 13 homers over 127 plate appearances. Having fully bought in to his natural strength pulling balls to left field, Jansen felt he’d freed his mind at the plate and was finally figuring out who he was as a big-league hitter

But now, another interruption to that process. The injury occurred when Jansen was clipped by this 97 m.p.h. fastball from Royals reliever Albert Abreu in the eighth inning Monday night:

After a brief stoppage in play, Jansen remained in the game and took his free base. And upon returning to the Blue Jays dugout after being forced out at second four pitches later, Jansen’s hand was X-rayed by club trainers using a portable fluoroscopy device that provides a quick, real-time look at the bones in the area.

That imaging and more thorough ones completed following the game didn’t show any significant damage. But a further CT scan Tuesday morning revealed a small fracture of the fifth metacarpal, just above the pinky on the back side of Jansen’s hand.

Coincidentally, it’s not the first time Jansen’s had an issue in this specific area. He already has a pin inserted in that bone from a prior injury, which is helping stabilize the fracture this time around. That’s part of the reason why the Blue Jays are optimistic Jansen’s absence might not be a long one.

“From the CT scan, it's stable in nature. We feel confident that he will be able to get back into game action relatively soon. But he's going to be down for at least a couple of weeks,” said Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins. “After 10 days, we'll know a lot more. It’s unfortunate where we are today. But we do feel good about his return being relatively soon.”

Alejandro Kirk will obviously see increased playing time going forward, which isn’t a bad thing considering he’s now hitting .324/.404/.489 on the season with a 153 wRC+ and six more walks than strikeouts following a four-single performance Tuesday. The Blue Jays are best served to have his torrid bat in the lineup on a daily basis. But we all know he can’t catch every day.

Which means that, in the near term, opportunity beckons for Zack Collins, who joined the Blue Jays in Kansas City prior to Tuesday’s game and will catch Yusei Kikuchi during Wednesday’s matinee. But in the medium-term, there’s one name that shoots front of mind for Blue Jays fans whenever big-league playing time opens up behind the plate.

“Gabriel's been awesome,” Atkins said of Gabriel Moreno, the club’s top prospect. “He's continued to improve. He's in a really good spot and very much in the mix for us.”

Hitting .323/.377/.406 as a catcher at triple-A will do that. As will throwing out 15 of 28 potential base-stealers while continuing to flash the athletic tools defensively that helped Moreno shoot all the way up to No. 7 on Baseball America’s pre-season top-100 prospect list. In other words, he’s doing what he needs to in order to put himself in position for an MLB debut. But will Jansen’s absence impact Toronto’s decision-making at all?

Maybe slightly. But perhaps not as dramatically as you’d think. The Blue Jays undertake a thorough, detailed process when determining whether a player is ready to be challenged with a higher level or not, which is rooted not only in performance on the field but in a player’s ability to demonstrate strong, consistent routines off of it.

At no other position around the diamond is the latter portion more important than catcher, where players have to decipher and digest a wealth of data and information on the pitchers they’ll be catching and the hitters they’ll be facing, participate in several pre-game planning and strategy sessions, prepare themselves physically and mentally for the responsibility of game-calling and receiving 100+ pitches, oh, and maybe find some time to work on their swing, before executing under the lights before thousands in attendance and millions watching at home.

An awful lot goes into it, and the Blue Jays are extremely diligent in determining whether a young player is prepared to withstand those rigours or not. The club already ran Moreno through dry runs this spring of what a day in major-league life would look like — from the scouting information he’d receive, to the pre-game meetings he’d sit in on, to the real-time decisions he’d have to make when things go awry in-game. It was similar to the crash course Kirk received on the club’s taxi squad during the 2020 season prior to his call-up.

That should tell you that the Blue Jays have carefully considered and sought to prepare for the strong possibility Moreno makes his debut this season. But, if he isn’t ready, they won’t force him into it in response to a sudden injury to the club’s starting catcher. In fact, the potentially short-term nature of Jansen’s absence could make it less likely Moreno is recalled.

Say you call Moreno up and he plays 10 games over the time Jansen’s out. What if those 10 games don’t go so well and he’s 3-for-36 at the plate with only three singles to his name? What if he lets a couple balls get by him, confuses his signs one night and throws a veteran starter off his rhythm, and airmails a throw into centre field that leads to a game-winning run?

Now you’re sending him back to triple-A to stew on those poor results for weeks and weeks. Would he be mentally ready to process that and get better from the experience? Or would it cloud the rest of his season?

Those are the scenarios and questions the Blue Jays will consider when making a decision about whether or not to promote Moreno. Because, ultimately, when they do, they want it to be for good. They want him to hit the ground running and be as productive at the game’s highest level as everyone believes he can be.

And they want Moreno to play regularly, regardless of which level he’s at. With Jansen and Kirk both healthy, that’s unfeasible at the major-league level. But if Jansen’s going to miss extended time, an opportunity does present itself. That begs one question as to how well Jansen’s hand responds to initial treatment. And another as to whether the Blue Jays believe Moreno’s ready for a new challenge.

Could answers to both those questions produce a Moreno call-up as soon as this weekend in Detroit? It’s possible. Could they also lead the club to remain patient with its top prospect and keep him chugging along at triple-A? That’s possible, too. We’ll see.

Speaking of questions and possibilities — Hyun Jin Ryu. The Blue Jays starter hit the injured list last week for a second time this season due to a forearm strain and elbow inflammation. The club has spent the past several days running Ryu through a battery of imaging and tests to assess the health of his arm and what the best treatment course could be. And as things stand today, that process is ongoing.

The next step will see Ryu have his elbow assessed in-person by Dr. Neal ElAttrache on Thursday in California, an additional opinion Ryu and the Blue Jays mutually agreed would be beneficial. An orthopedic surgeon, ElAttrache has worked with the Los Angeles Dodgers dating back to Ryu’s time with the club from 2013 through 2019, and has operated on the left-hander twice — in 2015 to repair his left labrum and in 2016 to remove damaged tissue from his elbow joint.

“On the positive side, we're optimistic that there is nothing terribly significant,” Atkins said. “But we do see some chronic changes to the elbow and we want to make sure that we're doing what's best for him. And, obviously, we'll make that decision with him — and we'll know more when he gets back from that visit.”

So, the Blue Jays will know more Thursday. And we’ll likely know more Friday. But the use of the word “chronic” does offer some context as to what Ryu’s battling. This isn’t an issue that occurred acutely due to one wrong movement or pitch. It isn’t a re-aggravation of a prior injury. It’s something that’s built up over time as Ryu’s logged 445.2 innings over 78 starts since his final season with the Dodgers in 2019.

It’s certainly possible to treat issues like those non-operatively with rest and rehabilitation. Ryu and the Blue Jays already opted for that route once this season. They could decide to try it again, this time giving Ryu more runway and using different treatment methods to help him through it.

Of course, they could also determine that the best path forward includes a procedure. All options will be considered. Thursday’s assessment is about gathering more information and opinions to help Ryu, the club, and the medical professionals advising him decide what’s best for his future.

“There are some residual changes that we want to dig further into,” Atkins said, “and see if conservative is still the best way to handle it.”

Regardless of what the Blue Jays learn later this week, it’s fair to assume the club will be without Ryu for some time. This is why having a serviceable swingman like Ross Stripling, perhaps MLB’s best sixth starter, is so valuable. He’s a turnkey replacement for Ryu in Toronto’s rotation. And he demonstrated how capably he can fill Toronto’s sudden need with five efficient innings Monday against the Royals. 

But what are the chances the Blue Jays make it to the end of the season without needing another starter? What are the chances they make it to the end of the month?

Even absent another injury, the Blue Jays could choose to insert a spot starter sometime in the next five weeks to buy the rest of their rotation an extra day’s rest. Following Thursday’s off-day, they play 37 games in 38 days leading into the all-star break, including a double-header July 2 vs. the Tampa Bay Rays. One way or another, another arm will be needed.

As things stand now, that arm belongs to Thomas Hatch. The 27-year-old has made big-league appearances each of the last two seasons and the club’s been encouraged with the way he’s performed with triple-A Buffalo over his last four outings following a rocky start to his season.

Casey Lawrence is also on the club’s 40-man roster and remains in the mix following a brief, early-May spell as a long-man in Toronto’s bullpen. Since returning to Buffalo, the 34-year-old has pitched to a 1.42 ERA over five starts, striking out 26 while walking only five across 31.2 innings.

On the prospect front, 23-year-old right-hander Max Castillo is the closest to a big-league call-up. He’s allowed only a run over 18 innings through his first three starts at triple-A since being advanced to the height of the minor leagues late last month. And wouldn’t you know it, Moreno’s one of Castillo’s best friends and has caught him more than any other backstop in his young career, including a couple seasons of winterball in Venezuela

Wouldn’t that be something, to see them working together again on a big-league playing surface this summer? Just add it to the list of Blue Jays questions and possibilities.

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