When they signed George Springer to a six-year, $150-million contract this winter — $32-million of which is being paid out this season — this is not the type of notable, early-June highlight the Toronto Blue Jays thought they were in store to see. And yet, here we are:
Springer, who’s been limited to only 18 plate appearances this season due to oblique and quad issues, performed a series of sprints at Sahlen Field in Buffalo Sunday morning, running the bases at what looked like close to full speed. Assuming his injured right leg responds well to those tests in the coming days, it’s possible the 31-year-old centre fielder could begin a rehab assignment this week — the final step of his recovery before finally, belatedly, at long last, the biggest free agent signing in franchise history is actually making on-field contributions every day.
“It’s been extremely encouraging — the energy he has on the field, how excited and encouraged he is by being back to baseball activity and recovering well, responding well. Obviously, he’s moving around very well,” Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins said Sunday morning, before the Blue Jays fell to the Houston Astros, 6-3. “All of the feedback that we’re getting from our medical staff and George is extremely encouraging.”
Springer’s patient, powerful approach would’ve been a welcome presence atop Toronto’s lineup Sunday, as it sputtered against Astros starter Luis Garcia, another tricky right-hander in a long line of developmental success stories to come pouring out of Houston’s deep system over the last decade. Garcia had little in the way of velocity or pedigree when he was signed for a $20,000 bonus out Venezuela in 2017. But now, here he is — running his fastball up to 95-m.p.h., setting up a deceptive cutter and slider he used to keep Blue Jays hitters off balance all afternoon.
“You don’t know what’s coming. He’s got three different sliders, he’s got a cutter, he’s got a sneaky fastball. That guy knows how to pitch,” said Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo. “He looked pretty good. He did a nice job.”
Garcia allowed only a run on a Lourdes Gurriel Jr. sacrifice fly in the second, scattering three hits and two walks while striking out eight over six innings, lowering his ERA to 2.75 in the process. Developing a steady stream of young, homegrown pitchers like Garcia, Cristian Javier, Jose Urquidy, and Framber Valdez is a massive reason why the Astros remain one of MLB’s winningest teams even after losing Justin Verlander and Lance McCullers Jr. to injury, not to mention Gerrit Cole, Wade Miley, Dallas Keuchel, and Charlie Morton via free agency in recent seasons.
Meanwhile, Blue Jays starter Steven Matz couldn’t find a groove against MLB’s most potent offence, allowing four runs on eight hits over 4.1 innings. He gave up solo shots to Jose Altuve in the first and Chas McCormick in the second, before loading the bases with none out in the third and coughing up a two-run single to Kyle Tucker on a first-pitch breaking ball.
The Astros lineup is no joke, and blended situational selectivity (Matz walked four) with targeted aggressiveness (Matz threw only 77 pitches to 24 batters and allowed seven balls in play at 98-m.p.h. or harder) to force the Blue Jays left-hander into his shortest outing since April 28.
“I felt like I had my really good fastball working. But the off-speed just wasn’t there, wasn’t crisp today,” Matz said. “It’s unfortunate, because when you’ve got a good fastball going, it just makes all the other stuff better. But the other stuff just wasn’t crisp. So, that’s what it boiled down to.”
That the Blue Jays have done as well as they have without Springer — sitting three games over .500 with a top-10 run differential — is no small feat. The club has played MLB’s toughest schedule (Toronto’s opposition to this point has a collective .524 winning percentage, the highest in the majors) in its toughest division (FanGraphs currently projects the Tampa Bay Rays, New York Yankees, and Boston Red Sox to all win at least 90 games) amidst an insane run of injuries that has sidelined its centre fielder and leadoff hitter, its closer, its emerging young catcher, and anywhere from six-to-eight members of its pitching staff depending on the week.
But it won’t be enough. The Blue Jays must out-perform the 86-87 win pace they’ve hovered around over the first-third of the season if they’re going to make a realistic playoff push in the hyper-competitive American League East. And to do that, they’ll need help. Help can come from outside the organization, and almost certainly will prior to the July 30 trade deadline. But it can come from within, too.
Springer would help. So, too, would Cavan Biggio, who began a rehab assignment with triple-A Buffalo Sunday, hitting a solo shot in his first plate appearance as part of a 1-for-4 day. The most meaningful indicator from Biggio’s afternoon was that he played seven innings at third base, which suggests he could be ready to return to the Blue Jays within days. The club may want to get him a full game in the field with Buffalo before he’s activated. Or the team could decide they saw enough on Sunday and bring Biggio back into the fold immediately.
Further off is Thomas Hatch, who started that game for Buffalo, making his first appearance in more than two weeks after some mild side tightness paused his rehab assignment following an elbow issue this spring. Hatch is being built back up as a starter and, considering he was limited to 29 pitches over two scoreless innings Sunday, has a way’s to go before he reaches that workload. If Hatch is going to be an option to make a start in the Blue Jays rotation, the club will want him stretched out to 85 pitches, a mark it’ll take a few weeks to reach considering the club generally limits pitchers to increases of 15-20 pitches per outing.
Meanwhile, Julian Merryweather is continuing a throwing progression, while Ryan Borucki is poised to begin one of his own, as a pair of Blue Jays relievers with lengthy injury histories work their way back to form. But neither is particularly close to a return, and although there was originally optimism that Merryweather would be ready to go as soon as his 60-day IL stint is up on June 13, he’ll now need more time than that to get back to full speed.
“He’s feeling good. And he’s in a throwing routine now,” Atkins said of Merryweather. “We want to make sure when he comes back into the fold that he can go back-to-back days and is not someone that we need to protect when he’s back with the major-league team.”
So, help is coming. And with the Blue Jays hellacious schedule only getting more challenging over the coming 10 days — they next encounter the 35-23 Chicago White Sox, 35-23 Red Sox, and 31-28 Yankees — it can’t come soon enough. And that was before Danny Jansen was lifted from Sunday’s game with a right hamstring strain following a head-first slide into third base.
It isn’t immediately clear how long the Blue Jays might be without Jansen — and with an off-day Monday, the team has some time to make a decision. But if Jansen ends up on the injured list, that would make Reese McGuire — a career .240/.282/.409 hitter who was designated for assignment this spring and passed through waivers — Toronto’s primary catcher.
The Blue Jays were already staring down some tough decisions behind the plate, having received a .183/.269/.306 slash line and 63 wRC+ from their catchers this season — well below average even for a position where the 2021 league line is .218/.299/.375 and 88 wRC+. Not many clubs rely on their catchers to be big offensive threats. But the Blue Jays would no doubt like to get more than they have from Jansen and McGuire.
Alejandro Kirk’s 60-day injured list stint runs to Canada Day, making the next man up Riley Adams, a 24-year-old who’s never played at the MLB level. Adams has a ton of power and has been showing it off this season at triple-A with six homers and a 1.011 OPS over his first 73 plate appearances. But the transition from the minors to big-league ball is arguably more challenging for catchers than any other position in the sport, and asking Adams to make it while being relied on to produce offensively against better pitchers than he’s ever faced would be a tall task.
Gabriel Moreno, an athletic if undersized shortstop convert, may very well be Toronto’s catcher of the future, and has looked the part with a .367/.429/.608 line through his first 20 games at double-A New Hampshire. Moreno hit his fourth homer of the season Friday, crushing a pitch off a hotel beyond the left field wall like Vladimir Guerrero Jr. used to during his meteoric rise to the majors. And with each screaming line drive, Moreno’s pushing the timeline on just when the future might arrive.
“Yeah, he’s been awesome. He really has,” Atkins said. “He’s so talented with bat-to-ball, bat speed, contact rates. I think just his ability to control the zone better is what we’re focused on with him. And that doesn’t mean he has to stay in double-A to do that. And we will absolutely consider if it’s best for him to take another step forward.”
But we all know the Blue Jays would never sacrifice the long-term development of a high-upside prospect like Moreno in order to fill a short-term hole at the major-league level. And if the club wanted something more certain behind the plate beyond McGuire and Adams with Kirk and possibly Jansen on the shelf, it would much more likely look outside the organization to acquire it.
An interesting trade candidate could be Jacob Stallings, who’s posted a 110 OPS+ this season with the 23-35 Pittsburgh Pirates. Stallings is under team control through 2024, so there’s no rush for Pittsburgh to deal him. But at 31, he’s unlikely to be a core piece of the ongoing Pirates rebuild. And considering how well Pittsburgh GM Ben Cherington knows the Blue Jays system from his time with the organization, you can bet Toronto’s front office would have a strong idea of the names that could get trade talks moving.
And while they’re at it, why not talk about Adam Frazier to give Charlie Montoyo a high-contact, left-handed utility bat he can deploy at second, third and the outfield corners? Or Richard Rodriguez, the 31-year-old Pirates closer who would give the Blue Jays a desperately needed additional option in high leverage? How about Chris Stratton, the versatile right-handed reliever with off-the-charts spin rates, who checks a bunch of boxes the Blue Jays typically look for and could help the club in a bulk relief role?
The Pirates have so many pieces the Blue Jays could use, the Blue Jays have so many prospects the Pirates would covet, and the two front offices have so much familiarity with one another, that it’s hard to imagine the clubs not finding a way to do some business ahead of the July 30 deadline. But if you’re the Blue Jays, why wait?
Yes, you’d be paying a slight premium to make an acquisition now. But with a top-five farm system, the Blue Jays can afford it. And they’d reap the benefit of supplementing an injury-ravaged roster in the weeks to come. Because while the club is in a good position today, and anticipating some significant upgrades from within, it has to find a way to out-perform what it’s done to this point.
“There’s never just a hard line where this is the date where we determine exactly what we’re going to do,” Atkins said. “It is still relatively early in the season. And we’re really proud of this group, really excited about this group — and are thinking about how we continue to make this organization better for the short-term and the long-term. And they’ve earned it. They’ve really earned that. And as you’ve seen over the last two off-seasons, and last year’s deadline, we’re committed to taking steps forward.”