Blue Jays in tough spot between loss of Springer, ongoing bullpen woes

Toronto Blue Jays' George Springer watches his two-run single against the Minnesota Twins during the eighth inning of a baseball game Thursday, Aug. 4, 2022, in Minneapolis. (Bruce Kluckhohn/AP)

MINNEAPOLIS — Each of the last three days at Target Field, George Springer has jogged out of the Toronto Blue Jays dugout early in the afternoon to test his right elbow.

As members of the Blue Jays training staff looked on, he’d play catch with first base coach Mark Budzinski. First with nothing on his arm, then with his elbow in a brace. Back in the visitors’ clubhouse, he’d test it further with a series of swings in the batting cage.

Thursday, Springer passed the test and played a complete game out of the leadoff spot as Toronto’s designated hitter, going 1-for-5 and turning around a 99-m.p.h. Trevor Megill heater for a screaming flyball — exit velocity: 107.2-m.p.h. — to the left-centre field warning track that would have been a home run at five MLB ballparks.

Friday, he didn’t, and instead spent the night on the Blue Jays bench watching his teammates drop a winnable game in extras without him.

Saturday, this time going through the test with not only members of the training staff but also interim Blue Jays manager John Schneider looking on, Springer was unsuccessful again. And not long after, the Blue Jays made a decision they’ve been dancing around for weeks, placing Springer on the 10-day injured list with right elbow inflammation.

“I think what’s best for him and for us is to take the time,” Schneider said before his Blue Jays fell to the Minnesota Twins, 7-3. “That’s kind of what it came down to.”

The time is the root issue in all of this. The waning time the Blue Jays and Springer have between now and the end of the regular season, which limits treatment and rehabilitation options for an injury that is unlikely to be resolved until the winter. The intermittent times Springer’s been unavailable to play of late, which has arrested Schneider’s late-game maneuverability as he manages with a short bench. The extensive time Springer was dedicating to daily tests of his elbow’s strength, swinging and throwing and stressing the injury further with each repetition.  

Ultimately, the Blue Jays decided it would be best for Springer to halt activity entirely, let an anti-inflammatory injection take effect, and try to ramp back up in a few days. As things currently stand, the club’s hope is that Springer will miss only the minimum 10 days — he’ll be eligible to return August 15 when the Blue Jays open a series at Rogers Centre against the Baltimore Orioles — and won’t require a rehab assignment upon his return.

“Hopefully it’s a 10-day stint and he’s back at it,” Schneider said. “It was [getting better.] I think it was just happening slowly. So, what’s best for him and what’s best for us is to not continue to knock it and piss it off by playing. Hopefully the rest time just gets him back to where he needs to be.”

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In the interim, trade deadline acquisition Whit Merrifield will assume a substantial share of Toronto’s centre field playing time, with Raimel Tapia mixing in depending on matchups. And there are bound to be days when both are in the mix, as the Blue Jays move Merrifield around the diamond, taking advantage of his versatility to give other regulars days off their feet and field more optimal lineups.

Saturday’s game, meanwhile, was a struggle for the Blue Jays in more ways than one. Starter Mitch White was steady if unspectacular in his Blue Jays debut, allowing three runs over 4.2 innings, the first couple of which he pitched through steady rain. White didn’t miss many bats, but he did limit hard contact and kept a lefty-laden Twins lineup on the ground with a fastball-heavy approach, earning half of his outs via groundballs.

“All in all, I was able to cover a few innings and do the best I can. But, obviously, I’ve got to do a little more,” White said. “Looking back, I think with some of the sequencing I could have leaned on the curveball a little more, especially to lefties. But I was also just mis-executing. And so, that’s part of it.”

Toronto’s offence struggled to sequence hits against Twins starter Dylan Bundy — outside of a two-run Bo Bichette homer in the fourth — before getting overpowered by Minnesota’s recently reinforced bullpen. A procession of six Twins relievers followed Bundy — the soft-tosser four-and-no-more’d — holding Blue Jays hitters to only a run on two hits and three walks over the final five innings.

Toronto’s bullpen, on the other hand, couldn’t contain Minnesota’s offence after White left, coughing up four runs over 3.1 combined innings of relief. And it was dealt a considerable blow when Tim Mayza, who had a nightmare outing that included a run-scoring Jorge Polanco double and a loud Jose Miranda bomb to deep centre, dislocated his right shoulder on a play at the plate.

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The trouble began when Mayza allowed the whirlwind that is Nick Gordon to reach on a single, steal second, and advance to third on a groundball. Sandy Leon was next, and he laid down a squeeze bunt while Gordon screamed home like a missile, sliding in feet first as Mayza laid out, trying to corral the ball and tag the Twins outfielder in one motion.

But Mayza whiffed and collided with Gordon near the third base line, immediately grabbing his right shoulder in obvious pain. After a long spell on the ground, Blue Jays trainers had to help Mayza to his feet and walk the 30-year-old back to the dugout. The Blue Jays will wait for the results of an MRI before assessing what kind of recovery timeline Mayza’s looking at. But it’s unlikely we’ll see him on a mound for some time.

“Tough luck, obviously. Weird play. Squeeze. I think that was his only play, trying to field it and tag Gordon there. But he’s a big part of our team and it sucks that he’ll miss some time,” Schneider said. “He’s been huge. He’s been a big part of it the whole year. So, other guys will have to step up in his spot for a little bit. But we’re confident and we know we have capable guys to do that.”

The Blue Jays have often used Trevor Richards and his bat-missing changeup against left-handed hitters in middle innings, and he’s now positioned to face similar matchups in higher leverage spots. Still, Mayza started the day as the only left-hander in Toronto’s bullpen, making an extended absence particularly problematic for a club that prioritized supplementing its thin relief corps at this week’s trade deadline.

The only other left-handed relievers currently on Toronto’s 40-man roster are Matt Gage, Foster Griffin, and Anthony Kay. Tayler Saucedo, currently on his second rehab assignment following a hip injury sustained in April, could also be an option if activated off the 60-day injured list. Beyond that, Toronto’s front office may have to look to the waiver wire for any stray left-handers other clubs cast adrift.

The Blue Jays can at least partially withstand Springer’s absence over the next week-and-a-half with Merrifield slated for everyday playing time in one way or another. Of course, there’s no true replacement for a talent like Springer.

Even though he’s been playing through pain, the 32-year-old still boasts a 121 wRC+ on the season and strong defensive grades in centre field. He’s fourth among Blue Jays position players with 2.4 fWAR, matching the total he put up in 2021. He’s been a productive contributor when available to play, though the issue lately has been the latter half of that sentence.

Through Friday, Springer had appeared in only seven of his team’s last 14 contests. That span included the all-star game, which Springer was selected to as a reserve, but declined to attend in order to give his elbow more time to rest. Over the 20 calendar days between July 17 and August 5, Springer played baseball on seven of them and didn’t on 13.

And when he was playing baseball, Springer didn’t appear particularly comfortable. He’d wince after coming up empty on swings or shake his arm out following throws from the outfield. You’ve seen him doing it for weeks now. Of course, the crazy thing about Springer is that those moments of discomfort were interspersed with pitches that came off his bat at north of 100-m.p.h., as two of his last five balls in play have. Or insane diving catches in the outfield like this one:

That’s the kind of ballplayer he is. We saw it last year as Springer ripped line drives around Florida State League ballparks while playing through a Grade 2 oblique strain during spring training; as he put up a two-homer game in early May while battling a significant right quad issue that would ultimately cost him nearly the entire first-half of his season; as he posted a 119 wRC+ with 13 extra-base hits over 27 games in September and October after spraining his left knee and ankle attempting to make a leaping catch in Seattle.

Springer has an abnormally high pain tolerance and uncommon ability to excel at baseball’s highest level while competing with substantial injuries. It’s why he gets more runway to play through damage than others. Even a compromised Springer is still an above-average player who helps you win ballgames. As he’s battled the elbow issue over the last four weeks, looking far from his best in the batter’s box, Springer’s produced a 115 wRC+.

That’s why the Blue Jays are approaching this the way they are. They know they won’t have a fully healthy Springer again this season. They’re just trying to get him healthy enough.

“I think any version, as close as we can get to the 100 per cent version of George, is what we’re shooting for,” Schneider said. “The timing aspect of it is, if it’s a different part of the season, you can take a different approach. And I think with where we are right now, and hopefully just a minimum stay, it works out for everyone.”

We’ll see. What this will ultimately come down to is Springer’s ability to manage the injury, withstand the pain, and pass the pre-game tests that tell him and the Blue Jays training staff whether he’s truly capable of playing or not. These next 10 days — and the mixture of cortisone and other inflammatories Springer is due to receive — ought to help in the short term. But, in the long-term, his elbow issue isn’t miraculously going way.

Eventually, late in September and — the Blue Jays hope — into October, Springer may end up playing through similar discomfort to what put him on the injured list Saturday. It’s the reality of the situation. Just how impactful he can be on a ballgame under those conditions remains to be seen. Don’t put it past him. We’ve seen it before. But, for now, all we know about Springer’s elbow issue is we haven’t heard the last of it.

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