How much patience will Blue Jays’ struggling veterans get?

Jamie Campbell and Madison Shipman break down the Blue Jays' loss in their series opener against the Guardians, including the lack of in-game adjustments for their offence.

TORONTO — Viewed from afar, the decision seems pretty simple. You have a pure designated hitter — someone who’s rarely trusted to run and never trusted to field. Midway through June he has a .578 OPS with just one home run. 

Cutting Daniel Vogelbach, as the Toronto Blue Jays did Friday, seems obvious. Yet internally, it wasn’t quite so simple since Vogelbach can still barrel up a fastball and he was a well-regarded teammate, talking hitting constantly with the likes of Bo Bichette.

“Kind of a crowd favourite in here,” manager John Schneider said from within the Blue Jays clubhouse Friday afternoon. “Professional, understood his skillset and just was really well-liked.”

He wasn’t producing, though, and the Blue Jays wanted more flexibility with their bench, so Vogelbach became the second somewhat prominent position player to be removed from the roster in the last week, joining Cavan Biggio, who was traded to the Dodgers Wednesday.

These latest moves are interesting in and of themselves, of course. But they also offer insight into how patient team decision-makers are willing to be with struggling players — an important question in a season where even the best-case scenario likely involves a close finish where a single win or loss makes all the difference.

And unfortunately for the Blue Jays, they’ll face versions of this dilemma again, as Biggio and Vogelbach weren’t the only ones performing well below career norms. As long as George Springer, Justin Turner and Kevin Kiermaier continue struggling at the plate, the question persists: stay the course expecting better results, or respond to what’s happening on the field with further changes?

It’s taken a long time to get here — arguably too long — but we’re now seeing hints that the Blue Jays are willing to dial back playing time on some established names at least a little. How they navigate that question from here will go a long way toward determining their fate.

What’s clearest of all is this: Spencer Horwitz and Addison Barger, the two left-handed hitting rookies called up to replace Biggio and Vogelbach, are joining a team in desperate need of offence. There’s opportunity, too, with Horwitz appearing in each of the last six games and Barger expected to play against lots of right-handed pitching.

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“You’re not looking for one guy or two guys to totally change the trajectory of your season,” Schneider said. “If that happens, great, but we need everyone to be who they hopefully are and have everybody do their part.”

Here’s where it gets interesting for the Blue Jays. On days both Horwitz and Barger are in there against righties, the lineup will also include Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette, Daulton Varsho and a catcher. That means three of Springer, Turner, Kiermaier, Davis Schneider and Isiah Kiner-Falefa would start the day on the bench.

“If it means an extra day off for Schneid, for Izzy, for K.K., George, whoever it may be, you do that, as long as everyone else is performing,” Schneider said. “But it’s a fine line. You’re not trying to force guys in.”

Granted, that’s just one scenario and there’s no guarantee that Horwitz and Barger hit enough to justify regular playing time. It’s a long season with many adjustments made along the way. And ideally, Springer, Turner and Kiermaier would approach their career norms, pushing Horwitz and Barger back down the depth chart.

But already, the Blue Jays have cut into Kiermaier’s playing time, using him late in games as a defensive replacement to take advantage of his still-elite glove, while asking him to bat less frequently. In June, he has appeared in ten games while batting a total of 17 times — more of a fourth outfielder role.

The Blue Jays likely wouldn’t do anything quite as drastic with Turner or Springer, who are still considered important parts of the offence. To be fair, Turner has rebounded from an awful May with better results in June. Yet the 39-year-old, who struck out twice Friday and grounded out twice more, isn’t guaranteed full-time DH at-bats either.

Asked before the game about pinch-hitting for the two-time all-star late in games, Schneider acknowledged it’s a possibility. 

Simply put, the Blue Jays are becoming more of a line-change team that swaps players in and out during games depending on matchups and game state the way the Twins and Rays do. It’s a viable strategy, especially with a more flexible roster in place, but no team wants to adopt it for the reason the Blue Jays are: because their established hitters aren’t producing.

Most concerning of all is the underperformance by Springer, who entered play Friday ranked sixth-last among all MLB hitters with a 73 wRC+. There are long-term questions here, as this is only year four of a six-year, $150 million deal that’s now trending badly. But even if the focus is on 2024, Springer’s numbers are troubling.

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Not only are his traditional numbers poor — he’s batting .197 with five homers and 14 RBI — his barrel rate, launch angle and max exit velocity are all career lows. This is not the profile of a hitter who seems poised for an offensive breakout. 

For now, Springer will continue playing while the Blue Jays hold onto hope that better results are ahead for the 34-year-old. His off days may gradually become a little more frequent, but he’ll keep starting most of the time. As the Blue Jays showed earlier in the year when they stuck with him too long as their leadoff hitter, Springer will get plenty of patience.

“There’s definitely some bad luck involved with George’s season,” Schneider said after Friday’s game. “He’s missing his pitches. It’s not for lack of effort, intent or prep. No one puts more pressure on themselves than George and a few other guys in our lineup … George is a huge part of what we’re doing here.”

And granted, at this point, it’s not as though the Blue Jays have nine other hitters producing. That means some struggling bats will be in there, hoping to turn it around. The challenge from here will be coaxing what they can out of their veterans and determining how much patience they deserve if more intriguing options do start to emerge.

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