Springer’s looming return to Blue Jays will force lineup juggling

MLB insider Ben Nicholson-Smith joins Lead Off to discuss what George Springer's imminent return instantly does for the team’s overall offence, and how he, a prototypical lead-off hitter, lengthens the lineup.

It’s been a long wait for Toronto Blue Jays fans eager to see what George Springer looks like playing every day in centre field. But it appears their patience will soon be rewarded as the three-time all-star is nearing a return from the injured list, where he’s resided since the beginning of the season with separate oblique and quad injuries.

Springer will play centre in an intrasquad game at Toronto’s alternate training site on Friday. And if all goes well, he could make his Blue Jays debut as soon as Saturday or Sunday against the Tampa Bay Rays.

Even if the Blue Jays opt to be ultra cautious and allow him the entire weekend to ease back into action, Springer would then be atop manager Charlie Montoyo’s batting order no later than next week — assuming no further health setbacks — when the club hosts the Washington Nationals and Atlanta Braves in Dunedin, Fla.

“He’s doing all baseball activity. He’s extremely confident and strong. And now it’s just a matter of recovery. And putting him in a position to play nine innings and feel like he can face elite major-league pitching,” Atkins said. “We’re very encouraged by where he is. He’s super excited about [Friday.] And [Friday] will be a very important day to determine what that next step is and what’s best for him, what’s best for the team, factoring in recovery and playing nine innings on a regular basis.”

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The informal nature of Friday’s game will allow the Blue Jays to closely control Springer’s plate appearances and defensive opportunities. He could lead off every inning if the club wants to get him added exposure to live pitching. And any particularly lengthy defensive innings could be called off short of three outs.

As has been the case throughout the 31-year-old’s recovery, the club will rely on how Springer’s responding and performing to determine how quickly they can progress his workload. The ultimate goal will be preparing Springer to play without limitation upon returning from the injured list rather than needing to be eased into action with designated hitter appearances and scheduled days off.

“Everything is about putting guys in positions to be successful. And we’ll be open-minded about the level of recovery and whether or not he may need an off day here and there. But we wouldn’t bring him to the major leagues if we didn’t feel good about him playing nine innings in centre field,” Atkins said. “You just want to see how he responds, how he feels, how he’s feeling later into the game with multiple at-bats and then see how he recovers the next day.”

Ben Nicholson-Smith is Sportsnet’s baseball editor. Arden Zwelling is a senior writer. Together, they bring you the most in-depth Blue Jays podcast in the league, covering off all the latest news with opinion and analysis, as well as interviews with other insiders and team members.

Meanwhile, fellow outfielder Teoscar Hernandez ought not be far behind. The 28-year-old, who tested positive for COVID-19 last week, will complete his mandatory 10-day quarantine on Friday, at which point he’ll undergo a clearance test before he’s permitted to return to Blue Jays facilities. Assuming he clears that hurdle, the outfielder will then begin a quick ramp-up of activity as the club assesses when he’ll be ready to resume his season.

“It’ll just be a matter of determining where he is from an overall recovery and fatigue standpoint and how much he can handle,” Atkins said. “So, [Friday] will be a great day as far as that’s concerned and just learning more about when his availability will be.”

Hernandez was experiencing symptoms of the virus and hasn’t been in a baseball environment for nearly two weeks, making it unclear just how much of a ramp-up period he’ll need to regain game conditioning. But he has been working out and swinging off a tee at home in recent days and it’s likely not out of the question that he could return sometime next week at the latest.

Assuming the rest of Toronto’s outfielders remain healthy — always a dangerous assumption in 2021’s MLB — Montoyo will have some lineup decisions to make once Springer and Hernandez are back in action.

Josh Palacios, who’s started nine of Toronto’s last 11 games, will presumably return to the alternate site along with Jonathan Davis, whose playing time has been sparse. But that still leaves Springer, Hernandez, Randal Grichuk, and Lourdes Gurriel Jr. all in the mix for three outfield spots.

Grichuk has certainly earned his playing time by posting a .356 wOBA — trailing only Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette on the team — while playing strong centre field defence. Success hasn’t come so easily for Gurriel, who’s put up a .199 wOBA — ahead of only Rowdy Tellez and Danny Jansen — while making several misplays in left.

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Those objective and subjective measures make Gurriel the obvious odd man out based on performance alone. But considering the 27-year-old’s proclivity for streakiness over his brief MLB career, the nearly 100-point difference between his xwOBA (.287) and actual wOBA (.199), and that the only one of his peripheral numbers to jump off the page in stark contrast from his career norms is a suspiciously low BABIP (.238), there’s a case to be made that Gurriel’s likely to see much better results if given consistent playing time to snap out of his early-season skid.

Which leaves Montoyo with some juggling to do. Of course, having an excess of capable players among whom to award limited playing time is the kind of problem good teams seek. The Los Angeles Dodgers have used 17 different lineups through 18 games this season, starting five different players in left field and four each in centre and right.

An outfield logjam is merely a synonym for outfield depth. It’s not ideal to rely on only three capable MLB players who need to be in the lineup every day. Ideally, you’d like four or five strong options, with an added layer of replacement-level depth behind them. That’s what the Blue Jays have been trying to build for the last several years. And that they now face tough playing time decisions is a sign of progress.

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Reinforcements will soon arrive for Toronto’s bullpen, too, as Tyler Chatwood and Jordan Romano are likely to be activated from the injured list this weekend. Chatwood, who’s been battling triceps discomfort, is expected to return ahead of Friday’s series opener at Tropicana Field, while Romano could rejoin the club on Saturday after a brief hiatus due to ulnar neuritis.

Nate Pearson, meanwhile, is scheduled to pitch 2-3 innings during the intrasquad game Springer will appear in on Friday. Out since spring training due to an adductor issue, Pearson is being deliberately built back up as a starting pitcher, which means his return is not imminent. He’ll still need at least one additional intrasquad or simulated game appearance of 3-5 innings before he could be considered an option for the Blue Jays at the major-league level.

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