Two reasons Blue Jays need a full recovery for Garcia

Hazel Mae and Shi Davidi break down the extent to Yimi Garcia's injury and look at how the bullpen will adjust after losing a big arm and they also provide injury updates on Jordan Romano, Yariel Rodriguez and Bo Bichette.

TORONTO — Best-case scenario, the right elbow ulnar neuritis that sent Yimi Garcia to the injured list soon subsides, and he’s back in a couple of weeks, dominating middle-of-the-order bats in high-leverage moments again.

“He’s so important to us that you err on the side of making sure it was right,” Blue Jays manager John Schneider said after Monday’s game. “Hopefully it’s a minimal stint.”

Hoping is one thing, but there’s no guarantee of an ideal scenario outcome with pitching injuries, so let’s consider a couple other possibilities, too.

If the injury lingers and the 35-37 Blue Jays fall out of contention, they’ll have lost one of their most valuable trade chips, and a chance to augment this team for future seasons.

Keep in mind that it took two intriguing upper-minors starters to acquire Jordan Hicks last summer when the Blue Jays sent Adam Kloffenstein and Sem Robberse to St. Louis. That kind of return seems like a reasonable comp for Garcia, a pending free agent whose upper-90s fastball and plus breaking balls would make him among the most coveted relievers in the game if he’s indeed available. 

Of course the hope is the Blue Jays are buying, not selling. Yet even if they stay in contention, any lengthy absence for Garcia would pose a major challenge since closer Jordan Romano is also on the injured list and Erik Swanson was optioned to triple-A Buffalo after posting a 9.22 ERA through 17 games.

Now add to that the struggles of Tim Mayza, who allowed two runs in the seventh inning of Monday’s game as his season ERA climbed to 6.04. The Blue Jays are using Mayza in lower and lower leverage, evidence that they don’t trust him nearly as much as they did a year ago, when he posted a 1.52 ERA. And the way hitters are squaring him up, that loss of trust is understandable.

With Mayza only used in low-leverage spots, Swanson in the minors and Garcia and Romano injured, the Blue Jays will use Chad Green as their closer with Trevor Richards, Nate Pearson, Genesis Cabrera, Zach Pop and perhaps even Brendon Little in supporting roles.

For a couple weeks, it’s a challenge the Blue Jays can overcome. But the longer they have to test their bullpen depth, the greater the risk of a costly blown lead, and there’s not an obvious solution ready to call up from the minor leagues. 

Under those circumstances, it’s clear how important Garcia has become to the Blue Jays and how badly they need his recovery to be relatively straightforward. 

FROM BULLPEN HOPEFUL TO RIVAL EXEC

Not long after he tried to make the 2018 Blue Jays as a non-roster invitee, longtime reliever Craig Breslow joined the Cubs’ front office as Theo Epstein’s director of pitching. Breslow’s work in Chicago eventually led him to the Red Sox, where he became Boston’s Chief Baseball Officer last October.

The 43-year-old’s thoughts on pitching development are worth considering given his background and also because it’s an area in which the Blue Jays have struggled. Since taking over during the 2015-16 off-season, this front office has signed just one amateur pitcher via the draft or international free agency who has generated at least 2.0 wins above replacement at the MLB level (Alek Manoah). The lack of homegrown pitching is one reason the Blue Jays have run a four-man rotation recently and have ongoing bullpen issues: the internal support simply isn’t there now.

Speaking at Rogers Centre before Monday’s game, Breslow said he breaks pitching development down into two categories. 

“There’s the development that is tethered to physical maturity and increasing the true talent of a pitcher: increasing the velocity and tweaking the pitch shapes and then giving them more weapons,” he explained. “And then there’s performance as it relates to optimizing finding the right pitches to throw and where to intend them and the right matchups (to throw them). Those are, I think, distinct phases of development.”

And while customized, player-specific development plans are needed at times, Breslow believes in the importance of finding approaches to development that work on a larger scale.

“We want to create systems that sweep up as many people as we possibly can,” he said. “Generally get guys bigger and stronger and clean up movement patterns. Embrace the the skills and strengths that they have and, and lean into those. Because if you treat a development system as 165 individual cases, it’s really hard to make progress. So there are fairly time tested methods to development. Guys that throw hard, guys that can get outs within the strike zone, guys that get swings and misses, those guys tend to be good pitchers. So how do we optimize for that?” 

GUERRERO VS. NAYLOR 

At his current pace, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. would finish the season with 16 home runs – half of his 2022 total (32) and one third of his 2021 total (48). This isn’t what anyone would have forecasted in his age-25 season.

Even so, Guerrero Jr. is having a productive season. Despite his modest home run total, he’s batting .284/.373/.404 on the season, good for a 127 wRC+. Entering play Tuesday, he leads American League first basemen in batting average, on-base percentage, wRC+ and WAR (1.1).

Granted Josh Naylor has better power numbers with 17 home runs and 50 RBI, so he’d be a viable choice to start the All-Star Game at first base, too. In between Guerrero Jr. and Naylor after one round of fan balloting, there’s Ryan Mountcastle of the Orioles, the longtime Blue Jays nemesis. But if Guerrero Jr. holds onto his current lead atop the ballot, he’ll be a deserving starter. 

This isn’t the NBA, where all-star selections are reserved for the elite of the elite. A total of 78 players were MLB all-stars in 2023, and about as many will be chosen this year. If Guerrero Jr.’s one of them, with strong overall offensive numbers and far more star power than most, that’s a good thing for the game.

As for Naylor, he has not yet played in an All-Star Game, but he’s an important part of a first-place Guardians team that just lost two of three in Toronto. After receiving the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame’s Tip O’Neill Award Sunday, the native of Mississauga, Ont., spoke about the lessons he’s learned in six big-league seasons. Most important of all for the 26-year-old: staying present.

“We all look to the future sometimes, and that’s not a bad thing at all,” Naylor said. “But I think taking care of today — now — is extremely important. It’s great to dream and see yourself in the future, but you also have to take care of the moment to get to that point in your life. Being where your feet are is super important to me.”

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