The Blue Jays have been hit with the injury — and flu — bug for one of the first times this season, and it exposed a weakness that has been bubbling underneath the surface since the start of spring training.
One of the Jays’ deficiencies heading into the year was a lack of depth. On paper, the everyday lineup, starting rotation and bullpen had the makings of a team primed to contend for an American League East title.
It was the guys behind the core group who raised questions.
With several veteran and injury-prone players, it was only a matter of time before the bench and upper levels of the minor-league system became a talking point. A sneak peek at that moment arrived this week when Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Kevin Kiermaier were held out of the starting lineup in back-to-back games against the New York Yankees at the Rogers Centre.
Neither absence was expected to be long, and Guerrero returned during Thursday night’s 4-2 loss to the Yankees in the seventh inning as a pinch hitter. The Jays dodged a bullet, like they have many times this season, when an MRI on Guerrero’s injured right knee ruled out structural damage. Kiermaier is also expected back soon after he came down with the same flu symptoms that have been spreading throughout much of the clubhouse in recent weeks.
That bit of good news has been a recurring trend. The Jays have placed only three players on the injured list for health-related issues experienced in 2023, the fewest in the majors. The number is five when you add Hyun-Jin Ryu and Chad Green, pitchers hurt last season and recovering from Tommy John surgery.
The Jays’ rivals have had it much, much worse.
The Red Sox have placed 15 players on the IL, the Rays 11 and the Orioles six. The Yankees have been hit the hardest with 16, including big names such as Giancarlo Stanton, Aaron Judge, Josh Donaldson, Luis Severino and Carlos Rodón.
The Jays have had multiple close calls, yet none that resulted in long-term injuries.
- X-rays on George Springer’s hand were negative after he was hit by a pitch in late April.
- Santiago Espinal and Guerrero survived similar scares.
- Pitchers Jordan Romano, José Berríos, Alek Manoah and Anthony Bass were struck by comebackers, but didn’t have to miss much time.
Outside of brief absences by Guerrero, Springer and Danny Jansen, the Jays have avoided setbacks with all their key guys. The only players who have been on the IL are relievers Adam Cimber, Zach Pop and Mitch White, all on the lower end of the depth chart. At this point last year they already had seven, including Teoscar Hernández, Jansen and Ryu.
“Knock on wood,” Jays manager John Schneider said, referencing his club’s run of good health. “It’s part of a long season. Whether it’s hit by pitches, weird things, we’ve been fortunate to this point. Hopefully we can continue to be like that.”
One figures the string of good luck can only last for so long. Kiermaier is on pace to appear in 130 games, a number he has reached once during an 11-year career. Springer is on pace for 154, something he hasn’t done since 2016. Jansen was placed on the IL four times the last two seasons, but has yet to go down in 2023.
Then there are injuries that could never be predicted: Bo Bichette landing awkwardly after trying to make diving play like he did earlier this week; Guerrero turning the wrong way and tweaking something in his knee; a pitcher who feels a tear after throwing a pitch. It happens to every team across a 162-game season, which means at some point it will happen to the Jays, too.
In the ultracompetitive AL East, how the Jays handle the eventual setbacks will go a long way in determining where they finish in the standings. This week — with Guerrero and Kiermaier out of the lineup — provided a glimpse of what might be to come, and it hasn’t been pretty.
The Jays are getting next to no production out of their reserves. Cavan Biggio is batting .129 with a shockingly low .424 on-base plus slugging percentage. Espinal’s performance has been equally poor with a .171 average and .466 OPS. The backup outfielder, currently Nathan Lukes, plays so little he’s barely worth a mention.
The options in Triple-A Buffalo don’t offer much hope, either. Spring sensation Addison Barger is hitting .237 with a .662 OPS, while Otto López, one of the last cuts in camp, is batting .210. The possibilities in the outfield and behind the plate are just as underwhelming. The top option for a promotion might be super utilityman Ernie Clement, who has put together an impressive season at age 27 but comes with a career .525 OPS in the majors.
That’s going to leave the Jays in a precarious position if they lose one of their top players to a long-term injury. Schneider’s group is currently a third-place team in a division where every club is above .500. The Rays, Yankees, Red Sox and even the Orioles have earned those wins while dealing with a lot more adversity than the Jays have faced so far.
With more than a quarter of the season in the books, the Jays have been extremely fortunate with injuries. Unless they have a horseshoe stuck somewhere we don’t know about, that run of good luck is almost guaranteed to end at some point, and that’s when the real test will begin.
Right now, the replacements aren’t good enough. Reinforcements are sure to arrive at the trade deadline, but the Jays must survive more than two months before that date arrives. If the run of good health continues, they should be just fine. If it doesn’t, trouble might soon follow.
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