The Jays’ $150-million man appeared in fewer than half of the team’s games in 2021, but he’ll need to stay healthy and productive if Jays expect to be contenders, Gregor Chisholm writes.
By Gregor ChisholmBaseball Columnist
Sat., Dec. 25, 2021timer4 min. read
George Springer got off easy in 2021. Next year, he won’t be afforded the same luxury.
It’s not very often that a player who just signed a $150-million (U.S.) contract gets to fly under the radar, yet for the bulk of this past season that’s what exactly what Springer managed to do.
An oblique injury in spring training derailed his ability to crack the opening day roster. A strained quad, which soon followed, cost him the better part of 2 1/2 months. A knee issue in late August made things even more problematic. When it was all said and done, he’d appeared in fewer than half of the Blue Jays’ 162 games.
Despite the lack of production, Springer sidestepped most of the criticism that is typically directed at the top-paid players who aren’t living up to their contracts. Outside of the jokes that followed daily updates from the team about Springer running the bases and continuing to improve, he escaped the spotlight for the bulk of the year.
Springer has Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Marcus Semien to thank for that because when the star centre-fielder was out of action, the performances the Jays were receiving from their two healthy sluggers, combined with some glaring issues on the pitching staff, provided enough of a distraction to keep everyone’s eyes diverted elsewhere.
April and the months that followed were defined by Guerrero’s breakout season. Not far behind, starting in May, was talk about Semien’s electric bat and the feasibility of signing him long term. This wasn’t a ball club that struggled to score runs, it was one that had issues preventing them and as long as the Jays kept mashing, the questions about Springer could be put off another day.
That’s all about to change.
As the Jays try to find ways to make up for Semien’s lost production, the person they need to rely on most to pick up some of the slack and avoid a teamwide regression at the plate is the man they signed to be the everyday leadoff man.
“We’re in a great starting spot,” Jays general manager Ross Atkins said prior to the Dec. 2 lockout. “George Springer, Teoscar (Hernández), Lourdes (Gurriel), Randal Grichuk, others that could help throughout the course of the season. Triple-A, some that came up last year, really encouraged by Santiago Espinal. Our catching is in excellent shape. It’s a matter of thinking about whether or not it’s more complementary, or a free agent, or trade of some significant impact.”
Sure, we get it. The Jays have a lot of impressive hitters. That’s all well and good, but the Jays didn’t just receive a lot more value than they were expecting out of Semien in 2021.
Guerrero and Hernández won silver sluggers. Bichette established himself as one of the game’s top hitting shortstops. Gurriel, at least in the second half, became an impact performer. A lot went right, and it would be irresponsible to assume that because of their age the entire group will be just as good, if not better, next year. Baseball rarely is that predictable.
Even if the Jays sign another impact infielder, whoever that ends up being will be hard-pressed to match Semien’s production. That’s why his numbers must be made up in other areas, like at third base where the Jays hit just .249 with a .691 OPS. Or designated hitter, where they slugged 23 homers but finished with a disappointing .706 OPS.
Most glaring of all was centre field, the spot Springer was signed to fill, where the club hit .242 with a .755 OPS, numbers well below what he would normally produce.
It’s worth noting that in the limited time Springer was healthy, he performed as expected. The defence in centre was solid. More important, the bat was a perfect fit. The average took a hit late in the year following the knee problem, but his .907 OPS was above his career average and the Jays will happily take it again if it comes across 140-plus games instead of 78.
Springer likely won’t be the Jays’ most valuable player any time soon, but after Guerrero he might be their most important one. Guerrero can’t do everything on his own and even though there are prolific hitters elsewhere on the roster, the lineup lacks length when Springer isn’t available. While his presence makes the top of the Jays lineup better, it also makes the bottom half deeper.
Even big-spending teams such as the Dodgers, Yankees and Red Sox struggle when one of their top-paid players are out of the lineup. The Jays are no different. They believe in the talent — it’s why they handed Springer a franchise-record contract. They just need him on the field to show the world why he was handed such a big cheque.
Springer gets a pass on 2021 for now. It’s not his fault he got hurt, then got hurt again, and again, and again. By all accounts, he wanted to be out there as much as anyone; his body just wasn’t co-operating.
If it happens once, the season can be considered an outlier. If it happens again, it will be considered a trend.
Following Semien’s departure to the Texas Rangers, all eyes will be on Springer next season with team expectations the highest they’ve been since at least 2016. Before the Jays can live up to the hype, they need Springer to live up to his contract. One disappointing year doesn’t make his contract a bust, however a second one just might.
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