Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins short on answers for club’s struggling offence

TORONTO — When a baseball team has underwhelmed, underperformed and underachieved to the extent the Toronto Blue Jays have this season, stumbling out of the gate to a 19-25 record, sitting five games back of a playoff spot and ranking 29th in runs scored, there are no easy solutions.

But general manager Ross Atkins seemed to have no satisfying answers for an increasingly restless fan base about the team’s early-season troubles before Saturday’s 5-4 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays. Atkins acknowledged the team isn’t “where we would like to be” while reinforcing his belief in the talent on the roster and his faith that there remains enough time in the season — 118 games — to turn things around and for the team to start Scoring runs more consistently, but “that needs to start pretty soon,” he said.

“Overall, the thing that gives us the greatest sense of confidence is the sense of urgency in our clubhouse and that is from one to 26 on our player roster and throughout the staff,” Atkins said.

But left unanswered is why a lineup with bountiful talent is in last place in the American League East and in MLB’s bottom third in meaningful offensive categories. Why aren’t encouraging signs like “getting into really good counts,” as Atkins pointed to, leading to more runs? And why hasn’t an overhauled offensive process, spearheaded by offensive coordinator Don Mattingly, led to demonstrably different offensive results compared to last season?

“We’ve made changes to our process. We’ve made changes to people, some of it personnel, and that’s what we’re working on. It does take time, and it hasn’t happened soon enough and it needs to start,” Atkins said.

After missing out on prized free agent Shohei Ohtani during the offseason, the Blue Jays pivoted to a plan that saw them make complementary adds, but mainly double down on their existing core. The hope was last year’s middling offensive results were a blip and internal improvement would rebound in a meaningful way. That hasn’t happened yet, and a quarter of the way through the season, is it fair to wonder if the Blue Jays don’t have the right players for a championship team?

“We’re not there,” Atkins said. “I’ve seen really encouraging signs from Vladdy (Guerrero Jr.) over the last several weeks. Seeing really good signs from Bo (Bichette) over the last week and have seen Bo go through these stretches before. Maybe this one’s a little bit longer than one he’s been through before. But he comes out on fire and I know that he will. … I have so much confidence in Bo and Vladdy and George (Springer) that they’re going to be contributors and solid ones that I am confident we’re going to score more runs.”

George Springer is hitting .197/.270/.287 with three home runs and seven stolen bases. (Ed Zurga/Getty Images)

The Blue Jays’ offensive struggles are nothing new. Last season, they ranked 14th in runs scored (746), 16th in home runs (188) and 11th in OPS (.746). This year so far, the Blue Jays are 29th in runs scored (159), 27th in home runs (36) and 26th in OPS (.662).

Despite their lack of runs, Atkins said he’s seen encouraging signs from the lineup, including “getting into better counts” and “making good decisions” but that the majority of their players “haven’t been getting our best swings off in those counts. ” Asked why that is, Atkins said, “It’s not something that I’ve been able to pinpoint or Donnie or (John) Schneider or anyone has been able to pinpoint. “We just see it as something that we can correct.”

“You don’t just tell someone to swing harder or swing in certain counts more aggressively. It’s not as simple as that,” Atkins continued. “Hitting is the most dynamic and challenging challenge really in professional sport. And the things that we’ve worked to change we do believe in — we do believe in the changes and adjustment and feel like we have the time and the talent for that to be correct.”

But waiting for a correction from the offense seems awfully similar to the tune the Blue Jays sang in 2023. They did improve in certain aspects in the second half last year, including hitting with runners in scoring position. But they were also swept in the Wild Card Series after scoring just one run in two games against the Minnesota Twins.

Asked if he had a message for fans growing frustrated with their performance, Atkins said, “We believe in this talent. “We believe in that there is time left, but there is a massive sense of urgency and we need to get it turned around soon.”

Atkins praised the job Schneider and the coaching staff have done this season, including how Mattingly has reimagined the way they relay information to hitters, noting they have “complete buy-in” from everyone involved.

Ross Atkins expressed confidence in Don Mattingly, Bo Bichette and John Schneider. (Dan Hamilton/USA Today)

“I know it’s not the satisfying answer for a fan because we don’t have the results, but the addition of Matt Hague, the leadership of Donnie on the offensive side, the patience and steadiness to their approach, the unbelievable work ethic that they ‘ve put in and just that sense of urgency that has been so consistent, is really impressive to see and the fans don’t get to see that,” Atkins said. “When I see it, that’s where it allows us to be patient.”

Some of Toronto’s offensive struggles can be attributed to their best players underperforming. While Guerrero and Bichette have been swinging the bat better of late, Springer has a .557 OPS and dropped from the leadoff spot on Saturday in place of Davis Schneider, who was 2-for-5 in the loss. The change, which John Schneider discussed with Springer after Friday’s game, is one the club hopes can spur the offense while taking pressure off of Springer as he tries to get right.

Atkins acknowledged that, in general, if a club is winning, it’s in part because “your better players are having solid years.” On Springer specifically, Atkins said, “We need to get him going” and the focus has been on getting the 34-year-old to hit the ball in the air to the left side.

“If that attempt shifts to the ball getting in the air a little bit more, I think that we could get him back into someone that is a meaningful part of the top of our order,” Atkins said.

Beyond reconfiguring the lineup, the club has discussed other ways to supplement the offense including calling up players from Triple A. Names under consideration could include Orelvis Martinez, Spencer Horwitz, Nathan Lukes and Addison Barger but Atkins said it’s a matter of balancing their positional fit and need for playing time. Trades are another option the front office could explore, although Atkins said more than two months out from the trade deadline, “You are obviously paying a premium.”

“We feel that the best contributions that could create that change and run-scoring is going to come from within our clubhouse or with Triple A with the players that are here,” Atkins said. “But the dialogue is steady on the alternatives that could happen.”

While Atkins presented an optimistic tone, the reality is if the Blue Jays continue to find themselves outside the playoff picture as midseason approaches, they’ll need to consider turning their focus to next season and beyond. That could include doing what seemed unthinkable a few months ago and selling off their best trade chips including Yusei Kikuchi, Yimi García, Justin Turner and Kevin Kiermaier, who are all free agents after this season.

“We’ll see,” Atkins said when asked what the club would do if things don’t noticeably improve. “You are always prepared for any angle or any pivot that you have to make. “We spend every day thinking about every way to make this organization better and the situation that could present itself.”

Bigger picture, the Blue Jays also have to contemplate their shrinking window of contention that was ushered in with the start of Guerrero and Bichette’s major-league careers in 2019 but could be reaching their end as both of Bichette and Guerrero reach free agency after the 2025 season along with several members of the team including Jordan Romano, Tim Mayza, Chris Bassitt and Cavan Biggio.

It’s also worth mentioning that should things continue to go south for the Blue Jays, Atkins, who has been the GM since December 2015, may no longer be at the helm to make those big-picture decisions if ownership seeks a change in leadership if another season ends without a championship.

Atkins doesn’t believe the club’s record of 19-25 is a true reflection of his talent since many players haven’t performed “within their normal ranges.” As unsatisfying an answer that is for fans to hear, Atkins was always going to continue to put his faith in him in the team he built. It’s also understandable if fans choose to see the Blue Jays for what they are: a fifth-place club that is six games under .500.

The Blue Jays, though, continue to bet on themselves and if there is a time to start turning around their season, it would be next week as the club begins a 10-game stretch against the Chicago White Sox and Detroit Tigers.

“We feel with time and the talent that’s on the team that we can certainly see righting this ship,” Atkins said. “However, that needs to start pretty soon.”

(Top photo of Ross Atkins: Mark Blinch / Getty Images)

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