Plus notes below on:
- Why the Blue Jays aren't interested in Yasiel Puig
- Two trades Ross Atkins would love to have back
- Dolis leads setup mix heading into camp
TORONTO — No matter how well Nate Pearson performs in his first big-league spring training, the writing seems to be on the wall.
The 23-year-old right-hander will be heading back to Triple-A Buffalo for not only some more seasoning, but likely a truncated workload in the early going, similar to last year’s careful handling, with an eye on 130 to 140 total innings in 2020.
But once you get past the top prospect in the Blue Jays’ pipeline — and one of top three or four pitching prospects in all of baseball — there’s another watch-list player who will be on the major-league side of spring training for the first time: catcher Alejandro Kirk.
Signed out of Mexico in 2016, all the 21-year-old has done over the past two seasons is hit, evidenced by the .315 career batting average, which included a .290/.403/.465 slash line at stops in Low-A Lansing and High-A Dunedin last season.
The hit tool and zone recognition are what has carried the right-handed-hitting Kirk from obscurity to one of the most unique prospects in the minors, allowing him to walk more times (56) than he struck out (39) in 372 plate appearances in his breakout 2019 campaign.
But it’s the body comps that are the real source of intrigue, as Kirk has been compared, ominously, to the fire-hydrant duo of Willians Astudillo and Pablo Sandoval.
The body type will turn traditional scouts off — he’s listed at 5-foot-9, 200 pounds — but the numbers tell another story, one of a bat-first catcher potentially capable of hitting .280-plus in the big leagues someday.
While Kirk doesn’t have a hope of breaking camp with the club and it’s much more likely he spends the entire year honing his craft at Double-A New Hampshire, if you’re looking for an outside-the-box call-up candidate this year, Kirk might be the guy.
There are a couple reasons for that, too.
One is the 26th roster spot now affording front offices some extra creativity starting this year.
With pitching staffs capped at 13, most managers were leaning towards some sort of specialist in that extra spot, maybe a glove guy who could be used as a defensive replacement behind an iffy defender or a player with speed to use in pinch-running situations.
But what about a third catcher who has the bat to DH four or five times a week and spell the duo of Danny Jansen and Reese McGuire when needed?
Kirk may have enough juice in the lumber to be that type of guy, and he also may be advanced enough that he wouldn’t be swimming upstream against major-league pitching.
Now, what that would likely mean is throwing in the towel on his development as an everyday catcher, and evaluators are split down the middle as to whether that’s even likely.
With Jansen, McGuire, 2017 third-round pick Riley Adams, and another top prospect in Gabby Moreno all in the organization, getting a bit creative with Kirk’s development and pushing a player who has yet to be challenged with the bat in his hands may be seen as more reasonable.
Puig or Hernandez?
One high-profile free agent remains unsigned and his name is Yasiel Puig.
Ranked lucky No. 13 by Steve Phillips and myself way back in November on our list of the top 50 free agents, Puig’s market has been as dry as Ben Simmons from three this winter, and there’s been nary a word on the Cuban – even with Marcell Ozuna and Nick Castellanos now signed.
It’s looking more and more likely that the 29-year-old will be forced to take a one-year deal and try it again next winter, similar to the Mike Moustakas path the past couple of off-seasons.
Should the Jays be interested? Yes.
If only because all it will cost them is money.
Will the Jays look at Puig if he remains unsigned well into February and it’s considered a bargain? Probably not.
Three reasons: 1) Puig hasn’t played centre field with any regularity since 2014, and moving Randal Grichuk to the middle of the grass full-time doesn’t seem to be something the organization wants to do. 2) This front office has time and time again shied away from big clubhouse personalities as it coddles the kids, and there’s no doubting Puig is that. 3) Teoscar Hernandez.
Take one look at the numbers and you can probably figure out why Puig is still a free agent and not commanding the type of dollars or term some expected.
Puig: 149 G, 611 PA, 24 HR, 19 SB, .267/.327/.458, 7.2 BB%, 21.8 K%, 101 wRC+, 1.2 fWAR
Hernandez: 125 G, 464 PA, 26 HR, 6 SB, .230/.306/.472, 9.7 BB%, 33 K%, 102 wRC+, 1.2 fWAR
Yes, you read that correctly.
Hernandez hit more home runs that Puig, walked more, had a better wRC+ and produced the same fWAR in 147 less trips to the plate.
Sure, he struck out a lot more and is a liability in centre field, but the Jays still believe there’s a breakout coming, and Hernandez, heading into his age-27 campaign, is team controlled through 2023.
From July 16 on last year, Hernandez bashed 18 homers and slashed .265/.354/.607, a second half heater that seems to have earned him some leash heading into spring training.
Puig’s overall body of work — 18.0 fWAR over seven seasons — is more impressive of course, but he’s also had just one season over 2.0 fWAR since his monster 5.5 fWAR campaign way back in 2014.
About that hole in CF…
As the Jays get ready to open camp with their first full team workout on Monday, Feb. 17, GM Ross Atkins seems content to stand pat in centre field.
That likely means Hernandez manning the position come opening day, and the out-of-options Anthony Alford and Derek Fisher getting long looks during the month of March in Florida.
In order to take another step towards postseason contention, Atkins is going to have to find a centre field cornerstone at some point, but he’s probably wishing he had a couple of trades back right about now.
In St. Louis, Lane Thomas, who the Jays traded to the Cards in exchange for international bonus pool space in July 2017, is in the outfield mix, and Baseball America describes him as a player who “runs down balls in every direction to be a borderline plus defender with an above-average arm.”
Thomas, 24, slashed .316/.409/.684 in 34 big-league games when he was called up for the first time last year.
Out on the West Coast this winter, the San Diego Padres thought enough of Edward Olivares to add him to their 40-man roster after he hit 18 homers and stole 35 bases in his age-23 season at Double-A.
Sent to the Pads in the January 2018 trade that netted Atkins about three useful months of Yangervis Solarte, Olivares is also seen as a legit centre fielder who is awfully close to the big leagues.
It remains to be seen if either is an impact player, but based on the early returns these trades are looking like Ls for the Jays.
Dolis in setup mix to begin camp
The Blue Jays have been mostly quiet since reeling in their big fish of the winter, lefty Hyun-Jin Ryu, with an $80-million deal.
They did add an arm with a touch of upside to the bullpen last month, agreeing to a deal with Dominican right-hander Rafael Dolis, according to a source, a contract that has yet to be officially announced by the club.
After spending the last four years pitching to a 2.49 ERA in Nippon Professional Baseball, Dolis gets a one-year deal with a club option for 2021 to return to the majors, where he posted a 5.48 ERA across 44.1 innings with the Chicago Cubs from 2011-13.
Dolis isn’t fancy, going right after hitters with a two-pitch mix that features a splitter and a fastball that will touch 98 mph.
As of today, the bullpen competition is wide open behind closer Ken Giles, and Dolis could easily find himself in the eighth inning from the get-go with a strong March in the Grapefruit League.
Two aspects of his profile that will help him in that quest are his ability to get lefties and righties out, as well as the fact he keeps the ball in the yard, giving up just six home runs across 206 innings in the NPB.
The Jays also added a familiar name, right-handed reliever Jake Petricka, on a minor-league deal Friday, according to a source.