TORONTO — Searching for more offensive production from behind the plate, the Toronto Blue Jays have finally turned to 21-year-old prospect Alejandro Kirk.
Usually adhering to a conservative organizational philosophy in terms of prospect promotions, it’s always a case-by-case basis and the Jays tipped their hand a bit back in February when they invited Kirk, who split last season between Low-A Lansing and High-A Dunedin, to big-league spring training, showing he may be closer than the minor-league level would indicate.
Listed at 5-foot-8 and 265 pounds, the portly catcher took full advantage.
Prior to the pandemic shutdown, Kirk, a native of Tijuana, Mexico, was a spring training star, showing off an elite hit tool, an advanced approach at the plate and burgeoning power.
Kirk made the most of his eight Grapefruit League at-bats, collecting four hits, including a homer, while also walking four times and not striking out once.
The performance continued to match the scouting reports during summer camp and the Jays added Kirk to the club’s five-man taxi squad at the beginning of September in order to acclimate him, eventually paving the way for Friday’s move.
“It’s very emotional,” the soft-spoken Kirk said Friday evening. “I’m a little bit nervous, I’m not going to lie. But I’m ready to go out there and compete.
“Any role that they give me, I will do my best and I will be ready,” he added.
The motivation is offence.
Coming into the three-game weekend series against the New York Mets, the trio of catchers that the Blue Jays have employed this season — Danny Jansen, Reese McGuire and Caleb Joseph — have combined to produce minus-0.6 fWAR, third-worst in baseball.
The defence has been good, but a 36 wRC+ — tied for second-worst in baseball — has been tough to swallow for a team with legitimate postseason aspirations.
Jansen will continue to carry the load behind the plate, but Kirk offers much more offensive upside, even as a rookie, and he could also find DH at-bats coming his way from time to time as well as an interesting right-handed bat for manager Charlie Montoyo to turn to off the bench.
Across three minor-league seasons since signing in 2016, Kirk has slashed .315/.418/.500 with 17 home runs, leading to his rise a top 10 prospect in the Jays' system.
More impressively, he struck out just 60 times in 619 career plate appearances, while walking 89 times.
In order to get Kirk on the 40-man roster, Joseph was designated for assignment in a flurry of roster moves that also saw outfielder Billy McKinney DFA’d, as well.
Kirk is the No. 2 catcher for the time being, but Joseph could stay in the organization and McGuire, who’s still lauded for his defensive work and is on the 40-man roster, could also reappear if the Jays decide carrying three catchers is preferable down the stretch.
“I’ve been talking a lot with the pitchers, to establish a good communication with them,” Kirk said. “I’m trying to get my English a little bit better, so they understand what I say. And Caleb Joseph has been teaching me a lot since I got here, teaching me how to deal with the pitchers, the catchers, he has been great to me.”
While the bat is seen as close to ready, Kirk’s defence will be interesting to monitor, despite the Jays internally believing he’s completely capable of controlling an opposing running game and working with a big-league pitching staff.
Amidst that flurry of roster moves, closer Ken Giles was activated for the first time since leaving a game in ominous fashion with a forearm strain July 26 in Tampa.
The pending free agent subsequently had a PRP injection and has been working his way back ever since.
Giles won’t return to his ninth-inning role right away — he handled the eighth frame in Friday’s blowout — but, if healthy, the right-hander will give Montoyo an extra weapon in the bullpen down the stretch.
Unfortunately for the Jays, Giles did not look like the dominant closer he’s been, with his fastball averaging 94.5 mph on Friday night.
He may have been easing himself in, but it’s a far cry from the 96.9 mph heater he had last year and well down from the 97.3 and 98.2 he averaged in 2018 and 2017, respectively.
Injured lists are packed all across baseball and the Blue Jays are no exception.
Each and every day, there’s a long list of injury updates from the club, and Friday was no exception.
Here’s the rundown:
—Bo Bichette (knee) played seven innings in a simulated game in Rochester on Friday and then showed up in the Blue Jays’ dugout during the game. He could be activated as soon as Saturday, but the Jays could also play it safe and wait until Sunday, or even Tuesday after an off-day if they want to be ultra conservative. Either way, their starting shortstop’s return is imminent.
—Nate Pearson (flexor strain) has been throwing off a mound, but the big right-hander’s next step is facing live hitters, something that could happen next week, according to GM Ross Atkins. He’s likely to return in a bullpen role, but the Jays could mitigate the routine change by using him for 2-to-3 innings to start games.
—The freak injury that put a halt to reliever Jordan Romano’s breakout season last month was actually a pulley strain, a finger injury former Blue Jays hurler Aaron Sanchez dealt with a couple years ago. Romano is trending in the right direction and Atkins is optimistic he’ll be able to make it back by the end of the season.
—Outfielder Teoscar Hernandez’s oblique strain is “mild” and the 27-year-old has been progressing quicker than the Jays originally expected. There’s still no timeline, but Hernandez is slated to start rotational work soon, a step that will provide more clarity.
—Atkins says Matt Shoemaker (shoulder) could return in a bulk role if he’s able to make it back this season.
—Rowdy Tellez (knee) hasn’t been officially ruled out of the season, Atkins says, but the inflammation around the “tendon” injury still has the club in wait-and-see mode.