There’s a rich tapestry of legendary Latin baseball players who’ve made their mark with the Toronto Blue Jays. In the early years of the franchise, when the Jays first rose to MLB prominence in the mid-1980s, among those who led the way were Alfredo Griffin, Tony Fernandez, Damaso Garcia and George Bell.
As Toronto won back-to-back World Series in 1992-93, a key piece of the puzzle for them was future Hall of Fame second baseman Roberto Alomar.
The Blue Jays look to be on the rise again as the 2021 American League season approaches. They were a postseason team in 2020 for the first time since 2016. Shrewd offseason acquisitions added World Series-winning outfielder George Springer, infielder Marcus Semien and closer Kirby Yates. Hyun Jin Ryu, the ace of the Toronto pitching staff, was an AL Cy Young Award finalist last year. It’s easy to understand why in the MLB odds for the 2021 season, the Jays are considered a legitimate playoff contender who could challenge the New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays for the AL East flag.
Someone making a bold bid to seek a spot on Toronto’s opening-day roster is Alejandro Kirk. The Mexican catcher is enjoying a fantastic spring training and while he wasn’t penciled in as part of the team when camp opened last month, his stellar play could be forcing the brass of the Blue Jays to rewrite that script.
Kirk’s Strong Spring
Through 10 spring-training at-bats, Kirk is batting .500. He slugged a home run and drove in four runs. He’s showing an on-base percentage of .538, a slugging percentage of .800 and an OPS of 1.338.
On the field, in his second season in the big-league camp, Kirk is gaining familiarity with the Blue Jays pitching staff and being offered more opportunity to display his skills as a receiver.
“Of course he’s still competing for a job, but he’s doing what it takes to make the team,” Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo told Sportsnet. “You’ve got to give the kid credit for being that young and handling the pitching staff and getting used to them.
“Last year when he came up he didn’t know anybody. That’s not that easy. Now this year he’s getting used to the pitching and it’s only going to make him better behind the plate.”
Backing Up The Promise
Kirk, 22, is rated the No. 6 prospect in the Blue Jays farm system according to MLB.com. He shows a career slash of .315/.418/.500 hitter in the minor leagues.
Kirk backed up that promise last season during a glimpse of the show. He batted. 375 in 25 plate appearances for the Jays in 2020, posting an impressive OPS of .983. That performance even earned the right-handed hitting Kirk a start in one of Toronto’s two playoff games against the Rays.
“I’m not going to lie to you, it was a great experience,” Kirk told Sportsnet via interpreter Hector Lebron. “It was beautiful playing in the big-leagues last year. Actually it did help me get a little experience, which is helping me out right now. I worked very, very hard in the off-season trying to come into camp in shape.”
The 5-foot-8 Kirk dropped a significant amount of weight after being listed last season at 265 pounds.
Forcing A Decision
Kirk’s play is going to leave the Jays with a big decision to make in terms of their final roster. Do they stay with veteran Reese McGuire as backup to Danny Jansen, or should they go with the potential Kirk is clearly offering and roll with the kid as their second-string catcher?
The risk in making this move is that McGuire is out of options, meaning Toronto would need to place him on waivers in order to assign McGuire to the minor leagues. If he were to be claimed by another team and then Kirk ended up not being ready for the big-time, it would leave Toronto without a Plan B behind the plate.
The other side to this argument is that Kirk is displaying that he offers a much more significant upside at the plate than McGuire, a career .243 hitter. Kirk is projected by Baseball-Reference.com to bat .264 this season with nine homers. McGuire’s projections are for a .220 batting average.
Kirk’s bat could prove a valuable asset in a pinch-hitting role. Then again, McGuire is a left-handed hitter and gives Toronto a lefty-righty platoon with Jansen at catcher.
“There are some things you can’t control,” Kirk said. “At the end of the day, it’s about results. I’m very confident in myself, feeling very good the way I’m playing right now, so we’ll see.”