Late in the summer of 2016, the Toros de Tijuana of the Mexican league hosted a showcase and Andrew Tinnish, vice-president, international scouting for the Toronto Blue Jays, dispatched Dean Decillis to check it out. The special assignment scout primarily covers the draft, but his opinion is so valued he’ll also at times be asked to assess prospects already in the system, or to check out someone the team is considering signing.
In this case there was a catcher, whose name Tinnish has long forgotten, of some interest. With the Blue Jays limited to signing international free agents for a maximum of $300,000 that year as a penalty for overshooting their bonus pool to land Vladimir Guerrero Jr., with a $3.9 million payout in 2015, they had to be opportunistic. That backstop was an opportunity.
"We were talking after the event, and I’m like, ‘How’s the catcher?’" Tinnish recalls. "And he’s like, ‘Yeah, he’s OK. But there’s another catcher and… he’s big – it’s not a great body. But he can really hit and he can really throw. And for his size, for his body, he moves around really well.’ So I was like, ‘OK, tell me more.’"
The alternate catcher who intrigued Decillis was a 17-year-old named Alejandro Kirk, and at five-foot-seven, or so, beyond 200 pounds, he didn’t carry the prototypical frame that makes scouts think top prospect. But he had remarkably quick hands, a short, sweet swing and an athleticism that belies his build that allowed him to be a strong defender.
Basically, the dude could really play, and others overlooked that simply because of, well, the way he looked.
"There definitely were tools that stood out," says Tinnish. "Dean didn’t really know anything about him – he knew his name and he had enough to put in a report. We had a video guy there and I told him to upload the video quickly and it was a short clip but we took a look at it. I called Sandy Rosario (the club’s director of Latin American operations), ‘I just talked to Dean, he liked a different catcher and he wants us to try and sign him.’ Sandy is pretty aggressive in trusting Dean, and I trust Dean, so it was alright, let’s go."
On Sept. 24, 2016, the Blue Jays completed a $30,000 deal with the Toros for Kirk, who received only $7,500 of that total under the system in place at the time. He isn’t sure if other teams were involved in the bidding and he had no say on the final destination, as his former club controlled the process. "It was the team’s decision," he says, one that afforded him the chance to pursue a dream that started when he was as a toddler chasing his dad Juan Manuel, an amateur player of some repute in Tijuana, around the diamond.
"This was always my goal, to sign and eventually be in the big-leagues," Kirk says through interpreter Hector Lebron. "I didn’t even know they went to see someone else in the showcase. I did the best I could and eventually they signed me. I guess they liked what I did."
The Blue Jays like what the 21-year-old does now even more, as he’s impressed each time out as a non-roster invitee at his first big-league camp this spring.
A breakout 2019 – during which he batted .299/.427/.519 with three homers and 18 walks in 21 games with low-A Lansing before a promotion to advanced-A Dunedin, where he hit .288/.395/.446 with four homers and 38 walks over his final 71 games – shot him up the club’s prospect rankings, with Baseball America placing him at No. 4 on the club’s top 30.
He’s expected to open at double-A New Hampshire, and his bat could carry him up from there quickly, depending on what happens at the levels above him.
"Alejandro Kirk looks like a major-league hitter every time he goes up there," general manager Ross Atkins told reporters this week when asked about under-the-radar players who are opening eyes. "Man, the quality of the at-bats have been really impressive, just seeing the pitches, hard contact and getting deep into counts."
All that is earning him more attention for his play than his size, which is listed at five-foot-nine and 265 pounds in the Blue Jays media guide. Physically, he’s reminiscent of Dioner Navarro, but as Ken Huckaby, the Blue Jays’ catching co-ordinator the past three years who’ll manage at triple-A Buffalo this year puts it, "There really aren’t a lot of comps for the way he’s built."
"Alejandro is 5-7, maybe 5-8 if you give him a little push. Sometimes players come along that just break the mould. You can’t explain it. They can just do it. And that’s the way I look at him," Huckaby continues. "He can do everything you ask, even though it looks like he probably shouldn’t be able to.
"He’s got really, really good hands. Good timing. Soft, soft receiver, but strong. He’s actually very mobile with his blocking. He’s got a really good arm. Quick release. His complete game is at another level when you watch him. And he’s just at good hitting as he is on defence. He’s got the shorter arms which allows him to get to a lot more pitches. And he has a great contact rate on the fastball. He’s just an all-around good player."
The middle child of three boys, Kirk grew up a fan of the St. Louis Cardinals because of Albert Pujols, but started catching at 13, following in the footsteps of the older brother he idolized, Juan Manuel Jr., a professional with the Leones de Yucatan in Mexico. Andres, the youngest, is undecided about his future on the diamond.
"I feel like I have the entire game in front of me and I’m in control," Kirk says of what he enjoys most about catching. "The key is communication between me and the pitcher, having the same plan and talking about it so we feel comfortable."
Points of emphasis for Kirk in recent years have been working on his hands, movements around the plate and setting up targets. Right-hander Patrick Murphy first met him at the complex in Dunedin back in 2017 and noticed the improvements while throwing to him this spring.
"He’s got great hands, good receiving, can really stick pitches," he says. "He’s put the work in over the years and it’s cool to see that it’s finally paying off."
Also paying off is that initial evaluation by Decillis, the faith in him shown by his superiors and the $30,000 investment looking like it will sometime relatively soon deliver a substantial return.
International free agency "is such a risky market," says Tinnish. "Sometimes you just see these kids in that setting and you have no history with them. There are times you absolutely have to be aggressive, gamble and sign a player without having spent a year watching him because if you don’t, you’re going to lose a lot of guys."
"Alejandro is a sneaky, good athlete," he continues. "That’s something that often gets overlooked. He has good movement patterns. There’s lower half flexibility you can see if you just watch him in a pen. He’ll get down on one knee Tony Pena style, he can get himself into good positions. He’s got some lateral skills. There are a lot of thicker catchers, historically, in the big-leagues, and one of the common denominators – there’s a toughness component, there’s an intelligence component and there’s a strength component – is a flexibility and athleticism component that is maybe underrated. He definitely has it."