TORONTO – The arrival of Reese McGuire complicates an already-crowded catching mix in Toronto, and offers a reminder that the Blue Jays face some decisions behind the plate in the months ahead.
For now, the 23-year-old will get the occasional big-league start after a successful debut season at triple-A. The first of those chances came hours after he was officially selected to the active roster Thursday in a 9-4 loss to Cleveland.
McGuire’s debut offered a glimpse at what intrigues the Blue Jays. He doubled off the right-centre field wall in the ninth inning and showed off impressive defensive ability under difficult circumstances earlier in the evening.
In the fourth inning, Jose Ramirez took off for second base in an attempt to steal his 30th base of the season. The slider from starter Sam Gaviglio was low and away, setting up a difficult throw for McGuire, who back-handed it and threw from his knees in time to catch Ramirez.
“Since the pitch took me down, I just decided to throw from my knees,” said McGuire.
“I thought he handled himself like a champ,” manager John Gibbons said.
While the defence stood out most Thursday, the Blue Jays hope McGuire can contribute on both sides of the ball. In 96 games at triple-A this year, he hit .233/.312/.339 with seven home runs.
“I just like the way the kid carries himself,” Gibbons said. “He’s got a presence, that’s my impression. I’ve always liked left-handed hitting catchers. That always helps. And he’s really into all phases of the game. Some guys they’ll just stand out because they can really do something extreme. He’s just one of those guys who seems to have a little bit of everything.”
For the time being, McGuire will join a crowded catching mix that also includes Danny Jansen, Russell Martin and Luke Maile. Yet big-league teams rarely carry three catchers, let alone four. The Blue Jays will need to determine a smaller rotation by next spring, if not earlier.
Jansen, one of the top catching prospects in baseball, projects as the 2019 starter. Less certain are the Blue Jays’ plans for Martin, Maile and McGuire, though the team has flexibility in each case.
Martin’s versatility allows the Blue Jays to continue catching him a couple of times per week as part of a super-utility role. His caught stealing percentage has dropped from 44 per cent in 2015 to 22 per cent this season, but his arm plays up at third base. That’s not the only reason the Blue Jays believe he could succeed while playing regularly on the infield.
“One thing with Russ is he’s got great feet,” Gibbons said recently. “That’s what makes him such a good catcher. He’s got a cannon. He’s got everything he needs, and most important thing? He likes doing it.”
Plus, after 13 seasons in the big-leagues, Martin knows pitcher and hitter tendencies well. As Gibbons puts it, “Nobody’s better than Russ at that”. Martin’s knowledge also benefits the likes of Jansen and McGuire as they make their way through the league for the first time.
“He’s been great, man, a great mentor,” Jansen said soon after his call-up. “I’ve asked him a couple of questions like ‘if stuff’s not going so well at the moment, what do I do’ and he’s always been there.”
“I think it’s important that Russ does have a role on our team doing something like that,” Gibbons added. “You don’t have to have it, but I think it’d be beneficial to a team. There’s a guy that’s been through it before.”
At the same time, some of those same attributes could intrigue contending teams. This winter the Blue Jays are expected to listen to offers on Martin, who’s entering the final year of his contract. While the Blue Jays would presumably have to pay down some of his $20 million salary in any trade, the team will likely be open to the possibility over the winter.
Of course a trade involving Martin would leave the Blue Jays with far less experience behind the plate. Maile has been a pleasant surprise for the Blue Jays, and will “play in the big-leagues for a lot of years somewhere,” in Gibbons’ view. But even then, he has started just 133 games behind the plate in his career. Could a tandem of two relatively young catchers work?
“That might not be ideal,” Gibbons said. “But if you’re rebuilding what’s the problem. I wouldn’t think that’s that big of an issue. Everybody might have different opinions on that, but if you’ve got two young ones that are basically rookies that can both play, what’s wrong with that?”
The most likely outcome for 2019 might be the simplest: start Jansen, keep Martin as a utility player and option McGuire and possibly Maile to triple-A for depth. Yet it’s not the only path the Blue Jays could take, adding intrigue to McGuire’s first big-league games.