Kellin Deglan doesn’t feel old. And he shouldn’t. He’s only 29. But when he looks around the Toronto Blue Jays clubhouse in these early days of minor-league spring training it’s unavoidable. A veteran of 10 minor-league seasons, Deglan’s the oldest catcher in camp by three-and-a-half years. One of the oldest players period. Some of the pitchers he’s been working with were in elementary school when Deglan was playing his first professional season.
It goes quick. One day you’re a first-round pick out of R.E. Mountain Secondary School in Langley, B.C., signing your first pro contract for a $1-million bonus at barely 18. The next you’re with your third organization, entering your age-30 season with more than 700 minor-league games under your belt, still chasing the same MLB dream you were when you inked that deal a dozen years ago. A handful of guys in Deglan’s 2010 draft class have already played over 1,000 MLB games. Of course, another, much bigger handful have been out of affiliated ball for a half-decade or longer.
That Deglan is still getting opportunities after all these years — like the one he’s pursuing with the Blue Jays on the minor-league deal he signed in November — speaks to his ability, to his character. He spent his last five years with the New York Yankees. Good organizations want him around. But it speaks more to his perseverance. Not everyone would’ve stuck it out as long as he has. Not everyone would still be trying to fight their way to the majors.
“Obviously, it’s a grind at times. Especially when a season’s not going well, and you’re on a long bus ride to some crappy hotel in the middle of wherever. But I’m hoping it will all be worth it in the end if I can make it up there,” Deglan says. “And it’s easy to keep going because I love the game. I love being on the field. A lot of my good friends in life, I met through baseball. I met my wife through one of my teammates. It's all I know. It’s the only job I've ever had. So, as long as teams keep telling me they're going to sign me, I’ll keep showing up and doing everything I can to help them win.”
Even as dozens of young catchers annually flood into the pro ranks — the Blue Jays signed three via international free agency just two months ago — Deglan has continued to receive chances to realize the potential that led the Texas Rangers to select him No. 22 overall in the 2010 draft. That’s because clubs value the diligent, attentive attitude he brings to a clubhouse, and the kind of unteachable experience he’s accumulated handling pitchers young and old for so long.
“We love what he does behind the plate. He’s really talented. But we also love the human — the person he is, the worker. He fits really well into our culture,” says Joe Sclafani, the Blue Jays director of player development. “We're excited just to have him around. I think he can be a positive influence on a lot of guys.”
And it helps that Deglan does some not-so-easy things really, really well. He’s always been a strong receiver, possessing a natural feel for good glove routes — the clean movements that beat pitches to where they’re headed, making borderline balls look like strikes. He’s a big frame at six-foot-two, 205 pounds, which pitchers like because of the targets he creates, and coaches like because he uses all that mass to keep pitches from reaching backstops. And he hits the ball hard, topping out with a 109.4-m.p.h. exit velocity last season that would’ve put him just outside the top third of MLB hitters.
Thing is, you don’t qualify for MLB leaderboards if you don’t make MLB plate appearances, which is perhaps the only thing Deglan’s yet to do in the game. He’s played at every minor-league level; he’s won Pan American Games gold; he’s set a home run record in the Australian Baseball League. But more than a decade after he turned professional, he’s still searching for the confluence of timing and opportunity that will get him into a big-league game.
The closest he’s been was last summer at Fenway Park. Aside from a couple brief triple-A stints and a quick trip to Florida to play for Canada at Olympic qualifiers, Deglan spent most of 2021’s first-half on the Yankees’ taxi squad. He caught side sessions for Gerrit Cole and Jordan Montgomery; he warmed up relievers in the bullpen before they entered games; he took live batting practice against Corey Kluber and Luis Severino as they rehabbed injuries. He lived every aspect of major-league life — charter flights, luxurious hotels, ample pre- and post-game spreads — shy of competing on a nightly basis.
But as the Yankees rolled into Boston for an important four-game set in late July, they were beat up behind the plate. Gary Sanchez was carrying a lower-back injury; Kyle Higashioka was out with COVID-19. Veteran backstop Rob Brantly was already up from triple-A — but there was a possibility of Sanchez hitting the injured list, which would’ve created need for another catcher. Deglan was hearing from teammates and staff that the club was seriously considering activating him.
Yet, Deglan would’ve needed a 40-man roster spot, meaning someone would have had to be designated for assignment in turn. The Yankees didn’t have an obvious candidate. And after extensive treatment, Sanchez told the club he could catch in an emergency if Brantly left a game. So, Deglan remained on the taxi squad. He was crushed.
“It was tough. I was really hopeful. I was really excited. All the guys in the bullpen were pulling for me because I’d been catching them for a month,” Deglan says. “It just didn’t happen. It would've been great. But it is what it is. I couldn't do anything about it. I was just disappointed.”
Deglan decided right then and there that the best thing for him going forward would be to get off the taxi squad and return to the minors. He hadn’t played an actual game in over a month. He needed plate appearances — needed to start putting up numbers and proving he could contribute. So, he pulled aside a member of New York’s front office and asked to be sent to triple-A. The answer wasn’t what he was anticipating.
“They were like, ‘Just sit tight — we’re working on something,’” Deglan remembers. “And then they called me a couple days later and said, ‘Hey, we’ve traded you to the Blue Jays. You’re going to Buffalo.’”
And off he went, about to get his wish, just in a different uniform than he’d expected. Deglan met up with the Buffalo Bisons on the road, went 2-for-3 with a homer in his first game, and finished the season playing regularly for the first time all year on a team that won triple-A’s Northeast Division.
“It felt so good to be playing again and winning. And obviously I was a huge Blue Jays fan growing up in Canada. It was just fun,” Deglan says. “I really liked the vibe in Buffalo; I really liked the staff I got to work with and the players. We had a really good pitching staff there — it was fun to work with those guys. It was a really good opportunity.”
Deglan — father to one-year-old Jameson with his wife, Ashley — enjoyed it so much that when the Blue Jays reached out shortly after the triple-A season ended about the possibility of returning for 2022, he jumped at it. The World Series hadn’t been played, meaning Deglan hadn’t had the chance to test the market and see what deals came his way from other teams. But he’d already made his decision. If the Blue Jays gave him a fair minor-league offer, he was going to take it.
“There's definitely a level of comfort that I've got here with the Blue Jays. I've gotten to know them, know what they're about. And I’ve really enjoyed the experience,” he says. “This organization's right up there with any in baseball. They really invest in their player development. The complex here is the nicest I've ever seen. Everything’s state of the art. They invest a lot in helping you get your game to the next level.”
For Deglan, that means continuing to advance the adjustments he began working on with Buffalo late last season. Being less jumpy with his land foot; making better swing decisions; shrinking his zone with a focus on offering at pitches he can do damage against. It’s great to have a powerful left-handed swing like Deglan’s. But it’s not much use if you’re deploying it against bad pitches to hit.
And when you let those bad pitches go by, sometimes you end up on first base without taking the bat off your shoulder. Deglan’s 8 per cent career walk rate stands in stark contrast to the 28 per cent strikeout rate he’s produced as a professional. But in his short sample with Buffalo late last year, Deglan got that walk rate up to 12.5 per cent as he drove down on the adjustments he’s endeavouring to make.
The process continues this spring, aided by the bevy of data and technology at Deglan’s disposal within Toronto’s new development complex. And in an interesting turn of fate, he could end up the benefactor of more playing time than expected early in the triple-A season to demonstrate the results of all his work.
If MLB’s lockout continues, 40-man roster players like top catching prospect Gabriel Moreno will remain barred from club activities. That would position Deglan to begin the season earning substantial playing time behind the plate at triple-A.
“I've just got to take advantage of the opportunity. I know that if I swing at strikes, I hit strikes hard. That's part of the reason why I'm still playing. Because some of my numbers that you look up on the internet, they're not that great. But some of my underlying numbers are pretty good,” he says. “So, if I can just get my strikeout to walk ratio a little bit closer, cut down some of the chase — I think things are going to work out.”
For things to work out, for Deglan to finally realize his MLB dream 13 years after he was drafted out of that Langley, B.C. high school, he'd be beating the odds. You don’t see too many 30-year-old’s making big-league debuts. But it’s against the odds for him to even still be here, in Dunedin, the oldest catcher on the roster, one of the oldest players in camp. Grinding out a decade in the minors isn’t for everyone. But you’ll never get there if you don’t keep going.
“At some point, baseball ends — and you've got to get a job in the real world,” Deglan says. “And I've wondered, what would I do? Would I go back to school? Would I get a job coaching? Would I go learn a trade? But I don't want to do any of that right now. I still love playing baseball. So, I'm going to keep playing as long as they'll let me. Until they tell me I can't.”