Kirk doing his part to force Blue Jays’ hand and make opening day roster

Five pitchers including Robbie Ray combined for a one-hit shutout, Cavan Biggio has great day at the plate as the Toronto Blue Jays blanked the Baltimore Orioles 5-0 in Spring Training action.

TORONTO – If you take the long view, there’s a case to be made for opening the season with Reese McGuire as Danny Jansen’s backup.

Simply put, the argument looks like this. Capable big-league catchers aren’t easy to find, so teams must be judicious whenever they’re cutting one loose. And since McGuire no longer has minor-league options remaining, the Blue Jays will have to pass him through waivers if he’s not on their opening day roster. If exposed, there's a chance another team would take a flier on McGuire, a 26-year-old with a lifetime .725 OPS.

But if the Blue Jays had to win one game? It would be Alejandro Kirk, not McGuire, who would belong on the roster. Kirk outperformed McGuire at the plate in 2020, he’s doing so again this spring, and as he gains more and more familiarity with the Blue Jays’ pitching staff, any defensive advantage McGuire once had would appear to be diminishing, too.

Within the next three weeks the Blue Jays will have to make a decision: prioritize organizational depth, or roster Kirk, even if it means risking the loss of McGuire. In the meantime, Kirk’s doing what he can to make that decision easier, with a two-hit game in Saturday’s 5-0 win over Baltimore including one single that left his bat going 110 m.p.h.

"Of course he's still competing for a job, but he's doing what it takes to make the team,” manager Charlie Montoyo said via Zoom afterwards. “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.”

With those two hits Saturday, Kirk now has five in his first 10 at-bats of the spring. While spring numbers can often be deceptive, each hard-hit ball suggests the .983 OPS Kirk posted last year was a reflection of real skill. By starting him in a playoff game last fall, the Blue Jays showed that they agree. And over the winter, that strong finish served as motivation for the 22-year-old Kirk.

"I'm not going to lie to you, it was a great experience,” he said 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."

Objectively speaking, there's reason to believe Kirk will provide far more offence than McGuire. FanGraphs' projection models both suggest Kirk can hit in the majors right now (Steamer: .809 OPS, ZiPS: .756 OPS) yet neither one forecasts much offence from McGuire (Steamer: .646 OPS, ZiPS .646 OPS). If the Blue Jays’ internal projections align with those numbers, then exposing McGuire to waivers may well be a risk they’re comfortable taking.

A lifetime .315/.418/.500 hitter in the minors, Kirk has gotten this far largely because of his bat. Yet as he works more closely with the Blue Jays’ pitchers, they’re starting to build stronger rapports with him, too.

"It's huge,” Robbie Ray said after pitching four scoreless, hitless innings. “He's slowly gotten to understand my game, so it's not so much of a dialogue as him just knowing what I like to do. So there's less shaking off. Other than our meeting that we have before the game, there's not really much to talk about because he already knows what I'm trying to do."

While Ray did walk two hitters, he topped out at 97.3 m.p.h. with his fastball and felt in command of all four of his pitches. And when Ray checked with home plate umpire Ramon De Jesus after his outing, he was pleased to hear that even his walks were near-misses.

“As far as command I feel really good about where my pitches are at,” Ray said. “I'm around the zone. My misfires aren't far off, so I feel like I'm in a really good spot."

By building up to four innings and 52 pitches, Ray is well on his way to being ready for the workload demands of a regular-season start. Just as importantly, a pitcher with a career rate of 4.3 walks per nine innings was very much around the plate.

"The results are showing up,” Kirk said. “Every time he gets on the mound, he gets better and better. For example, today the location was perfect. He looked very confident using his off-speed. His fastball was great today. So he's good right now."

If anyone on the Blue Jays knows Ray, it’s Kirk, who caught him more than anyone else last fall and has been behind the plate for two of the left-hander’s three outings this spring. Whether that continues into the regular season remains an open question for now, but Kirk is certainly doing his part to force the Blue Jays’ hand.

"There are some things you can't control,” he said. “I know there's a competition here for a spot with the rest of the catchers. I have a great relationship with them. We all talk about it, we learn from each other, we help each other. 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."

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