DUNEDIN, Fla. — In the blink of an eye, the Toronto Blue Jays have already played more than 15 per cent of their Grapefruit League schedule, with opening day looming in less than three weeks. The club is quickly running out of game innings and plate appearances with which to help its players prepare for the regular season. But one Blue Jays regular who hasn’t needed them yet is a rather important one — George Springer.
The 32-year-old centre fielder has yet to make his spring training debut and isn’t scheduled to play on Monday, when the Blue Jays are sending a squad an hour east to Lakeland, Fla. to play the Detroit Tigers. Springer’s game absence is certainly notable coming off a season in which he missed considerable time with oblique, quad, and knee injuries. But Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo insisted Sunday that Springer’s lack of playing time isn’t health related.
“Yeah, no, no, I swear the guy is fine. He's 100 per cent,” Montoyo said. “He knows what he's doing. We're going to communicate with the players and see how they feel. But he's been getting a lot of at-bats in live BPs and stuff — and he might get more today. So, he’ll play soon. Just not today. Or tomorrow.”
Springer did take the opportunity Sunday to make some plate appearances during a triple-A game vs. the Philadelphia Phillies at Toronto's player development complex, coming away with three hits. Bo Bichette also appeared in that game and homered.
Springer has been regularly facing premium stuff and velocity during live batting practice sessions against Blue Jays pitchers over the last several days at Toronto’s player development complex. And there’s an argument to be made for prioritizing that training over game exposure at this stage of spring, particularly for a veteran like Springer.
When participating in live batting practice, Springer can complete a higher volume of plate appearances in a shorter timespan than he would when playing in a Grapefruit League game — an unpredictable environment in which he’d make only two or three trips to the batter’s box over an afternoon. It’s a much more efficient use of his time, and it allows him to better focus on the adjustments and rhythm he’s looking to establish at the plate rather than having his hitting work interspersed with long stretches of fielding and sitting in the dugout.
Of course, not just any ballplayer is afforded such privilege. But Springer can eschew game action in favour of his current schedule because he’s George Springer. He’s not only the highest paid player on the roster — he’s an eight-year MLB veteran with a lifetime 135 wRC+ and 28.9 career WAR. The guy knows what he’s doing. Whatever he needs to get himself ready, the Blue Jays will do their best to facilitate.
“He’s been getting a lot of live BPs. Which sometimes [players] like personally,” Montoyo said. “Everybody's different. He likes that better because he gets four or five instead of just two at-bats in one game. So, that's how he's doing it. And, again, I swear the guy is 100 per cent.”
Kirk makes his case
Alejandro Kirk’s doing Alejandro Kirk things again.
Ho-hum, just pulling his hands in to get a 92.5-mp.h. heater at his knees and lob it out of the dang ballpark. A lot of hitters might pop that pitch up. A lot of hitters might foul that ball off. Kirk gave it a ride for a two-run shot.
“For that guy's age, he's probably one of our best hitters,” Montoyo said. “And I know that's a big statement because we've got a lot of good hitters. But he gives you a good at-bat every time at the plate. And you've seen it. So, I'm not just making that up. He really gives you a good at bat.”
His next time up? Kirk fell behind, 0-2, worked the count full, fouled off a tough, elevated fastball, then rifled another — the eighth pitch of the at-bat — into the opposite field gap at 96-.m.p.h. for a double. Safe to say Kirk looks just like himself early this spring — unconventional body composition, unusually advanced plate approach, typically hard contact to all fields off his bat.
“It feels good. My plan for today, I really wanted to see a lot of pitches. Just try and make good contact. And that's the way it went,” Kirk said through Blue Jays interpreter Hector Lebron. “The mentality that I’m bringing this year is I just want to make the team. I know we have good catchers. But I've got to keep working very hard.”
The focus of that hard work this off-season was upping Kirk’s defensive game behind the plate — receiving, blocking, game calling. After serving as Toronto’s designated hitter on Sunday, he’ll have an opportunity to show off any improvements he’s made Monday, when he’s scheduled to catch Alek Manoah’s spring debut against the Detroit Tigers in Lakeland.
Finding Kirk a new pitcher to caddy would be helpful in his pursuit of a roster spot after Robbie Ray — who worked exclusively with Kirk over the last two seasons when the young catcher was healthy — left for Seattle. And maybe that can be Manoah, who threw to Kirk in seven of his 20 starts last season.
Of course, Toronto’s situation behind the plate isn’t a straightforward one this spring. Montoyo has contended that there are three catchers battling for two jobs in his camp — Kirk, Danny Jansen, and Reese McGuire. But that ignores the fact Jansen has been a big-leaguer since 2018 and is the most experienced, capable receiver to handle the club’s new-look pitching staff following an off-season focused on addressing run prevention. It would be a shock if Jansen wasn’t starting for the Blue Jays on opening day.
McGuire, meanwhile, was designated for assignment after losing a spring training battle to Kirk last spring and passed untouched through waivers. He remained with the organization and found himself back on the 40-man roster only a month into the season when Kirk hit the injured list with a hip issue.
Out of minor-league options, McGuire’s seemingly a candidate to hit waivers again at the end of this camp. But the Blue Jays have spoken strongly about his progress at the plate over the last year. There’s some evidence of that — McGuire set career-highs in average exit velocity, maximum exit velocity, walk rate, and hard-hit rate over an admittedly small sample of 217 plate appearances in 2021. The risk of potentially losing him from the organization via waivers may be higher this spring.
And then there’s Kirk, the 23-year-old bowling ball with preternatural ability to get his barrel to the ball, no matter where it is in the zone. Kirk’s 2021 was an uneven one due to the hip injury that sidelined him for eight weeks, but he still averaged a 92.3-m.p.h. exit velocity — maxing out at 109.4 — while posting an 11 per cent barrel rate, quality of contact figures Jansen and McGuire couldn’t match.
And if you’ve seen Kirk hit, you don’t need any of these metrics. He shoots missiles all over the yard. If the Blue Jays want to roster the most impactful offensive roster possible, Kirk has to be a part of it.
Which is to say nothing of top prospect Gabriel Moreno, who might be better than all of them. Moreno has yet to report to spring training from Venezuela due to a visa issue and is ultimately headed for regular playing time with the triple-A Buffalo Bisons to start the season. But if his 2022 is anything like his 2021, when he hit an absurd-for-a-catcher .367/.434/.625 across three minor-league levels, Moreno could be putting untold amounts of upward pressure on the major-league roster by mid-season.
So, what do you do? Do the Blue Jays carry three catchers to open the season, working around an inefficient roster construction and getting the defensively-limited Kirk’s bat in the lineup often as a designated hitter? Do they use their minor-league option on Kirk and bring McGuire north in an effort to preserve depth that would read curious for a win-now team? Do they find a trade partner for one of those two prior to opening day, simplifying the situation but exposing the club to risk should one of the two catchers with major-league experience remaining go down to injury?
A factor that could ease some of this pressure would be MLB expanding its early-season rosters from 26 to 28, which has been under consideration as opening day looms. The adjustment would be designed to allow clubs to carry extra pitchers to help shoulder the innings load after a shortened spring training. But the Blue Jays could utilize one of those extra spots to kick their catching decisions down the road to later in April. At that point, clubs typically have less roster flexibility than they do at the end of spring training, making a McGuire waiver claim slightly less likely.
One way or another, this situation will need to resolve itself by the time Moreno’s ready for the majors — likely much sooner. And one way Kirk can help resolve it in his favour is with offensive performances like Sunday’s. Eventually, a bat like his becomes undeniable. And if we’re being honest, it already is.
"I mean, you just have to put up good numbers," Kirk says. “I'm always in the cage. That's what I think helps me out for whenever I’m in the lineup and playing. I always go about my routine every day – regardless if I'm playing or not. Just to be ready.”