Kirk has 'realistic' shot at Opening Day roster

February 21st, 2021

At 22 years old with zero at-bats in Double-A or Triple-A, Blue Jays catcher  still has some development ahead of him.

What makes this so unique, of course, is that he’s already made his Major League debut, coming up late in 2020 and looking right at home. Kirk proved that his bat belongs in the Major Leagues, but as the Blue Jays map out their Opening Day roster, one of the biggest questions facing the club is whether Kirk can finish off that development in the big leagues, backing up starter Danny Jansen.

With Reese McGuire out of options this spring, Kirk will have to prove it.

“It's certainly a realistic scenario for him to be a backup in the Major Leagues. Then, balancing what's best is the question,” said general manager Ross Atkins. “We’ll have to factor in, one, how he's performing and how he's recovering, and then two, what our options are internally, or of course, we have to consider externally, too. Balancing all of that, we'll see, and we'll determine what's not only best for him, but you always have to factor in what's best for your organization, as well.”

To Kirk’s credit, he’s entered camp in better shape following an offseason dedicated to improving his conditioning. He’s not about to be a threat on the bases by any means, but Kirk’s conditioning has been a question coming up when evaluators look at his long-term potential, especially defensively.

As Kirk continues this physical maturation, he feels quicker in both phases.

“I can get to that inside pitch a lot better than last year,” Kirk said through team translator Hector Lebron. “I feel quicker, faster when I'm catching, moving, blocking, everything. It feels a lot different from last year.”

Kirk hit .375 over nine games last season, and his Minor League track record shows his tremendous ability to make contact and reach base. Over 151 Minor League games from Rookie-level to Class A Advanced, Kirk has hit .315 with a .418 on-base percentage, thanks to more walks (89) than strikeouts (60).

If a pitch is out of the zone, Kirk knows it. If a pitch is in the zone, Kirk hits it. It's been that simple so far.

Let’s turn back the clock to Vladimir Guerrero Jr.’s meteoric rise as a prospect, though. Even with Guerrero’s elite bat at the time, the Blue Jays wanted to be patient with the development of his defense. Kirk reaches this stage of his career with a much different offensive profile than Guerrero’s, of course, but his defense is still what will tilt this decision in either direction.

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A catcher’s “defense” is a broad tool, including everything from game-calling to receiving to framing to controlling the running game. Like a quarterback in the huddle, catchers need a certain swagger, too. When they speak, they need the teammate on the other end to be convinced.

Veteran starter Robbie Ray threw to Kirk in the catcher's Major League debut on Sept. 12, and Ray came away impressed with that exact aspect of Kirk's game.

“Honestly, there was a couple times during the game where I wanted to throw a pitch, he threw something else down, and he was so convicted in the way he threw it down, I just threw the pitch because I believed in him," Ray said. "Those two or three times, however many it was, it actually ended up working out, because he kind of channelled that conviction in the pitch to me, and it was really good.”

The Blue Jays’ younger pitchers have seen that, too. Right-hander Alek Manoah, the club’s No. 5 prospect, highlighted this as one of Kirk’s most valuable attributes, making the 50-50 relationship between pitcher and catcher work.

“Getting that feedback from Kirk and getting that excitement, getting those vibes that, ‘Hey, I'm here with you. I'm going to have the same amount of fun that you're having,'" Manoah said. "It's just special to see and it's fun to play with.”

Timing is key here, too, and that might end up working in Kirk’s favor.

If this were two years ago, with the Blue Jays still deep in the rebuilding phase, then it would make more sense to keep Kirk at Triple-A where his development can be managed more carefully. When a club is comfortably below .500, prospects don’t need to be rushed to help create a win here or there that ultimately won’t change the story of the season.

Expectations are different in 2021. The Blue Jays are coming off a postseason run -- one which Kirk played a part in -- and have loaded up with star talent over the offseason. If Toronto feels that Kirk is the better option today, and that his presence on the roster can help the club get from 86 to 87 wins, or 88 to 89, then it’s an easy decision. At a certain point, development for tomorrow gives way to winning today.

Kirk will have every opportunity to convince the Blue Jays this spring that he can round out his development in the big leagues while still contributing. It’s the best of both worlds.