Image credit: Alejandro Kirk (Mitchell Leff/Getty)
The Blue Jays hoped for a boost when they called up catcher Alejandro Kirk last Sept. 11.
Precisely 10 days later, the catching phenom from Tijuana, Mexico, delivered one.
A mere 21 years old at the time, appearing in his sixth big league game despite never before playing above Class A, he was the driving force in a pivotal 11-5 win against the Yankees, strengthening Toronto’s hold on a postseason berth.
From the eighth spot in the batting order, Kirk singled and scored in a pivotal five-run third inning, doubled and scored in a pour-it-on, four-run fourth, singled again in the fifth and went to the opposite field for his first career homer in the seventh. The Yankees had no idea what hit them.
“Definitely tonight was my most productive night at the plate,” Kirk said afterward through translator Hector Lebron. “I was just feeling so comfortable at the plate, felt good. I don’t know how to explain it. I was just seeing the ball well, and everything went great.”
The last part also applies to Kirk’s 2020 season as a whole, with his accelerated ascension to the majors posing some unusual developmental questions for the Blue Jays as a new spring training opens.
Under normal circumstances, there is no way Toronto would have promoted a catcher with just 71 games of High-A experience directly to the majors, especially given how much they ask of their big league catchers.
Kirk was supposed to start 2020 at Double-A New Hampshire, behind Danny Jansen, Reese McGuire, Caleb Joseph and Riley Adams on the organization’s depth chart.
Instead, Kirk used his time at the alternate training site in Rochester, N.Y., to convince the front office he was ready.
Now that he has showed well in an intriguing but very small nine-game sample, how much should Toronto adjust the 21-year-old Kirk’s time frame, particularly with the Blue Jays’ pivot into a win-now mode?
“I hope that he puts us in a position to make a very difficult decision,” Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins said. “He needs to continue to progress as a catcher. He needs to continue to develop his English and leadership ability. At the same time, we were very, very impressed and encouraged by his in-game intelligence, his in-game ability to adapt and adjust and communicate.
“His offense was very, very good. It wasn’t just in the outcomes. His process was very mature. The way he talked about preparing for his at-bats, the way he talked about preparing for his game defensively, his feedback in-game and post-game was exceptionally mature given that he hadn’t played a game above A-ball.”
That relative inexperience is certainly a reason for the Blue Jays to take a more cautious approach, as is their apparent long-term outlook for Kirk, who signed as an international free agent in 2016 and ranks as Toronto’s No. 5 prospect.
The fact that they didn’t deal him before the Aug. 31 trade deadline when the Pirates wanted him as part of a potential return for Joe Musgrove, and then held on to him again through the winter, suggests they see him as part of the future.
Expecting six weeks of work at the alternate training site to fill in all the developmental growth of a proper season isn’t realistic. And asking him to refine the subtler skills of an elite catcher on a contending club in the big leagues seems neither wise nor fair.
“It’s unbelievable that he’s done what he’s done,” said John Schneider, the Blue Jays’ major league coach responsible for catchers. “The best analogy I could use is: You go for a walk around your neighborhood and then the next day you’re running the New York City Marathon . . .
“The technical part—the catching, blocking, throwing—he’s really good at. He was major league-ready for that kind of thing. It’s the information. It’s signs. It’s running game. It’s advance reports. It’s not letting the game get fast on you when guys get on base and when you have a whole lot to think about.
“That has been what we focus on the most. And that’s been the biggest jump for him. In the minors, he was catching (pitchers) according to their strengths and what they’re working on. In the big leagues, you’re trying to expose hitters’ weaknesses. That’s been the biggest jump for him—not the physical, but more the mental and the tactical.”
Hence, Kirk could go from being the second-youngest player to start a postseason game as the DH to a minor league prospect again, maybe even back to the Double-A experience he never had.
No matter how it plays out, the 2020 season started Kirk’s clock, and without doubt has it moving much, much faster.