Gregor Chisholm: Blue Jays mailbag: Alejandro Kirk’s bat throws roster a curve. And trade Vlad? Well, no one’s untouchable

The last week was not kind to the Blue Jays, but they appear to have survived the worst of it.

Toronto lost six games in a row before rallying to take the series finale vs. the Philadelphia Phillies and the series opener against the New York Yankees. That appears to have eased the panic some fans were feeling about the possibility of falling out of the post-season race entirely.

The Jays entered Tuesday with six games to play and a magic number of three. Unfortunately for Toronto, as the American League’s eighth seed, a first-round matchup against the pesky Tampa Bay Rays seems almost impossible to avoid.

The playoffs are days away, but there is still some business that needs to be taken care of before they begin. With that, let’s open the final regular-season mailbag of the year. As a reminder, for next week’s post-season edition questions can be submitted to bluejaysmailbag@gmail.com or by reaching out to me on Twitter @GregorChisholm.

The following questions have been edited for length and grammar:

What does Alejandro Kirk’s arrival mean for Danny Jansen? What does Kirk need to do to stick on the roster for 2021?

— Justin, Saskatoon

Jansen has been saying all the right things since Kirk arrived, but deep down he must be a little concerned. Who wouldn’t be? Jansen struggled offensively throughout much of 2019, and so far this season he is batting .160 with a .297 on-base percentage. Then, as Toronto made a push for the post-season, a hotshot prospect arrived to much fanfare, putting his playing time in jeopardy.

From Kirk’s perspective, he just needs to keep doing what he’s doing. The 21-year-old is expected to open next season in the minors, but the more he produces, the harder it will be to justify that decision. The Jays are not going to run either of these guys out there for 140-plus games and considering Kirk’s bat is good enough to DH, there’s room for both. That said, Jansen still can’t be feeling all that good about it.

Do the starting pitchers have a preference in their catchers (i.e. Kirk hits better than Jansen)? It might be prudent to decide who catches in the playoffs.

— Christopher, Toronto

It really depends on the pitcher. Some guys have strong preferences and others, such as former Jays starter Marco Estrada, don’t care who is behind the plate. Lefty Hyun-Jin Ryu will stick with Jansen the rest of the way because he’s the most difficult starter to catch with his array of off-speed pitches, but the rest of the staff should be able to go with either guy.

Taijuan Walker, Robbie Ray and Ross Stripling haven’t been here much longer than Kirk, so it’s not like they spent an entire season building a rapport with another catcher. I agree pitchers should have a say, but that’s unlikely to be a factor in 2020. When these guys have a full year to work together, it’s possible the situation would be different. Offensive contributions rarely factor into a pitcher’s preference. Instead it’s all about the catcher’s game calling and how he receives the ball.

What are the chances the Blue Jays carry three catchers on their playoff roster? With the short — but exciting — sample size from Kirk, utilizing him in a DH or pinch-hitter role while allowing Jansen to catch and either Reese McGuire or Caleb Joseph to be the second guy?

— James, Mitchell, Ont.

In my mind, carrying three catchers is a no-brainer. Kirk’s bat needs to be in the lineup every day until his performance dictates otherwise. As touched on above, Jansen is going to stick with Ryu, so using Kirk as a designated hitter at least for each of those games is entirely justifiable. Manager Charlie Montoyo previously expressed a willingness to have two catchers in the lineup, even without a third catcher on the roster, but it leaves Toronto exposed.

If Kirk started at DH and later moved to catcher, the Jays would lose the DH spot and be forced to have their pitchers hit for the rest of the game. To keep the option of a pinch hitter open, Caleb Joseph or Reese McGuire need to be on the roster too. That should be easy enough for round one because the Jays only require three starters, which leaves spots for extra bodies on the bench. So yes, I think it’s realistic.

Just wondering if you think the Jays would consider trading Vladimir Guerrero, with possibly another piece, to get a high-end starting pitcher? He is a liability in the field and Rowdy Tellez has shown to be a very capable first baseman. Don’t think he will ever live up to the hype.

— Bob, Verdun, Que.

Untouchables do not really exist in baseball. There’s an asking price for everyone. Some guys just require such a big return trade talks involving them are just a waste of time. So, I would never rule it out, but it’s impossible to judge without knowing the package coming in return. Generally speaking, it’s not something I would consider. Guerrero still has a lot of value, but he would not net as much in return as he would have a year ago and organizations shouldn’t be in the business of selling low.

I’ve said it before in this space and I’ll say it again: Guerrero might not have lived up to everyone’s expectations early on, but he’s only 21. Yes, there are examples of superstar players who are that young, but the list of guys who need more time to figure everything out is much longer. It has been a frustrating year for Guerrero, but I’m not betting against him and I wouldn’t entertain a trade unless the offer was too good to refuse.

What do you think of Thomas Hatch’s last three outings?

— Marie, Guelph

Hatch’s recent outings haven’t been great, that’s for sure. The 25-year-old allowed six runs — four earned — on nine hits and a pair of walks over 3 1/3 innings. Fatigue could be a factor, but it’s worth noting that Hatch’s velocity remained consistent. He has averaged 95.4 m.p.h. on fastballs this season and he was hitting 95 to 96 in those three appearances.

A tired arm can become noticeable in other areas too, such as poor location, and Hatch has been giving up a lot of hard contact, but it’s possible this is just a normal rough patch most pitchers go through every year. After Ken Giles, Jordan Romano and Julian Merryweather went down, the Jays need Hatch even more than they did earlier in the year. Struggling or not, Hatch will be asked to pitch some big innings.

Looking over the last five years: Can the Jays develop pitchers and can they keep them from being injured? Both questions are in relation to other teams.

— Gary, Burlington

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There isn’t a single team in baseball that manages to keep its pitchers healthy. There are teams that get lucky for a year or two, like the Jays did in 2016 when they needed only seven starters to get through a season, but there is no magic formula. I never bought into the idea of the high-performance department being able to solve Toronto’s injury woes, nor have I pinned the blame on those employees for not pulling off a miracle.

Teams do the best they can with the information that is available, and the results from studies are constantly changing. Outside of the obvious, like a huge jump in innings, or leaving a guy on the mound to throw 150 pitches, the rest is an inexact science. Toronto develops pitchers just fine. Look at all the homegrown talent currently on the roster. The issue isn’t development, it’s surrounding the in-house guys with enough help from outside the organization to become legitimate contenders.

Are there any prevailing stories or positive developments coming out of the alternate campsite? As an outsider we don’t get much information from the alternate camps, but it’s something I would love to hear more on.

— Chris, Ottawa

The reason you didn’t hear much about the alternate training site, which closed up shop this week, was because most journalists were in the dark too. There weren’t any baseball reporters on the ground in Rochester, N.Y. and even if there were, access to players and coaches would be limited. Instead of on-the-ground reporting, outlets were restricted to getting reports through the team, and considering the Jays are biased, that information had to be taken with a grain of salt.

The best gauge of how useful the alternate training site was can be found in the performances of the guys who were promoted. Recent call-ups Kirk and Patrick Murphy made immediate impacts, outfielder Jonathan Davis had success and infielder Santiago Espinal made a quick adjustment. Clearly the Jays are doing something right, but intrasquad games cannot replace a minor-league season, the development still isn’t quite the same.

Do you think the Blue Jays making the playoffs would be a positive? While I don’t think playoff experience would be a negative for any young team, we’ve really not seen much lately in their game to think that such a playoff push would boost confidence — especially given the fact that the team’s play has brought about discussion of the mercy rule.

— Clinton, Chesley, Ont.

It remains to be seen how these young players will benefit, but it can’t hurt them. The playoff atmosphere will be different this year without the big crowds, but the pressure will be similar. Getting a taste of what it takes to succeed when the lights are the brightest should be a learning experience that players grow from. I suppose there is a risk of someone having a Bill Buckner moment, but most of this is all upside.

Why are the decision-makers in the Blue Jays obsessed with pitch counts determining the length of time a pitcher remains on the mound? Not so long ago, pitchers could pitch complete games, allowing for 20-game winners.

— Jim, St. Catharines

There’s nothing I enjoy more in baseball than a pitchers’ duel, and a part of me finds it a bit depressing that workhorse starters have become a dying breed. However, it’s hard to make a sensible argument when those feelings are matched up against the stats. This season, opposing hitters are batting .251 with an .807 OPS the first time they face a Blue Jays starter. They’re batting .256 with a .753 OPS the second time, and the numbers soar to a .333 average and .998 OPS the third time. Some pitchers are good enough to be exceptions, but they are becoming increasingly rare and the Jays don’t have any of them, with the possible exception of Ryu and eventually Nate Pearson.

Do you not think it would have been better to get one good third baseman or another top-line starter? Daniel Vogelbach was a disaster, Jonathan Villar is below average. Your thoughts?

— Arnon

Sure, but that’s easier said than done. Just look at what happened in Atlanta with former Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos. The Braves are a much better team than the Jays, but they desperately needed starting pitching and couldn’t find any. Very few big names were available. Instead, the options were limited to rentals. Toronto did well to pick up Walker, a guy who has become their No. 2 starter. Expecting much more wasn’t realistic. This was not the year for the Jays to unload their promising prospects. That can wait for a year in which they’re more prepared to take a run.

Why does the Blue Jays management have high hopes in Derek Fisher? From what I have seen of him since he arrived, I don’t know why he is still on our or any MLB roster!

— Harv, Freelton

This question was submitted earlier in the week, before Fisher was placed on the IL, so it’s less relevant now but still worth addressing. Front offices tend to favour “their” guys and Fisher qualifies. There are people within the organization who saw potential, otherwise they would not have acquired Fisher at last year’s deadline. Those same individuals want to make sure he gets every chance possible. Personally, I don’t see it and would have stuck with Anthony Alford, who later fractured his elbow in Pittsburgh. But Alford was tied to the previous regime, Fisher was not. Either way, Fisher’s time is about to expire, so this will not be a problem for much longer.

Gregor Chisholm

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