Alejandro Kirk arrived in the big leagues earlier this month as a backup catcher. Now he’s on the verge of becoming a much bigger piece in the Blue Jays’ post-season plans.
Kirk made his second start in as many games during the Jays’ 12-1 loss to the New York Yankees on Tuesday night, and his recent uptick in playing time should be a sign of things to come. The 21-year-old is expected to get the day off Wednesday before returning to the lineup once again on Thursday night, this time as a designated hitter.
Jays manager Charlie Montoyo revealed those plans Tuesday afternoon, and while doing so he provided a clue to how the Jays intend to use Kirk the rest of the way. He’s still going to split time with catcher Danny Jansen, but Kirk’s hot start will also result in regular at-bats against left-handed pitchers.
“Honestly, I could see him against a lefty starter,” Montoyo said in reference to the DH spot. “On Thursday, (Jordan) Montgomery is starting. I could see Danny Jansen catching Hyun-Jin Ryu and Kirk DHing. I could see that easy.”
Kirk earned the opportunity for increased playing time after picking up seven hits in his first 16 career at-bats, including a homer, a double and an RBI. The native of Tijuana, Mexico, who had never played above class-A before joining the Jays, has made the transition to the majors look easy.
There are a couple ways for the Jays to get Kirk’s bat into the lineup almost every night. The first would be to cut Jansen’s playing time behind the plate and hand most of the reps to Kirk. A week or two ago, changing catchers this late in the year would have seemed absurd, especially when it involves someone as inexperienced as Kirk. The idea is no longer as far-fetched after he handled himself well defensively in seven games while earning positive reviews from the pitching staff.
Toronto is already on record saying that Jansen will remain paired with Ryu. The other starters are potentially up for grabs and if Kirk keeps playing strong over the final six days of the regular season, he could be lined up to receive the bulk of the reps in the playoffs. But since Kirk isn’t going to catch every night no matter what happens, the question becomes what should be done with his bat on those days off from defensive responsibilities. That’s when the second option comes in at DH, where the Jays lack alternatives after Rowdy Tellez went down with a knee injury.
The Jays seem content to give those DH at-bats to someone like Joe Panik or Jonathan Villar against right-handed pitchers. Versus lefties, though, it’s a different story. Kirk has become the favourite to win those reps, and with a potential first-round matchup against the Tampa Bay Rays looming, he could have a big role in a wild-card series.
Tampa Bay likely would go with Blake Snell in Game 1, and they have two other lefties — Ryan Yarbrough and Josh Fleming — in their current five-man rotation as well. If Snell goes in the opener, Jansen would be behind the plate for Ryu, but Kirk would be available for DH, especially if the Jays add a third catcher in Reese McGuire or Caleb Joseph to the post-season roster.
“Ross Atkins deserves a lot of credit for giving the kid a chance, because it’s not easy to give somebody a chance who has never played above single-A,” Montoyo said. “We saw that approach in spring training. He never chased any bad pitches, and he did the same thing in summer camp. Man, this guy has a chance.”
That disciplined approach was evident on Tuesday night against one of the top pitchers in the game. In his first at-bat vs. Yankees ace Gerrit Cole, Kirk laid off a couple of pitches to get ahead in the count 2-and-1 before grounding out.
In his second at-bat, Kirk fell behind 0-and-2, fouled off a difficult 96-m.p.h. fastball and then hit a sweeping curveball through the hole on the left side of the infield for a single. It was one of just five hits the Jays got off Cole, who allowed just one run across seven innings. In Kirk’s final at-bat of the night, he got ahead 2-and-0 against lefty Zack Britton before grounding out for the second time to cap a 1-for-3 night.
Then there was the even bigger game against the Yankees on Monday, when Kirk became the seventh catcher over the last 50 years to record at least four hits in a game at the age of 21 or younger, and the first since Joe Mauer in 2004. Kirk also became the seventh Blue Jay with a four-hit game at 21 or younger, joining current teammate Bo Bichette and others. It has been quite the week.
There has been a lot of praise for Kirk recently, and he deserved every bit of it. Now the Jays should try to get his bat into the lineup as much as possible until his performance dictates otherwise.
It doesn’t matter if the at-bats come at catcher or DH. He just needs to play. With less than a week to go before the start of the post-season, it’s time to take the reins off and free Kirk. For a Blue Jays team with offensive struggles behind the plate and no everyday DH, they have nothing to lose and everything to gain.
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