The Blue Jays Have a Catching Puzzle To Solve

When an organization has a potential glut of players who play the same position, it’s usually more of a nuisance than a serious problem. Having more major league-caliber players than your roster can hold is never a bad thing, and the issue can often be solved by sliding players down the defensive spectrum. It can be inconvenient to shift a middle infielder into an outfield corner or a corner outfielder to first base, but it’s worth doing if the bats are worth it.

It gets trickier, though, if the overcrowded area happens to be behind the plate. Lifetime catchers rarely possess the athleticism necessary to move to another up-the-middle position and usually can’t hit enough to clear the offensive bar required at a corner spot. It’s incredibly difficult to find sustained playing time for more than two catchers over the course of a season, though because of the scarcity of talented catchers around the majors, it’s rare that a team needs to worry about that.

The Blue Jays are facing exactly that predicament. If you look at our Depth Charts, you’ll find them ranked fourth in the majors in projected catcher WAR for next season, which could come as a surprise to a lot of baseball fans, since none of their backstops are household names. But three of them — Danny Jansen, Alejandro Kirk and Reese McGuire — rank inside the top 30 catchers in baseball according to the 2021 ZiPS projections. What’s more, all three of those catchers are at similar stages in their development: Each is young and has little left to prove in the minors but has yet to break out in the big leagues. All that’s left to learn is how they handle the majors, which creates the challenge for Toronto of deciding just how best to divvy up opportunities between the three.

The frontrunner for the starting job behind the plate figures to be Jansen, who has held that job for much of the past two seasons. His big league experience (181 games) makes him a bit of an outlier compared with McGuire and Kirk (72 games combined), but Jansen is still something of a mystery, because his MLB career bears little resemblance to his time in the minors.

Danny Jansen Projections
Career/Projection PA AVG OBP SLG wOBA Fld WAR
Career 626 .208 .297 .370 .291 22.8 2.6
ZiPS 2021 395 .232 .315 .384 .301 0.8 1.4
Steamer 2021 364 .240 .326 .413 .317 0.3 2.3

When Jansen was a prospect, he was considered a bat-first player with an average glove. A 16th-round pick out of high school in 2013, he posted strong offensive numbers in his first two rookie ball seasons but broke out in 2017, posting wRC+ figures of 184, 121 and 172 across the top three levels of the minors, then followed that up with a 146 wRC+ in 88 Triple-A games the following year. He finished 2018 with a .247/.347/.432 slash line in 95 plate appearances in his first stint in the majors and cemented his spot as a Top 50 prospect in baseball going into 2019.

Since then, the script has been flipped. Jansen flopped at the plate in his first full big league season, hitting .207/.279/.360 for a 68 wRC+ in 2019. He managed to improve upon that somewhat last year, but not by much, inching up to a wRC+ of 89. Fortunately for Jansen, while his bat has faltered, his glove has excelled: Over the last two seasons, he ranks 10th among all catchers in framing runs and seventh in overall defensive value. If Jansen’s defense is legitimate and he starts to swing the bat the way he did in the minors, he may be a top-five catcher in baseball. But if his bat never recovers and his defense is a mirage, he’s going to struggle to keep a job.

Jansen’s Baseball Savant page does little to clear things up. His average exit velocity dipped by nearly four miles per hour last year, placing him down in the fifth percentile of all hitters. His 71st-percentile xwOBA looks good because of his 14.3% walk rate — up more than six points from the previous season — but that isn’t airtight, as he chased more pitches and whiffed more often than ever before. Statcast is also pessimistic about Jansen’s framing, which graded as above average in 2019 but dropped all the way to the 26th percentile in ’20. To this point in his career, the numbers haven’t been there to match his talent, and next season is an important one for correcting that.

While Jansen is trying to prove his brief MLB experience isn’t indicative of the player he can be moving forward, the opposite is true for McGuire.

Reese McGuire Projections
Career/Projection PA AVG OBP SLG wOBA Fld WAR
Career 183 .243 .281 .444 .305 6.4 0.9
ZiPS 2021 365 .235 .298 .379 .289 3.7 1.2
Steamer 2021 141 .229 .290 .366 .281 2.7 0.4

The same year the Blue Jays drafted Jansen, the Pirates selected McGuire with the No. 14 pick, one of the highest used on a high school catcher in recent memory. His bat didn’t develop much early in his pro career, however, and the team traded him to Toronto in 2016 in a deal that involved Francisco Liriano and Drew Hutchison. McGuire broke into the majors with the opposite reputation of Jansen: He had the skills of a great defensive catcher but wasn’t expected to contribute much with the stick. Then he produced a 146 wRC+ in a 33-PA cup of coffee in 2018 and a 128 wRC+ in a longer 105-PA stint in ’19. A third straight year of good hitting could have changed McGuire’s reputation, but instead he crashed back to earth, hitting just .073 with no walks and one homer in 45 plate appearances last season.

Even if McGuire never becomes an above-average hitter over a full season, his glove has lived up to its reputation. Baseball Prospectus had him in the top 20% of all catchers in framing runs in 2019 despite the fact that he played just one-sixth of the season. Strong receiving skills would make it easy for McGuire to secure a backup role in Toronto, if not for the third catcher vying for big league time.

Alejandro Kirk Projections
Career/Projection PA AVG OBP SLG wOBA Fld WAR
Career 25 .375 .400 .583 .418 -0.6 0.2
ZiPS 2021 364 .247 .332 .398 .315 0.1 1.7
Steamer 2021 426 .289 .355 .476 .350 -8.3 1.6

Kirk — listed at 5-foot-9 and 265 pounds — has his share of skeptics questioning the number of games he can reasonably expect to catch in the majors. Then again, athletes of this body type aren’t supposed to reach the big leagues at all, which is precisely what he did at for nine games last summer at age 21. The Blue Jays simply couldn’t keep his bat away for any longer.

Signed out of Mexico in 2017, Kirk played his first real season of pro ball in 2018, when he slashed .354/.443/.558 for 58 games in rookie ball. The following year, he split time between two levels of A ball and hit a combined .290/.403/.465. Over the entirety of his professional career, he’s hit 18 home runs in 160 games and logged 90 walks against 64 strikeouts. He’s just incredibly fun to watch.

Since Kirk has played only nine games above Advanced-A, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him begin 2021 in the minors to work on his defense behind the plate. But if the Jays are in contention while Kirk is raking in Triple-A, it could be difficult to resist getting his bat back in the lineup, and the earlier in the year that happens, the tougher it will be to justify demoting one of Jansen or McGuire, which will mean finding ways to get ample opportunities for all three.

The most straightforward way to do this would be using Kirk as the designated hitter and rotating Jansen and McGuire behind the plate. The issue with that is that Toronto is already using the DH spot to help with other positional logjams, particularly at first base, where Vladimir Guerrero Jr. now plays after moving off of third base. He and Rowdy Tellez spent much of the 2020 season alternating between first and DH, and both of those bats are important to the Blue Jays in ’21: Tellez hit .283/.346/.540 last season, while Vlad Jr. is, well, Vlad Jr. Moving Kirk to the DH spot also means that he has to clear a high bar offensively — not an impossible task, but a dramatic change in expectations for him nonetheless.

It’s possible that none of this is an issue. Tellez could go back to being a one-dimensional power hitter who strikes out a lot and isn’t forcing his way into the lineup. Maybe Kirk gets a slow start in the minors, or McGuire looks awful again, lessening the pressure to have either on the MLB roster. Someone could get hurt. Hell, everyone could get hurt. But the number of guys fighting for time behind the plate in Toronto isn’t going down any time soon. In fact, it’s likely to get bigger. Riley Adams, a 24-year-old former third-round pick in 2017, has done nothing but hit in the minors and could start 2021 in Triple-A. Gabriel Moreno, meanwhile, is only 20, but he could also find himself near the upper minors next season, having shot up Blue Jays prospect lists thanks to strong offensive performances and good defensive projection. It’s unlikely Moreno is banging down the door of the big leagues in 2021, but Adams very well may be.

The Blue Jays are an ascendant team who outdid expectations and made the playoffs last year, but they still have a lot to learn about the players who will shape the next wave of contention. When it comes to their catchers, it’s going to be difficult to learn about them when every big league rep given to one is a rep taken from the rest. None of them have proven yet that they are the team’s longterm answer, and each one has offered their own reason for optimism. Toronto’s catcher of the future is far from set in stone; whomever emerges with that role will have won a stiff competition to earn it.

Tony is a contributor for FanGraphs. He began writing for Red Reporter in 2016, and has also covered prep sports for the Times West Virginian and college sports for Ohio University's The Post. He can be found on Twitter at @_TonyWolfe_.

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2 years ago

I want Alejandro to succeed to badly, he’s just fun. Players like him make the game better!