TDG’S Triple Play: Toronto Blue Jays!
The Triple Play is back for a fifth season! This regular feature is broken down by senior writer Phil Barrington and he is joined by a rotating panel of some of the best Dynasty Baseball writers in the business. If you’re new to the Triple Play, this series breaks down an arm, a bat, and a prospect within each organization for your reading pleasure!
Nate Pearson, Age: 25, Position: SP
Analysis by: Aaron Cumming
The Blue Jays selected Nate Pearson in the first round in 2017 out of a small junior college (College of Central Florida). He was coming off a dominating season in which he struck out 118 batters against just 23 walks in 81 innings pitched for the Patriots. His draft stock rose significantly and he was viewed as a big arm that just needed to be tested against upper level competition. A pitcher with his stuff has the easy floor of being a high leverage reliever, but this investment was the first sign of Toronto’s long history of believing in Pearson as a starter.
Pearson Of Interest
Pearson jumped into pro ball and threw 20 very good innings in Rookie and Low-A in 2017. Then in his first Spring Training in 2018, he was absolutely electric. He looked every bit the part of an ace-level starting pitcher prospect, and scouts and fans alike were clued into his immense potential. Once the regular season started, before he even completed his second inning in his first start, he took a comebacker and fractured his elbow on his throwing arm, knocking him out until the Fall League that year. The breakout that everyone was hoping for would have to be delayed.
And break out he did in 2019! With a mostly healthy season managed by occasional short starts, he eclipsed 100 innings across three levels (High-A, Double-A, and Triple-A) and struck out 119 batters while walking just 27, all while maintaining a 2.30 ERA. He had seemingly proved that he could sustain his elite fastball and slider over a full year, and mixed in a changeup and curveball, pushing him into la creme de la creme of pitching prospects. During that season, one scout said, “Pure stuff-wise, I have a hard time believing that anyone is better than Nate Pearson.” He catapulted from a fringe Top-100 prospect to regularly appearing in Top Ten lists of all MLB prospects entering 2020.
Please note that in the last paragraph I stated that he had “seemingly” proved he could manage a starter’s workload. In 2020 and 2021, similar disappointing storylines played out with a few details changed. An arm injury kept him sidelined for most of ‘20 and groin issues limited him in ‘21. Pearson managed to come back for the playoffs in 2020 and blew away the eventual AL champion Rays in two innings, causing any deflation of his value to get pumped all the way back up. Who could imagine that it’s a bad policy to bet big on two innings of performance?! 2021 saw mixed results working around a sports hernia and worse control than he’s ever shown before. In both seasons, he began as a starter, suffered an injury, and closed the season as a nearly untouchable reliever (20 strikeouts and a 2.84 ERA in 12.2 relief innings in September of 2021).
Nate The Great Relief Pitcher
The turmoil surrounding the 2022 season and a truncated Spring Training has changed how every team needs to handle their pitching staff. There is a lot of discussion over the phrase “getting stretched out” these days, with the historical interpretation indicating a starting role. However, at least to start this season, it seems like many clubs will ease their staff into traditional roles by having many of their bullpen arms work 2-4 inning outings to save their starters. So when Nate Pearson relayed earlier this month that he was told by the Blue Jays to get “stretch[ed] out,” only to have them sign Yusei Kikuchi to be their 5th starter, many fans thought he had lost his shot at being a starter. Realistically, he was never going to be their starter. The Blue Jays have wanted him to be in their rotation, but I think both they and Pearson realize that being on the field in any capacity is better than nothing. Kaitlyn McGrath, the Blue Jays beat reporter for The Athletic, has staunchly stated that Person will maintain a hybrid role for the Jays in 2022.
At this point, that seems like the best utilization. His one successful season in 2019 consisted of alternating starts of five and two innings to eventually accrue 100+ innings. So instead of attempting to be a starter, getting hurt, and ending as a reliever, he can begin as a reliever and spot start as needed, perhaps even moving into the role full-time at the end of the season. He isn’t likely to be a workhorse, but with proper load management, he could be something akin to what we expect from Shane Baz or Michael Kopech, with ~110 great innings. The problem with rostering a player like this is that it isn’t on you to manage how he’s deployed; you’re dependent on the major league club to do the right thing. If he is able to consistently stay on the field, even without a full season of starts, he will put up elite quality innings, and be a boost to any fantasy roster.
Alejandro Kirk, Age: 23, Position: C/DH
Analysis by: Ryan Felix Fernandes
There is plenty of low hanging fruit to choose from when you look at hitters to target from the Blue Jays roster. So instead I decided a week ago I will go in a direction that will be different. Be a pioneer, an innovator, dare I say the king of fantasy baseball and go with a player that no one would think of. I give you (drum roll please)…. Alejandro Kirk! Yes, I know his name appears above this summary, but if I could have a drum roll before anything I do in life I’d do it!
Now if you are reading this right now I am sure you keep up with the TDG Roundtable (if you don’t you should because they know a lot more than me). So a couple days ago I took a look to see what was talked about on the Roundtable this week and the subject was, “The players we’re rostering the most.”
Of course I want to read that to see what everyone thought with one of my fantasy drafts coming up. Everyone came up with a lot of great insight and knowledge. These are some of the smartest people in fantasy baseball right now. I was fully entrenched until my world came crashing down with Jordan Rosenblum’s section. The first player he mentioned is Alejandro Kirk. THE FIRST! And to top that off he summarized Kirk as a “projection system darling with a phenomenal track record of hitting across the minors and majors.” Damn, that’s good. I stopped reading at that moment and thought to myself that all Jordan needed was that one eloquently put together sentence to say what I spent the last week coming up with two page drafts about Kirk. At that point I clenched my fist in the air and screamed, “Why God! Why did Jordan have to be born!”
After spending the next ten minutes looking for Jordan on Twitter from my burner account to tweet at him that he was a horrible person. I thought better of it and also I couldn’t find him. I am now here to piggyback on Jordan’s reason why Kirk is a hitter we will key on this season and beyond from the Blue Jays.
Alejando Kirk, who I will officially dub “La Bola de Boliche” (the Bowling Ball…beat that Jordan) stands 5’ 8” and at 265 lbs makes Pudge Rodriguez look like a Men’s Health cover boy. Kirk was signed out of the Mexican League after a showcase where a Blue Jays’ scout who was assigned to watch another catcher took notice of Kirk simply because of his stature before the showcase even started. It was Kirk’s line drive swing, plate discipline, and receiving skills at catcher that flipped that scout into urging the Blue Jays to sign Kirk instead of that other player back in 2016.
LA BOLA DE BOLICHE ONLY HITS STRIKES
Kirk’s plate discipline and lets be honest, small strike zone, is what makes him an OBP machine. Just think of the kid Miguel from the Bad News Bears movie (the 1976 version not the crap they redid). If you aren’t familiar with the movie Miguel (a short and stocky kid) comes up to bat and draws a walk because the pitcher couldn’t throw a strike to him due to his size. But, seriously as proven by Kirk’s minor league stats he actually had more walks than strikeouts at each level. Along with his crushing type power it makes his bat a very enticing option for the hard to fill catcher’s position in fantasy after the top guys are taken. In 2018 at Rookie Advanced he batted .354 with 10 home runs and 57 RBIs in 58 games.
A promotion in 2019 to Class A where he played 92 games with a .290 average with 7 home runs and 44 RBIs got him an invite to spring training in 2020. But, as we know the 2020 season was delayed with no spring training and with the minor league season canceled Kirk found himself on the Blue Jays taxi squad instead. He was called up in September for a cup of coffee with the major league squad in which he became the youngest catcher to collect four hits in a game since Joe Mauer in 2004.
In 2021, Kirk started in AAA where he continued to just keep raking while batting .347 with 17 hits in only 49 at bats with a couple home runs. He was called up back to the majors when Danny Jansen forgot how to hit. This should have been the beginning of Kirk becoming the official starting catcher for the Jays, but an injury to his left hip flexor landed him on the 60-day injured list.
When Kirk came back in July he split duty with Jansen who, to Jansen’s credit, started hitting a whole lot better. Kirk who still flashed his power with five home runs in limited duty couldn’t find the consistency to hit for average like he did before and started striking out at a higher clip. This is clearly a young player pressing after coming back from an injury to gain more playing time.
2022 AND BEYOND
Going back to what Jordan said in the TDG Roundtable, what worries him about Kirk is that he doesn’t have a clear path for playing time in 2022 due to Danny Jansen being ahead of him on the depth chart. I also have that worry as well because it does look like Jansen will be given every opportunity to start because of his defensive skills and Kirk’s lack thereof. The Blue Jays current roster makeup with the loss of Marcus Semien in the lineup will be lacking a little bit of the offensive firepower they had last year. Even with the addition of Matt Chapman to the lineup, Kirk’s bat is too valuable to be on the bench. With current Blue Jays’ DH Teoscar Hernandez vast improvement in the field last year that will get more playing time in the outfield which should open up more at bats for Kirk at DH.
Now here comes the rub for Kirk this season. Ever since the lockout was over, reputable Blue Jays’ reporters have had Kirk in various trade scenarios for the last month because of the ascension of the Jays’ top-ten catching prospect Gabriel Moreno. Couple that with the Jays gaining interest in finding a way to add Jose Ramirez from the Guardians to offset the loss of Semien and the Guardians in dire need of a young catcher. Kirk is a prime trade candidate with reports that Guardian scouts are in attendance at Blue Jays’ spring training games just for Kirk. By the end of spring training I wouldn’t be surprised if Kirk is on the Guardians roster which will result in him becoming the starting catcher supplanting Austin Hedges.
Now going back to Kirk’s potential moving forward. The missed time last year due to injury he didn’t qualify for at bats in the catcher rankings on Statcast, but if you use his 189 plate appearances his xwOBA (expected on base average) was .377 which lands him in the top three and xSLG (expected slugging) was .515 which landed him in the top five of all catchers in those categories. Along with his above average Barrel percentage of 11% (league average 6.6%) combined with his above average exit velocity of 92.3 mph (league average 88 mph) and launch angle at 14.7 makes his hitting comparisons similar to Corey Seager and Manny Machado. For Kirk’s consensus ADP of #279 and #19 for catchers this year it should make you stand up and take notice by taking a flyer on la Bola de Boliche. And if for some reason Kirk doesn’t pan out please send Jordan your hate mail because then Kirk was his idea.
Leo Jimenez, Age: 20, Position: 2B/SS, Level: Single-A
Analysis by: Phil Barrington
Leonardo Joel Jimenez is a 5’10” 160 pound, middle infield prospect from Panama, signed for $825,000 back in 2017. Toronto added him to their 40-man roster back in November, and when teams add 20-year-olds to their 40-man, it is time to take a closer look. After signing, he was sent to Rookie ball, and played for the Gulf Coast Blue Jays, where he shared the infield with current Blue Jays top prospect Jordan Groshans.
Let the past be the past
Though it was a lackluster debut for the (then) 17-year-old; in 37 games he hit no home runs, stole no bases, and had a slash line of .250/.333/.341. In 2019, back at Rookie Ball, his slash line looked a little better, .298/.377/.377 in 59 games (245 plate appearances) You can see by the slugging percentage that no power was evident, but the hit tool was on full display. A 17% strikeout rate and 9% walk rate were also encouraging signs. In 2020, Jimenez was not part of the Blue Jays 60-man pool, and was left to his own devices to improve his game.
Take a little trip to sunny Dudendin, FLA
In 2021 the Blue Jays invited Jimenez to spring training, to see his progress in the missed 2020 and let him get a chance to hang with members of the big-league club. The team sent him to play for Single-A Dunedin, and Jimenez showed why he has a possible 70 grade hit tool (care of FanGraphs). A .388 BABIP yielded a slash line of .315/.527/.381 with a 21% walk rate (whoa) and only 15% K-rate. He also hit his first home run (yay) and stole four bags, all in 54 games (242 plate appearances).
His most interesting stat? 21 hit by pitches (ouch). Jimenez did suffer an undisclosed injury and missed about a month of the season, from which he returned in September. Still, the Blue Jays felt confident enough to send Jimenez to the Arizona Fall League for some more baseball.
Legends of the Fall (League)
Jimenez was ecstatic to play in Arizona (as this interview can attest), and he held his own, in 38 at-bats he had nine hits (.237 average), though of those four were doubles, leading to an OPS of a respectable .754. He walked just as much as he struck out (8:8) and proved to the Blue Jays he was ready for the next challenge.
The bad of Jimenez is the lack of power and little speed in his minor league career thus far. The Blue Jays must be working on that, as Jimenez will need to find a way to add at least some power to make it as a fantasy prospect. The hit tool and batting eye are for real, walking more than he struck out (51:35 BB:K) in 2021. This season, where he should start at Double-A, will be extremely telling for his future fantasy, and MLB, prospects. When a team protects a 20-year-old from the Rule 5 draft as well as sends them to play in the AZL, it has to mean that the team has faith in a player. While Jimenez should only be added to rosters in deeper Dynasty Leagues as of now, keeping an eye on how he progresses in 2022 is a prudent move.