The signing of C Jarrod Saltalamacchia to a minor league deal last week intensifies the competition for the job of backing up Blue Jays incumbent Russell Martin when spring training starts this month.
And there have been rumblings that Reese McGuire, acquired in the Francisco Liriano deal last summer, is one of the combatants for that back up spot.
If that rumour is true, it shows that even though he finished the season with AA New Hampshire, the Blue Jays front office believes the 2013 Pirates' first rounder (14th overall) has passed A.J. Jimenez as the top Catching prospect in the organization.
While it's hard to see McGuire breaking camp with the team this April, there is no doubt that he profiles at least as a decent MLB back up. Concerns about his bat have persisted since high school, but there is little doubt about his defensive skills, which Baseball America noted in their scouting report prior to the draft:
His receiving, blocking and arm strength are all above-average, and he has been calling his own games since he was 10 years old. He has a high baseball IQ and game awareness. The question will be how much McGuire will hit. He has a smooth lefthanded swing with strength and bat speed and shows the tools to be an above-average pure hitter with average power.
McGuire progressed through the Pirates' system quickly, rising as high as their 5th-ranked prospect by 2014, and even cracked BA's Top 100. Expectations dipped as his offensive production didn't develop as expected. Craig Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus observes that while McGuire puts the ball in play, there's not a lot of hard contact:
The contact ability is there to make him an average (or perhaps slightly above) hitter, but he’s yet to show the kind of power that would stop pitchers from challenging him, and more than his fair share of at-bats end in weak contact. He works deep counts and shows an advanced approach at the plate, and will flash average raw power in BP, so there’s something to latch onto for the dreamers out there.At 5'11"/215, McGuire may be on the stocky side, but he moves well behind the plate and on the bases, suggesting both athleticism and a high baseball IQ. He sets a good target for his pitchers, and does not give away pitch locations to hitters. He has smooth actions when receiving pitches, which allows him to frame well:
McGuire's ability to control the running game is also an important part of his toolkit. He threw out 39% of would-be Eastern League base runners prior to his trade to Toronto; the lower success rate he experienced with New Hampshire (17%) may be attributable to his working with a new pitching staff, and because the league stopped running on him.
McGuire may not have a cannon for an arm, but he has superb footwork, a quick release, and a deadly accurate arm - he gets rid of the ball quickly, and the ball often arrives before the runner. If he makes the team this year, it may take him a while to make any noise with his bat, but fans will appreciate his throwing skills very quickly.
At the plate, McGuire has shown good strike zone judgement over the course of his minor league career. The left-handed hitter uses a leg kick to load up his swing, and he shows good bat-to-ball skills by putting a lot of balls in play, but he doesn't make a lot of hard contact. He drops his hands as he strides, and he doesn't appear to have the bat speed to get his barrel into the hitting zone early enough to drive the ball more - there's not a lot of loft to that swing, either. Cubs Scout Jason Parks, writing for Baseball Prospectus, once wrote that "Hands are the mothers of hitting," when it comes to their role in a batter's swing:
Hands establish the physical connection with the bat, but they also control the navigational system that takes the bat into the load, into the zone, into the path of the baseball, and through the secondary extension......When a hitter rushes or drops his hands, such mechanical hitches either get ironed out or the hitter gets exposed in a graphic manner.Going over video of McGuire's ABs since he joined New Hampshire, it does appear that former Fisher Cats hitting coach Stubby Clapp helped limit McGuire's hands drop. It did not reflect it in his numbers for August, but he did appear to be driving the ball more. This may be one of the reasons the Blue Jays feel he's ready to move on.
Given his build and athletic skills, there is still some hope that the power in his bat might develop, but his mechanics may need adjusting if he's ever to fulfil that projection. McGuire may have to lengthen his swing, and trade some of those walks (about a 10% rate last year) for some added pop.
Given the fact that his bat may still be developing, it's interesting to hear that he may be in the mix for a big league job this spring. From a developmental point of view, it might be better to leave him in Buffalo, and allow him plenty of reps, and time to handle pitching prospects like Conner Greene, or possibly even Sean Reid-Foley later in the season. Or this may be a signal that the Blue Jays feel that his bat has gone as far as it can, and since his glove is already close to major league-ready, it's time to begin his career as a dependable MLB back up.
The departure of R.A Dickey and his personal Catcher Josh Thole now gives the Blue Jays added flexibility when it comes to this position. Martin can get rest on a more predictable schedule this year (day game after a night game, etc), which should boost his production and sharpen his defence as the season nears its end (Martin posted a .625 OPS last Sept/Oct). Even in a secondary role, McGuire may become a valuable component of a team looking to reach the playoffs for the third straight year.