Addison Barger’s MLB debut will have to wait, but for how long becomes the question
Photo credit:Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports
By Thomas Hall8 months ago
Toronto Blue Jays fans haven’t seen the last of prospect Addison Barger.
Barger, who was optioned to triple-A Buffalo following Monday’s 5-0 victory over the Detroit Tigers, entered this spring with plenty of optimism after being added to Toronto’s 40-man roster last November but was seen as a long shot to break camp with the big-league club as their 26th position player. And understandably so, considering the 23-year-old played just eight games with the Bisons last season.
With Barger and veteran outfielder Wynton Bernard headed to the minors, the battle for the Blue Jays’ final roster spot appears to be down to two players: right-hander Otto Lopez, who is likely the favourite and is coming off a tremendous performance at the World Baseball Classic, and left-hander Nathan Lukes.
This isn’t the end for Barger, though. It is just the beginning. While he is likely disappointed about not making the big-league roster, the organization’s No. 6 top prospect successfully put himself on the coaching staff’s radar this spring, beginning that process when he first arrived at the player development complex as his six-foot, 210-pound frame could barely fit inside his tight workout shirt.
It wasn’t that long ago that the sixth-round selection from 2018 weighed in the 150-160 pound range. But he made the best of the COVID-19 pandemic, which wiped out the 2020 minor-league season, allowing him to bulk up significantly ahead of his third professional campaign.
Barger’s muscles aren’t the only aspect of his craft that’s stood out thus far. So too, have his offensive tools, especially his mechanics in the batter’s box, which he modelled after one of his childhood idols, Japanese legend Ichiro Suzuki.
As a Bellevue, Washington native, Barger heavily followed Suzuki’s 19-year career in the majors, particularly the 14 seasons the future Hall-of-Famer spent with his hometown Seattle Mariners. He took notice of the 10-time All-Star’s unusually high leg kick and decided to incorporate it into his batting stance, helping him tap into his raw power over the last two seasons.
Growing up, however, the Blue Jays prospect was a natural righty and transitioned to switch-hitting while attending C. Leon King High School. But it wasn’t long before he started hitting exclusively from the left side – a decision that ultimately drew him to the Blue Jays during the 2018 draft.
Now, almost five years after being drafted 176th overall, Barger utilized the jumping leg kick he learned while watching Suzuki to make a solid first impression with manager John Schneider. And that has led to consistent reps with the Blue Jays in Grapefruit League action this spring, where he has certainly made the most of his opportunities.
Despite being optioned on Monday, the young lefty has slashed .294/.351/.441 with three extra-base hits and six RBIs across 15 exhibition contests. Most notably, he started the spring with a bang, blasting a 105.4-mph home run, travelling 382 feet, against the Pittsburgh Pirates during Toronto’s first game of 2023.
Though Barger has only gone deep once thus far, which is somewhat surprising, it is easy to understand how he terrorized opposing pitchers at three different levels (high-A, double-A, triple-A) last season. He isn’t the foul-pole-to-foul-pole hitter Suzuki was, although he does feature impressive bat-to-ball skills, evidenced by his collective .308 AVG and .376 BABIP over 124 games in 2022.
The left-handed infielder’s power, however, is the key that sets him apart from the rest. And most scouts believe there is additional room to grow in his 50-grade game power. If so, that would make his 26 home runs, .555 slugging percentage and .246 isolated power from a season ago even more noteworthy.
Collectively, Barger was among the organization’s top performers last season, earning recognition as one of Toronto’s minor-league All-Stars. His offensive tools were on full display, leading the franchise’s farm system in AVG, SLG, ISO, wOBA (.405), wRC+ (151) and RBIs (91), according to FanGraphs. He also directed most of his batted balls to right field, generating the fifth-highest pull percentage (49.1) and enjoying success without any shift restrictions.
In most instances, increased power usually translates into an alarming amount of swing-and-miss for young hitters – think fellow Blue Jays prospect Orelvis Martinez, whose strikeout rate climbed to a career-worst 28.5 per cent while crushing 30 home runs at double-A last season. Barger, meanwhile, has done the opposite amidst his power surge.
After the left-hander’s strikeout rate exceeded 30 per cent in 2021, 32.9 at single-A and 31.6 at high-A, it dropped significantly below that threshold during his stints in Vancouver (26.0 per cent) and New Hampshire (25.3 per cent) before finishing with five walks and five punchouts across 36 plate appearances in Buffalo to wrap up his age-22 campaign.
These encouraging attributes are why the Blue Jays are hopeful that Barger’s ascension to the majors will come as early as this season. The current issue, however, is they can’t guarantee him regular playing time with an infield that includes Matt Chapman, Bo Bichette, Whit Merrifield, Santiago Espinal and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. And the team wouldn’t be doing his development any favours by having him sit on the bench for an extended period.
Instead, Barger will be an everyday player with the Bisons when their 2023 season begins on Mar. 31, where he’ll bide his time until the big-league club comes calling. His primary duties will include working on his craft at third base and shortstop, but he’ll also continue learning the outfield – something he’s been challenged with during spring training.
The left-hander, who throws with his right hand and features one of the strongest arms in Toronto’s prospect system, clocked at 95 mph as a pitcher in his senior year of high school, hadn’t played beyond the infield prior to 2023. But given his incredible arm strength and the fact his path to the show is blocked by a crowded infield group, adding a corner outfield spot to his resume could result in an earlier promotion.
Or at least, that is what the Blue Jays hope will transpire. Since two-thirds of the team’s starting outfield trio – Kevin Kiermaier and George Springer – has struggled to stay healthy historically, that plan could prove worthwhile. If either required an IL stint, Barger could be recalled to provide another layer of depth, joining Merrifield, Cavan Biggio and Lopez or Lukes.
Gaining experience in the outfield – with a glove gifted to him by Kiermaier – would also be another way for Barger to earn consistent at-bats in the majors with a healthy roster, as his versatility would allow him to fill in at multiple positions (third base, shortstop, second base, first base, left field, right field), providing rest to the team’s regulars.
Based on Matt Chapman’s uncertain future, who’s an impending free agent, it’d be wise to expose Barger to as much major-league pitching as possible, testing his readiness at the highest level of competition. It is unrealistic to assume he could immediately take over as Chapman’s replacement – if he signs elsewhere next winter – in 2024. But Toronto’s front office won’t know either way until the youngster proves himself in the big leagues.
That won’t be possible out of the gate. No matter what level Barger performs at in 2023, though, everyone’s attention will be squarely focused on the talented prospect over the next six months.
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