I Keep Making These To-Do Lists But Nothing Gets Crossed Out: Should the Blue Jays Keep John Buck?

Decisions, decisions.  Now that the Jays have announced their manager and the return of some important coaches, the next item on the agenda is player personnel decisions.  Free agents can file five days after the conclusion of the World Series.  In order to get draft pick compensation for departing free agents, teams must offer arbitration by November 23, 2010 and those would-be free agents get a week to decide.  Teams must offer arbitration to reserved players (those not eligible for free agency) by December 2 and the winter meetings commence a few days later.  The Jays will have plenty of core players returning, but they also have some tough decisions between now and the end of 2010.  This series will look at those issues, one by one. 

First up, John Buck.  The Jays brought John Buck in prior to the 2010 season in what turned out to be a very savvy deal.  Mediocre veteran catchers were getting 2-year deals for upwards of $2 million per season, and the Jays brought Buck in on a 1-year, $2 million deal.  Buck responded by having the best season of his career, hitting .281/.314/.489, with 20 home runs and catching one of the better, and most surprising, pitching staffs in baseball.  Buck was a 3-win player, suggesting the Jays got almost $11.5 million in value on a $2 million layout, good business to go along with good baseball. 

Buck enjoyed Toronto and has said that he would be happy to return, but he has made clear that it must be on his terms, meaning he'd have to be assured a starting role.  With the season he's had, he's clearly in the driver's seat in that regard and there's no doubt he could command a starting job, and likely a multi-year deal.  While Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopolous has indicated that the Jays very much like Buck and would be happy to have him return, the picture is complicated and the Jays have not yet made a decision on what to do. 

First, the easy decision - whether to offer Buck arbitration by November 23rd.  Yes, the Jays should, and will, do so.  Buck is a type B free agent and therefore will bring the Jays a sandwich round pick (between the first and second rounds) if he is offered arbitration and signs a major league deal with another team, which he will.  The team signing him doesn't have to give up anything (other than cash), so there's no impediment to his signing, and there are plenty of teams around the league that he could help so his signing a major league deal is a near certainty. 

Now, the tough choice.  Assuming Buck rejects the deal, which he likely would, the Jays have to decide whether or not to try to bring him back.  What complicates this is the season that first-round pick and backstop prospect J.P. Arencibia enjoyed last season.  Arencibia hit .301/.359/.626 for Las Vegas.   Those numbers have to be taken with a grain of salt because Arencibia was repeating the level and because the PCL is an extreme hitters' environment, but it's not as if the season came out of nowhere.  Arencibia was a very highly-touted catching prospect out of college (University of Tennessee) and only slipped to the back end of the 1st round because of a back injury and potential concerns as to whether he could stick behind the plate.  Arencibia has quieted both of those concerns by enjoying good back health and progressing very nicely on defense, despite some hand-wringing in the press based on a few poor pitching performances he happened to catch at the major-league level.  He has caught between 1/4 and 1/3 of runners attempting to steal and is said to have solid footwork and good hands behind the plate.    While he definitely had a poor 2009, we learned after the season that Arencibia was plagued by several nagging injuries and poor vision throughout the 2009 season.  2008 was Arencibia's first full season in professional ball and he showed solid contact skills and power, hitting .298/.322/.527 across high A and double A. 

The question remains, of course, what is Arencibia capable of producing at the major league level, and when will he be ready to do so.  Arencibia's main offensive limitation is his relatively poor plate discipline, but that's a skill on which he has improved in each season he's played professional ball.  His first season J.P. was walking less than 3.5% of the time, but he bumped that up to 5.2% even in his disappointing 2009, and in 2010 he was walking 8.3% of the time, which isn't bad for a catcher who can hit home runs (for example, it's far better than John Buck's 3.7% last season as well as his 6.5% career rate).  The question is whether Arencibia can walk that often at the major league level - he will need to in order to get the most out of his other offensive skills. 

Arencibia, like Buck, is basically a hard-swinging fastball hitter who struggles with offspeed and breaking pitches, and that's not necessarily a bad thing.  What he'll need to do to succeed is to recognize the breaking stuff early so he can lay off it when possible. 

Then, there's the question of his defense - Cito Gaston had Arencibia riding the bench at the major-league level, both when Buck was injured and again at the time of September roster expansion.  Whether he wanted Buck to have the chance to improve his counting stats or whether he didn't trust Arencibia behind the plate is open to interpretation, but with a young pitching staff that was key to the team's 2010 success, the Jays are not going to take a chance by allowing a prospect to learn how to catch at the major-league level.  Either he is ready for the responsibility, or he isn't. 

Arencibia didn't get much of a chance to play at the major-league level so I don't think it's fair to read much into his major-league numbers, either the good (his incredible first mlb game) or the bad (there were some 0fers with multiple strikeouts sprinkled in there too).  I think it's fair to say that it would be a stretch for Arencibia to replicate the numbers Buck put up in 2010, but I'm not sure Buck would be able to replicate those numbers either.  Arencibia will likely take some time to redevelop his plate discipline and pitch recognition (generally skills that are relearned at each successive new level) and the pressure of catching in the majors everyday is likely to take some toll on his offensive skills.

Personally, I don't think Arencibia has much to learn from hitting or catching everyday at AAA, particularly in the PCL.  If he has anything to learn on the offensive side, it's adjusting to big-league secondary pitches which are better than those in the minors (and particularly breaking stuff doesn't break as much in the PCL parks).  If the Jays decide he's not ready to start at the major-league level, I'd rather see them bring John Buck back and make Arencibia his understudy, even though it will be frustrating to see him ride the pine.  The problem with that is that Buck is likely looking for a multi-year deal and I'm not sure the Jays can make that commitment at this point.  That said, if Arencibia blossomed the Jays could trade Buck. 

For my money, Buck was great for the Jays, but it was also a career year for him and it's never best to overpay after a career season.  Arencibia doesn't have much to prove to me in the minors and he'll be 25 in January with three full seasons of professional ball which is hardly callow by baseball standards.  And the compensatory draft pick is a big incentive to part ways with Buck - past comp round picks have included Brett Cecil (for Justin Speier), Aaron Sanchez (for Marco Scutaro), Noah Snydergaard (for A.J. Burnett (albeit delayed a year)), and Asher Wojchiechowski (for Rod Barajas), significant pieces of the Jays' future picture.

I wouldn't hand Arencibia the starting job, but I think I'd let Buck go, bring in a couple of veteran Jose Molina-type catchers on 1-year deals, and give Arencibia a chance to win all or most of the starting job in the spring. 

What would you do? 

Title from the great Bright Eyes' song "Nothing Gets Crossed Out"

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