Glaring Weaknesses: Catcher Edition

This picture is really creepy is you imagine J.P is getting his neck massaged gently - USA TODAY Sports

I don't know if anyone has heard, but the Jays could probably use a new catcher.

The second edition of my mini-series addressing the biggest weaknesses on the Blue Jays focuses on catchers. For those who missed Monday's intro the premise of the series is that I look at potential upgrades for the Jays at particular positions where they have had problems that could help within the 2014-2015 window I believe the team should be concentrating on. Each article looks at two options from within the organization as well as two players outside the organization, one of whom would be relatively easy to acquire, the other that would be far harder to get but might just be possible to add to the team.

The Blue Jays' catching situation is a well-documented trouble spot for the franchise. J.P. Arencibia isn't really a viable starter given that he has demonstrated the ability to hit home runs with some regularity but possesses no other baseball related skills of great value. There is some information to suggest he has been a decent pitch framer but the study of pitch framing is in its infancy and it's only the true outliers, like Jose Molina, that we can safely say make a significant difference with their ability to frame pitches. There are a lot of negative things that can be said about Arencibia, most of which can be backed up by objective data, but most of it has been heard before. I'm not interested in criticizing J.P. beyond stating that an upgrade is needed. Beating the dead horse does not constitute high quality analysis. The fact of the matter that is J.P Arencibia's production along with putrid performances by Henry Blanco and Josh Thole have given Blue Jays catchers a combined slash line of .207/.247/.375 and a league worst -0.5 WAR. It wouldn't take much to constitute an upgrade on that but where could an upgrade be found? We start with internal options.

Internal Options

Option #1 A.J. Jimenez

The 23-year-old Jimenez is one of the Blue Jays' most highly regarded prospects and he is walloping the ball at Double-A to the tune of .376/.400/.495 so there doesn't seem to be a lot not to like. Adding in an excellent defensive reputation and some surprising athleticism on the bases is just icing on the cake. However, there are a few reasons to temper optimism regarding Jimenez. One is that he has hit for fairly empty average over his minor league career. Jimenez has never hit for an ISO over .130 or had a walk rate of more than 6.6% at any of his minor league stops thus far. While he has shown solid ability as a contact hitter his lack of pop or discipline puts him somewhat at the mercy of BABIP gods who have so far been good to him with marks like .340 (2009), .362 (2010), .348 (2011) and .436 (this year so far at double-A). Though some hitters do demonstrate the ability to maintain high BABIP numbers those numbers seem likely to be unsustainable and it seems very unlikely that Jimenez will come up and hit .300 the way he has done in the minors. Not that he has to.

While his bat does scare me a bit, his contact ability alone (he had only a 14.2% strikeout rate in his last full season) gives him a higher OBP ceiling than Arencibia (not that this is a feat of any kind) and his glove will likely be his trademark in the major leagues. I haven't had the pleasure of seeing Jimenez play but the reports on his defense are fairly glowing and he profiles as an above-average defender at the position, which is something that Jays fans have not seen on a day to day basis for some time. If Jimenez can make it to AAA by the end of this year there is a chance he is given a shot at the starting job as early as 2014. Even if his bat falters he looks to have the makings of an excellent backup who would be an upgrade in that capacity at least. Either way it is likely we will see Jimenez with the Blue Jays in the not too distant future.

Option #2: Sean Ochinko

The second best catcher in the Jays system is certainly Santiago Nessy. However, given that Nessy has not yet turned 21 and is working at single-A Lansing at the moment, it doesn't seem likely that he could contribute in either 2014 or 2015. Perhaps he could reach the majors sometime in 2015 if he really excelled in the near future but it doesn't seem likely. Ochinko turns 26 this year and is getting his first taste of triple-A. He is not faring well with a .196/.328/.268 line but he's only had 68 plate appearances. Ochinko has good plate discipline (BB rate of 10.4% and 16.2% this year over two levels) but doesn't offer that much more with the bat and the last time he really hit well was last year in Dunedin as a 24 year old. He also isn't a pure catcher, playing some 3B and 1B (kind of like Yan Gomes used to do) and to be honest there just isn't a lot to see here. Positional versatility is somewhat interesting but he is unlikely to be a big league player.

Jimenez is an interesting prospect but not a surefire starter in the Travis d'Arnaud mold and so it is definitely worth looking at what might be available outside the organization.

External Options

Realistic Acquisition Possibility: Ryan Hanigan, Cincinnati Reds

For the last year and a bit the Cincinnati Reds have had trouble picking a starting catcher between reliable veteran Ryan Hanigan and promising youngster Devin Mesorasco but it appears the stalemate is about to come to an end. Mesorasco is hitting .242/.318/.363 for an underwhelming wRC+ of 82, but this will likely be enough to lay claim to the starting job due to Ryan Hanigan's absolutely awful .196/.293/.280 line for a wRC+ of 50. Mesorasco is not only producing more but is also the higher ceiling option and although the Reds would likely be happy to keep Hanigan around and give him a few starts it seems likely that a 32-year-old catcher who is on his way to becoming a backup might be available on the trade market. Given that the Reds need to win now they would want players that improve their major league club in 2013 so this might be a destination for a Darren Oliver who could perhaps be paired with Josh Thole and possibly another minor piece to get something done. Hanigan's value on the market cannot be very high given his current production and age.

Hanigan has his blemishes, this year's statistics foremost among them, he seems like an excellent buy low opportunity. Here's a basic overview of what Hanigan has done over the last few years.

Year

AVG

OBP

SLG

K%

BB%

wRC+

BABIP

WAR

2010

.300

.405

.429

8.6

13.6

126

.313

2.1

2011

.267

.356

.357

10.5

11.5

99

.285

1.8

2012

.274

.365

.338

10

11.9

87

.302

2.7

2013

.196

.293

.280

10.3

10.9

50

.208

0.0

In case you are curious the reason that Hanigan's WAR is higher in 2012 than 2010 is because he had a monster year defensively according to Fangraphs' defensive metrics. While Hanigan is not going to see the lofty heights of his 2010 season again, this is still a player who walks more often than he strikes out and with a little more batted ball luck his current season line could look a lot more like 2011 or 2012.While he is in the decline of his career that decline has been exaggerated by an absurdly low BABIP. Given that he has virtually no power even a rebound to his batting average and OBP leaves him as a below average hitter, but unlike Arencibia he would be a below average hitter who is an accomplished defensive catcher.

Hanigan's defense is perhaps the most important thing he brings to the table. According to Baseball-Reference he has been worth 3.9 defensive WAR over his career and Fangraphs has him as 20.8 runs above average. His arm is especially impressive as he has thrown out 40.7% of base runners over his career and 49.4% in the last two years. When you combine that defensive acumen with some potentially not-disastrous offense and team control through arbitration in 2014 Hanigan looks like an interesting target.

The second possibility mentioned here would be a long term solution at the catcher position who I think is unlikely to be available but is another guy that his lowest possible value at this moment.

Far Less Realistic Acquisition Possibility: Miguel Montero, Arizona Diamondbacks

Miguel Montero is having a tough year. He's hitting .221/.304/.322 for a paltry WAR of 0.2 in his age 30 season in the first year of his five-year $60-million dollar deal. While a deflated BABIP (.267) is one culprit for Montero's decline this year he also has had something of a power outage with an ISO of only .101, well below his career mark of .164. However, given his extended track record and the fact that his K% and BB% are right around last year's numbers a bounce back seems likely. One thing that makes Montero intriguing is that he pairs improving defense with his potentially potent bat. According to FanGraphs, Montero's defense was below average every year from his first full year in 2007 to 2010 but since 2011 he has saved 8.5 runs above average. An area where this change has come out has been his ability to catch base stealers. For his career Montero has thrown out 31% of base stealers whereas over the last three years that number has been 39%. If the quality defense remains and the bat returns then Montero is truly the complete package.

One can picture a scenario where the Diamondbacks feel that this contract is going awry and want to get rid of Montero and the Jays swoop in to take the contract, probably parting with some decent pieces as well to get it done. That being said, the Diamondbacks probably aren't stupid enough to give up on a guy who was worth 4 WAR in 2011 and 4.6 last year. They also are interested in winning this year so would need to see either Arencibia or Thole as a plausible stop gap option for them. It's not a likely situation, but one can dream...

The Blue Jays catching situation is problematic now and there is no internal help on the horizon in 2013. As early as 2014 A.J. Jimenez could make things interesting but the Blue Jays might want to look for opportunities outside the organization nonetheless. Whichever direction they choose to go, this team does not want to be looking at the same catching situation a year from today.

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