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The Battle for Backup

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Jim McIsaac

Since the first of the two big off-season trades made by Alex Anthopoulos this winter, the Blue Jays have seen drastic turnover at the catching position. In 2012, J.P. Arencibia and Jeff Mathis caught for the Blue Jays, with Yorvit Torrealba and Yan Gomes getting some time behind the plate while Arencibia was injured.

Jon Buck was acquired in the Marlins trade and subsequently traded to the Mets as part of the haul for R.A. Dickey, along with top prospect Travis d'Arnaud. In return, the Blue Jays received two players with experience catching the knuckleball: Josh Thole and (Canadian) Mike Nickeas. Henry Blanco, who also has experience catching Dickey, was signed last month to a non-guaranteed contract worth $750,000.

With J.P. Arencibia a shoo-in for starter (whether he should be or not), this set us up nicely for a somewhat interesting spring training battle in a year where most of the lineup is already set.

Josh Thole

Twenty-six year old Illinois native Josh Thole was drafted by the Mets in the 13th round of the 2005 draft. He had, well, a rough year in 2012. He suffered a concussion on May 7, after a collision at the plate with Ty Wigginton. Though he only missed a month (he returned just in time to catch Johan Santana's no-hitter on June 1), it appears his play was greatly effected by the injury: he hit only .234/.294/.290 in 321 at bats, and his wRC+ was an unpleasant 60.

2011 was a significantly better year for Thole, and should give Blue Jays fans some hope for the future: he spent the entirety of the season with the Mets, and hit .268 with a wRC+ of 94, with a strikeout rate of 12.2% and a walk rate of 9.8%, both of which are very good. While his strikeout and walk rates went up and down respectively in 2012 (to 14.1% and 7.6%), they didn't drop drastically enough to cause great alarm, and they were still far better than Arencibia's rates of 29% and 4.8%

If Thole is able to get back to and exceed his 2011 numbers, there is a chance he could take over Arencibia's starting job. If he doesn't improve, though, we could be seeing a lot more of...

Henry Blanco

Henry Blanco made his major league debut with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1997. Sixteen years later, he's 41 years old and with his tenth MLB team.

Anthopoulos signed Blanco to bring some veteran experience to the team, and because Blanco has experience catching R.A. Dickey's knuckleball (he was with the Mets in 2010, Dickey's breakout season).

I would much prefer having Josh Thole on the team as the backup catcher out of spring training, due to his age and the simple fact that he's got more potential to be valuable in the future, but we should not be surprised if Henry Blanco is the man we see catching Dickey every five days, at least at the start of the season. The fact that Blanco's contract isn't guaranteed means that he could be cut during spring training with minimal impact to the team, which could mean that a lot is dependent on spring training (assuming they hadn't already made a decision going into spring training), and obviously that's not the greatest place to be.

However, Dickey has said that Blanco was the best catcher he's ever worked with, and perhaps that alone is a good enough reason to give him a chance. If the Blanco experiment turns out to be a failure, Josh Thole is only a couple hours away in Buffalo, and could be called up any time.

Mike Nickeas

That Nickeas will begin the season in Buffalo is all but a certainty. With Thole and Blanco ahead of him on the depth chart, we should all be hoping that Nickeas doesn't see any time with the Blue Jays this season - because that would mean either injuries or sub-par play from the three catchers discussed above.

Nickeas is under contract for more than one season, though (he's under team control until 2018), and he could potentially have a future with the Blue Jays, though it's unlikely that future will be as anything more than a backup or third string catcher.

So, what do you think? Who would you like to see as backup catcher and who do you think deserves the job?