In the first of my series of position-by-position preview of the Jays, we’ll look at catcher, where JP Arencibia returns for his sophomore season as the starter. Last year’s backup Jose Molina signed an offseason deal with the Rays so Jeff Mathis was brought in from the Angels to take over that role. It’s a pretty big downgrade, as Molina was above average offensively last year, and Mathis was his usual self, posting a .484 OPS. The Blue Jays’ #1 prospect according to all sources, Travis D’Arnaud, could be called up to the club sometime during the season as well, but it’s unlikely that we’ll see him until September.
After tearing up the PCL in 2010, Arencibia earned a call up to the majors in August of that year but struggled offensively in limited time. The Jays’ were still confident with him heading into 2011 as the starter though, letting John Buck leave after the season. Arencibia started off the 2011 season fairly strong, hitting .258/.319/.497 through May 31 with an 8.4 BB% and a K% of 23.5. From June 1 to the end of the season however, Arencibia struggled mightily, posting only a .199/.263/.408 line, and seeing his BB% fall to 6.9% and his K% rise to 29.4%. His BABIP also fell to a lowly .232 over this period, compared to a .295 mark up till May 31. Over his minor league career, he posted a BABIP over .300 every year but once (Las Vegas 2009), so bad luck could have been a factor in his lower performance level over the last 4 months of the season. His power stuck around even with his other offensive woes though, as Arencibia posted an ISO above .200 in every month of the season except September (.171). His defense was below average last year according to both B-R(-7 runs) and FG (-5 runs), but that is fairly common for rookie catchers, and he should improve.
Ideally, you’d like to see Arencibia cut his K rate down to about 20% in 2012, which may be a bit optimistic judging by his minor league numbers. I think it’s far more likely to be 22-23%, which is still a bit higher than one would like considering that Arencibia is unlikely to post a BB% higher than league average. Arencibia’s power is his strongest tool, and he should be able to put up 20-25 HR’s again this year, with 30 HR an outside possibility. He should improve his defense a bit in his second season, where I expect him to be about average. I think he could hit anywhere from .220 – .260 this year, but I think a likely line is about .240/.310/.470, good for a wOBA of .336 and putting him at about 2.5 WAR over 500 at bats.
Jeff Mathis – Age 29 – 6’0 – 200lbs
Mathis’ career batting line is .194/.257/.301. From 1990 onward, his career OPS+ of 50 is the third worst of any non-pitcher with at least 1100 plate appearances, and over his career he has been slightly below average defensively. In summation, Jeff Mathis is not a good player. I don’t understand the Blue Jays thinking in bringing him in. Sure he’s just the backup catcher and probably (hopefully) won’t have more than 150 plate appearances, but for someone who’s so utterly terrible at hitting, you’d at least like him to be above average defensively; which he’s not.
Mathis will likely start 30-40 games this year, and I’m guessing there’s a good chance those will mostly be Brandon Morrow’s starts. I project him for about .185/.230/.270 over 150 PA, which should also make you angry. That’s around -0.6 WAR for anyone keeping score.
D’Arnaud is the Jays’ top prospect, and has been ranked as high as the 6th best prospect in baseball this offseason. He put up a .311/.371/.542 line last year with New Hampshire, and projects to be a middle-of-the-order hitter for years to come.
D’Arnaud will likely play the majority of the season in the minors before getting a September call-up. There’s a chance though that if he dominates in the minors, he could force the Jays to call him up in July or August, and split time with Arencibia for the rest of the year. Probably unlikely, but it would take at bats away from Jeff Mathis, which is always a good thing. I project a .270/.330/.410 line over 50 or so PAs for D’Arnaud.
Total 2012 Catcher Projection: .230/.294/.423, 2.2 WAR