On the afternoon of August 14, 2012, Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos held a small press conference to announce that catcher Jeff Mathis has been signed to a two-year extension worth three million dollars and a one-year 1.5 million dollar club option for 2015. I initially wondered what the point was given the Jays’ catching depth as well as the fact that Mathis is a great defensive back-up catcher who has a horrendously weak bat (career 48 wRC+, 76 wRC+ in 2012). These numbers go as far as to cement him as the worst hitter (non-pitcher) in baseball since 2005. However, Defensive Runs Saved likes Mathis as an above-average defensive catcher (career 34 defensive runs saved). This is a profile that fits a serviceable, but not stellar back-up who does little more than catch day games after night games, with one extra start every fortnight or so.
Given the team’s catching depth and current needs, this low-cost extension could prove quite useful and open the Blue Jays to great flexibility. Viewing the roster as currently constructed, accounting for the 40-man and disabled list players the Blue Jays have three catchers for next year: J.P. Arencibia, Travis D’Arnaud and the aforementioned Jeff Mathis. Arencibia opened this year as the starter and remained in the role until breaking his hand on July 24, potentially ending his season prematurely. Arencibia’s hitting had marginally improved in 2012 (.316 wOBA and 97 wRC+ vs. .309 and 92 in 2011), but this improvement was driven by a blistering July, where he posted a .345 OBP, .415 wOBA and 189 wRC+. The rest of his year was much uglier as he hit .224/.263/.404 with a .305 wOBA. Arencibia is a poor hitter, even for a catcher, who has greater perceived value largely due to his home run and RBI totals. Travis D’Arnaud is the Blue Jays’ catcher of the future, acquired in the Roy Halladay deal. Ranked 17th in the 2012 Baseball America preseason rankings, he has shot up the list, currently residing at 8th after a strong season at Triple-A Las Vegas. With the major caveat that the Pacific Coast League is a severe hitters’ league and that Las Vegas is the second most affected park; D’Arnaud hit.333/.380/.595 with a .414 wOBA, his best strikeout rate in three years and a 31-point Isolated Power uptick (.262 from .231). Despite the environment, his BABIP only increased nine points from his Double-A year, which would seem to support that his improvement is at least partly genuine. It is quite possible that D’Arnaud could produce Arencibia-like power, but have a league-average-or-better OBP to go with it, making him one of the truly elite hitting catchers in the game. He probably will never challenge for a batting title like Mauer, but a Brian McCann type peak is certainly not out of the realm of possibility. Add in the fact that his defense has been projected anywhere from above-average to elite, compared with the average-to-below average defense Arencibia provides now and D’Arnaud has a chance to be the catcher of the mid-to-late 2010s in MLB.
The primary knock on D’Arnaud unfortunately has been his health. He caught 114 games last year at Double-A, but only 71 the year before at High-A, while missing some time mid-season upon injuring his back. This year, he only caught 67 games before tearing his right posterior cruciate ligament (PCL, knee) and he tore a thumb ligament in this past off-season playing in the World Cup of Baseball. If D”Arnaud is healthy and has a strong spring, the Jays could face a log-jam and may end up carrying three catchers. Anthopoulos hinted the D’Arnaud would DH some next year, but I don’t see any logic in having D’Aranaud in as DH, while putting the defensively inferior Arencibia behind the plate. Given John Farrell’s (ridiculous) penchant for carrying eight relievers, having three players who can play the same position and only that position primarily on a three-man bench would be terribly crippling.
The solution is to carry two of the three. D’Arnaud could start the year back in Triple-A, while Mathis backed up Arencibia, but one thing is made certain by the extension – Mathis will make the team. When D’Arnaud gets hot and/or Arencibia struggles, the Jays will be forced to carry three catchers, or trade one of Arencibia or D’Arnaud. D’Arnaud on his own would fetch more value in trade, but Arencibia’s baseball card stats would fetch considerable value either as a stand-alone, or as part of a package.
The determining factor for the Blue Jays will come down to this question: Is the increase in the value of a return on D’Arnaud vs. Arencibia greater than the increase in value that D’Arnaud can provide on the field over Arencibia. If the answer is yes, D’Arnaud will probably be shipped out after showing himself healthy, perhaps around the trade deadline, like Travis Snider this year; but if the answer is no; Arencibia will probably be shipped out mid-season, although a hot September could portend an off-season trade. Consistently rotating between fist base, designated hitter and catcher is no solution for any of the players. D’Arnaud and Arencibia both produce their best offensive value as everyday catchers, are moderately devalued at DH and severely devalued at first base. With only so many innings to go around and Mathis locked in, one of the two catchers must be on the move, as a 50-50 time share does them no good. Given his superiority in all facets of the game, I would project D’Arnaud to stay.
Travis D’Arnaud is the Blue Jays catcher of the future and while Arencibia provides some value, that value is maximized as a trading chip and in that I clearly see a swift end for him in Toronto.