When the Toronto Blue Jays signed Dioner Navarro to be their everyday catcher and opted to non-tender incumbent backstop J.P. Arencibia, there was a clear message sent. The team expected a clear improvement from their catching corps in 2014 and Arencibia was no longer trusted to provide that improvement.
However, the team felt that Josh Thole was still worth the chance.
Toronto acquired Thole on December 17, 2012 as part of the package that included knuckle-baller R.A. Dickey. The thought was that since Thole had experience catching Dickey, that the team would benefit from having his steady hand behind the plate and that he was better offensively that he had shown the year prior.
Unfortunately, Thole disappointed both offensively and defensively last season.
The Blue Jays opted to start his season at the minor league level, where Thole tore up Triple-A pitching, hitting .322 with a .893 OPS in 41 games for the Buffalo Bisons. However, upon promotion to the Blue Jays, Thole struggled. In 45 games (135 plate appearances) Thole “hit” just .175 with a .497 OPS.
On the defensive side of the ball, his struggles were also pronounced. His catcher ERA of 4.54 ranked him 95th in the league among all catchers and he was worth -2 Defensive Runs Saved in 2013. He did catch 36% of would-be base stealers, but also allowed 9 passed balls.
Now, the Blue Jays may still hold some faith in the fact that Thole has been better in the past and that his 2014 numbers will be more reminiscent of what they were in the past, a hope held for almost every member of the 2013 team.
For instance, Thole holds a lifetime on-base percentage of .322, only to watch that dip to a disappointing .256 last season. His walk rate of 8.9% was actually up from 2012, but so was hit K-rate of 18.5%. However, he was also victimized by a BABIP of .213, 74 points below his career rate of .282. He’ll never hit for much power, but it seems like Thole was sunken by more bad luck and bad swings than anything else. Then again, this is his second straight year of decline as well.
|162 Game Avg.||162||533||35||119||20||4||44||48||70||.251||.322||.322||.645||80|
Defensively, Thole has made his name by catching the knuckleball, but as with the pitchers who throw it, the catcher on the receiving end can live and die by its inconsistency as well. In 2012, when Dickey was a Cy Young winner, Thole’s catcher ERA ranked him 36th in baseball with a mark of 3.79. In 2011, he was rated 70th with a mark of 4.28. In the same two seasons, Thole posted a defensive runs saved mark of 4 in 2012 and -4 in 2011, with his caught stealing numbers floating in the mid-20′s.
The key thing to remember here is that Thole is just 27-years-old and relatively cheap at just $1.25 million in the final year of his guaranteed contract. The Blue Jays will give him a chance to revert back to his 2010 and 2011 form with the bat, and hope that with an improved season by R.A. Dickey, that Thole will benefit defensively as well.
Toronto does have a back-up plan in place, with A.J. Jimenez beginning the season at Double-A New Hampshire and slated to catch knuckle-baller Tomo Ohka, helping him to prepare for Dickey if his services are needed later this season. Of course, that also counts on Navarro making all of his starts in 2014 and it was 2009 when Navarro last made more than 100 appearances in a single season.
The hope here is that Thole steps up and Navarro stays healthy, leaving Jimenez a full year to develop and prepare for a bigger role in 2015. The Blue Jays don’t have a whole lot of other options, so there will be a lot of finger crossing in Toronto in 2014.