Prospect Positional Primer: Catcher


Late last fall, with inspiration from Jason Parks of Baseball Prospectus, I began writing a series of articles which I titled “Positional Primers”. I broke down the Blue Jays system into seven categories; catcher, corner infield, middle infield, corner outfield, centerfield, right handed pitcher, and left handed pitcher. In each article, I highlighted a number of players at the position being discussed, talked about what they’ve done and where they stand, and what to possibly expect moving forward. The lists weren’t prospect rankings or a depth chart, they were simply another, broader way of looking at some players in the system who are interesting, but won’t necessarily be included on my top 30 prospect list later this year.

In terms of page views and feedback (both positive and negative, but thankfully mostly the former), the series was one of the most popular things I’ve done in my two-ish years of writing about the Blue Jays. As such, I’ve decided to break down the system once again, and hopefully another year of experience and knowledge will make the list that much more thorough and interesting to the readers.

Like last year, the 2013 series will begin behind the plate at the catcher position. Catcher is arguably the most important position on the team, as not only must he work on his offensive craft, but he needs to spend an extensive amount time working with his pitching staff before games to prepare them for the opposition. With that in mind, it’s no shock that Baseball America ranks fielding as the number one priority when looking at a catching prospect. The next three tools under consideration are hitting, arm strength, and power – all three of which are plentiful on the list below. The lowest priority is, of course, speed. Having a catcher who doesn’t clog the bases is a huge bonus, but has minimal impact on the evaluation process.

  • Top catching prospect to reach MLB (last 5 years): J.P. Arencibia
  • Catchers in 2012 Top 30: 3
  • Catcher WAR leader in MLB (last 5 years): John Buck, 2.8

The King in the North

Travis d’Arnaud – 2012 team: Triple-A Las Vegas
279 AB, .333/.380/.595 (.975 OPS), 21 2B, 2 3B, 16 HR, 52 RBI, 1 SB, 19/59 BB/K

March 16, 2012; Dunedin, FL, USA; Toronto Blue Jays catcher Travis d’Arnaud (15) before a spring training game against the Tampa Bay Rays at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-US PRESSWIRE

Since being acquired from the Phillies in December of 2009, Travis d’Arnaud has done nothing but hit as he soared up prospect charts. While most originally thought of d’Arnaud as the third piece in the Roy Halladay trade, General Manager Alex Anthopolous saw much more, and only days after the trade he labeled Travis as “a potential front line, All Star catcher for us” before proceeding to lavish his tools. Back then, both the front office and fan base were forced to dream on potential. Three years later, it’s much more of a reality. After suffering through an injury plagued 2010 season in the Florida State League, d’Arnaud turned it on for New Hampshire in 2011, and hasn’t looked backed since. There’s no longer much of an argument to be made – he is the best catching prospect in baseball.

I mentioned the tool priority for catchers above, and while he doesn’t follow the ideal order, d’Arnaud is at least above average in each of the four desired catcher tools; something very rarely found. He has good catch-and-throw instincts with above average arm strength, allowing him to catch potential base stealers at a solid rate. What really strengthens d’Arnaud’s defensive value is his leadership behind the plate. He knows his pitchers, and he ensures they know and are comfortable with the plan of attack before every game. d’Arnaud still needs some work at keeping balls in front of him, but at his age, that’s not uncommon. Most catchers not named Molina usually don’t reach their defensive prime until at least their late 20’s when they have thousands of innings and repetitions under their belt.

With that being said, the bulk of d’Arnaud’s value lies in his bat. He sets a wide base at the plate, readying himself in a slightly open stance. He keeps his hands high and steps with his front foot for timing before quickly spinning his hips and turning on the ball with a lofty swing. The problem with starting at such a wide base is that he’s negatively affecting the potential weight transfer on his swing. Watching d’Arnaud hit, it quickly becomes evident he’s swinging primarily with his upper half, and his legs are mostly just along for the ride. His broad, strong shoulders allow for this to work, but one has to wonder if there isn’t more power just waiting to be tapped into. As he is now, there’s already a plus power tool to go along with a plus hit tool, so perhaps the Blue Jays would rather not risk altering his swing to gain a few extra home runs. As long as he can catch up to inside fastballs, there’s no reason to make an adjustment.

I’ve said before that d’Arnaud has nothing left to prove in Triple-A, but barring a trade involving either he or J.P. Arencibia, it’s very likely he’ll find himself back there anyways. Even if such an assignment occurs, one has to doubt he’ll be there for long. Arencibia has a bit more raw power, but d’Arnaud is the superior player in every other respect, both offensively and defensively. It’s only a matter of time before this beast is unleashed on the American League East.

The Question Mark

A.J. Jimenez – 2012 team: Double-A New Hampshire
105 AB, .257/.295/.371 (.666 OPS), 4 2B, 1 3B, 2 HR, 10 RBI, 2 SB, 5/14 BB/K

A.J. Jimenez throws out a base runner for Dunedin during in July 2011 (Image courtesy Jim Donten)

Despite being selected as an 18 year old catcher out of Puerto Rico in the 2008 draft, the Blue Jays gave Jimenez just 19 games in short season ball before giving him a full season assignment in 2009. He has continually improved since, highlighted by a .303/.353/.417 slash line for Dunedin in 2011. Big things were expected from him with a Double-A New Hampshire assignment out of spring training, but unfortunately, his season ended before it really even began. What was originally thought to be a sore elbow turned into something much more, as an MRI showed his UCL was literally hanging on by a thread, and immediate Tommy John Surgery was required.

Jimenez’ best tool is his arm, which is where the question mark comes into play. A position player having Tommy John Surgery isn’t rare, but it’s not particularly common either. However – I can’t think of an instance where a catcher had Tommy John, and therefore we really don’t have the historical precedence to say whether or not Jimenez will be able to recover that 70-grade arm strength. In 2010, his caught stealing rate was 53%. In 2011, it was 44%. In 2012, even with a sore elbow for much of the season, he still caught 55% of potential base stealers; a lot of his value is derived from that right arm. Pitchers tend to eventually recover their velocity after undergoing Tommy John, so I am hopeful.

Beyond the arm strength, Jimenez is also a plus defender behind the plate. His athleticism really shines, as he pounces on balls in the dirt like a cougar on unsuspecting prey. He’s very mobile, and ensures he always gives his pitcher a nice target to throw at. Like d’Arnaud, Jimenez plays the leadership role well, taking control of the game and keeping the pitchers focused on the task at hand. Offensively, he’s come a long way from the hitter who had just 7 walks against 72 strikeouts back in 2009, but there’s still a lot of work to do. His front shoulder tends to fly open during his swing, leaving him susceptible to pitches down and away, particularly breaking balls. Jimenez’ stance is a little busy, as not only does he have a bat waggle, he also sways in the batter’s box. The swing itself is fairly level, and given his below average raw power it plays to his strengths well – line drives in place of fly balls. Jimenez tends to release his top hand after contact, which is something he may want to alter as he continues to climb the ranks.

When pitchers and catchers report in mid-February, Jimenez will be just nine months removed from surgery, so I doubt he’s going to be game ready. The best course of action may be to continue rehab in spring training, and then spend another month or so in extended spring training before heading back out to New Hampshire for a second go-around in May. If he plays well, a shot at Triple-A may be in the cards, as it is unlikely d’Arnaud will still be holding down the fort when the calendar flips to June.

On the Rise

Santiago Nessy – 2012 team(s): Rookie-Bluefield, Low-A Vancouver
182 AB, .236/.305/.434 (.739 OPS), 9 2B, 0 3B, 9 HR, 26 RBI, 0 SB, 16/54 BB/K

Santiago Nessy catching for the Gulf Coast Blue Jays during the 2011 season

Santiago Nessy is both the youngest and biggest catcher on the positional primer, which does raise some questions regarding how long he’ll be able to stay behind the dish. At just 19 years old, he is already listed at 6-foot-2 and 230 lbs. Given that those numbers were also listed as his official measurements over a year ago, once has to ponder their accuracy. The Caracas native was signed during the 2009 International Free Agency period for 750 thousand dollars, which turned out to be one of the last suave moves former General Manager J.P. Ricciardi would make within the Blue Jays organization.

Even with an oversized frame, Nessy was still rated as the Appalachian League’s top defensive catcher last season. He threw out 33% of potential base stealers while flashing a strong and accurate arm that was graded out as plus. The only flaw with his throwing game is over-eagerness, as Nessy will occasionally negatively impact his throwing mechanics by attempting to release the ball too early. He’s a good receiver, as Nessy impressed with his blocking skills and ability to call a game. Santiago is also bilingual (Spanish and English), allowing him to communicate smoothly with both American and Hispanic pitchers. For a 19 year old who has only been state-side for two years, that’s extremely impressive.

Given his size, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Nessy’s most lauded tool is his power. He has exceptional bat speed, and takes full advantage of his long levers when taking a swing. His stance is a little hunched over, but when the pitch is nearing the plate he explodes towards the ball with palpable fury. He can be overly aggressive at times, and has a tendency to try and pull everything he can reach. There are questions about whether or not he’ll ever make enough contact to allow the power to flourish, but such mechanical and plate approach refinements can slowly be implemented over the next couple of years, as he’s a long ways away from making the major leagues.

The next step in the developmental process likely lies in Vancouver, where Nessy finished off the 2012 season and helped the Canadians win their second consecutive Northwest League championship. With Carlos Perez jettisoned to Houston it’s within the realm of possibility that the team will assign Santiago to Lansing next season, but given his aggressive tendencies the wiser choice may the more cautious one.

Remember the Name

Seth Conner – 2012 team(s): Gulf Coast League, Rookie-Bluefield
158 AB, .291/.414/.411 (.826 OPS), 9 2B, 2 3B, 2 HR, 30 RBI, 0 SB, 26/36 BB/K

Bluefield’s Seth Conner reaches second base after a two-run double in the first inning for the Blue Jays against Greeneville at Bowen Field. Conner also had a two-run single in the third in a rain-delayed contest that ended late on Tuesday night with the Jays on top (Bluefield Daily Telegraph)

The catcher designation may be a bit generous with Conner, as during the 2012 season he totaled just 21 games behind the plate against 28 on the infield corners. It was actually a step forward from 2011, when he played all 50 of his games at first or third base. Toronto’s 41st round pick in the 2010 draft, Conner has done nothing but crush the ball since making his professional debut. In 104 career games, he has hit .283/.404/.416, which is an excellent slash line for anyone. For a catcher, it’s even more impressive. Conner could be next in line in a system that has done an exceptional job of developing catching prospects over the past half decade.

Things didn’t always come this easy for him. After his first three high school seasons, Conner weighed around 180 pounds and had just four career home runs to his name. He was playing shortstop at the time, but he figured his baseball future was likely on one of the infield corners. With that in mind, he completely transformed his lifestyle. He focused on baseball exclusively, ate better, and drastically improved his weight training regimen. When his senior year rolled around, the Missouri native had added 20 pounds of muscle. It showed on the baseball diamond, as he crushed 11 home runs while hitting .473.

Conner’s exceptional work ethic is just one of his many positives. The Blue Jays decision to move him to catcher suggests they felt he lacked the grace required for third base, but by all accounts he’s more than acceptable behind the plate given his lack of experience there. His arm strength has proven to be an asset as well, as even with raw fundamentals he threw out 28% of potential base stealers. Conner’s plate approach is very advanced, as he’s a mature hitter with a sound plan of attack. He combines that selectivity with good bat speed to cover a lot of the plate, and has shown a willingness to use the opposite field. Conner has some raw power in his swing – which he displays in batting practice – but has yet to fully translate that into game action. His assignment next season will likely either be Vancouver or Lansing, with the decision likely being dependent upon how he looks in minor league camp next spring. The defensive versatility he offers will certainly work in his favor.