How much of an upgrade is Dioner Navarro for Blue Jays?


Former Chicago Cubs catcher Dioner Navarro has agreed to sign with the Toronto Blue Jays. Credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

So it’s official – J.P. Arencibia is no longer a member of the Toronto Blue Jays.

Much has already been made about the Blue Jays recent signing of catcher Dioner Navarro and the decision to non-tender Arencibia. The impression I’m getting from most people is that they are happy the Blue Jays will not be trotting out J.P. Arencibia as their starting catcher in 2013.

It’s understandable. Arencibia was almost historically awful during 2013 and appears to be regressing if you look at his stats the past three seasons. His OPS dropped from .720 in 2011 to only .592 last season (.710 in 2012). His walk rate has also decreased each year while he’s somehow found a way to strikeout even more often.

I could go on for some time but I think you get the picture… and it’s not pretty. Anyone who watched the Blue Jays in 2013 could easily attest to its ugliness.

Navarro on the other hand is seen by some as the “anti-Arencibia”. He strikes out at about half the rate as JPA and walks far more often. He’s coming off a career year and put up a very impressive 136 wRC+ in 89 with the Chicago Cubs in 2013.

Jeff Sullivan at FanGraphs did a comparison and concluded that the addition of Navarro was a “big upgrade” for the Blue Jays. However I see a slightly different picture.

Inconsistency has plagued Navarro for years and not once has he put together back-to-back productive seasons. He followed up his All-Star campaign in 2008 (when he put up a 105 wRC+) with a 54 wRC+ year in 2009, which was the last season he started at least 100 games. In 2010 he batted .194/.270/.258 with a 51 wRC+ and after he was left off the Rays’ playoff roster instead of joining his teammates decided to go home.

Navarro was very good this year without a doubt. The notorious lefty-masher batted well from both sides of the plate last season and was fairly consistent throughout the year backing up Cubs’ starter Welington Castillo.

I decided to look at both players numbers since 2009, which in theory should hold enough predictive value of what to expect from the pair going forward. It may seem like I’m cherry-picking a bit since I’m not including Navarro’s stellar 2008 campaign but that season was more than five years ago and holds very little value of what we can expect from him in 2014. Arencibia’s first full season also wasn’t until 2011 but going back to 2009 gives a more even number of plate appearances, which makes our comparison slightly easier.

 Table generated from FanGraphs.

If you look at the above numbers there really isn’t that much difference between Navarro and Arencibia. Sure there are stark contrasts in their walk and strikeouts rate (which I didn’t include so the table would fit) but at the end of the day, over the past four seasons, they’ve put up very similar results.

That’s not to say that Arencibia’s performance should be tolerated any longer in Toronto. Pitchers have appeared to figure him out and he’s done next to nothing to adjust. His biggest problem continues to be contact, which is an area that Navarro has excelled in comparison.

Arencibia’s triple-slash of .212/.258/.408 is very bad but his OPS is actually slightly better than Navarro over the past four years. Both players wOBA and wRC+ nearly identical.

So is Navarro an upgrade? He’s had stints in the minors three consecutive seasons during 2010, 2011 and 2012 and his MLB OPS those three years were .583, .528 and .600. He spent more time playing with the Louisville Bat than the Cincinnati Reds as recently as 2012. However according to Joel Sherman of the New York Post, “Navarro told Jays officials a year of riding International League buses in 2012 has changed his work habits and motivation”. I guess the third time is the charm?

What Navarro told the Jays may in fact be true (and could be a wake-up call for Arencibia if he follows the same route) but Dioner’s potential floor concerns me. He failed to meet the Mendoza line back-to-back seasons in 2010 and 2011 and was a below replacement level player by both Baseball Reference’s and FanGraphs’ metric during that time. He’s never been quite as bad as JPA was last year (few have) but in more season than one hasn’t been far from it.

All that being said, there’s still a very good chance that Navarro will in fact be a noticeable improvement over Arencibia for the Blue Jays in 2014. Steamer was predicting a .216/.265/.405 slash line and 79 wRC+ from JPA in 2014 while Navarro was projected (prior to trade) to produce .254/.321/.398 and 98 wRC+. If Navarro produces anywhere close to those numbers his contract will be considered a steal for the Jays. And the risk/reward factor made sense with holes in the rotation and possibly second base still left to fill this off-season.

But what can Blue Jays fans bank on from Navarro in 2014? Based on his relatively recent history of sub-replacement seasons the answer, in my opinion, is not very much.