Despite having no big league experience, A.J. Jimenez very well could be the Toronto Blue Jays best back-up catching option for 2017
The Toronto Blue Jays need a backup catcher. It’s simple. After Josh Thole lost his spot on the roster when R.A. Dickey was put on the shelf at the end of last season, the club ran with Dioner Navarro in an effort to raise their offensive floor. It is debatable as to whether that worked in 2016. Now, heading into 2017, the club looks to have an in house option to back up Russell Martin. If the season were to start today, that option would be A.J. Jimenez.
You’ve been hearing his name for years now. The 9th rounder of the 2008 amateur draft was chosen by the Blue Jays out of Academia Discipulos de Cristo High School in Puerto Rico and has been working his way toward appearing on a big league field ever since. Now 26, he looks to be on the cusp of making that happen. That is, of course, if the Toronto Blue Jays do not strike a deal with one of the remaining options out there.
A quick check of the free agent tracker over at MLBTR provides you with a list of who is still waiting to land a catching gig for this coming season. Steve Clevenger, Hank Conger, Ryan Hanigan, Nick Hundley, Dioner Navarro, A.J. Pierzynski, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Thole, Matt Wieters. We can safely cross the last two off this list for the Blue Jays. Wieters is going to command much more- in dollars, years and playing time than the Blue Jays will give him- and Thole had one tool to offer Toronto and there isn’t a knuckleballer on the staff. So, that leaves the following production to choose from:
Clevenger- 30 yrs old, career .227/.284/.324, played 22 games for Mariners in 2016
Conger- 28 yrs old, career .221/.294/.366, played 49 games for Rays in 2016
Hanigan- 36 yrs old, career .250/.345/.334, played 35 games for Red Sox in 2016
Hundley- 33 yrs old, career .250/.303/.404, played 83 games for Rockies in 2016
Navarro- 32 yrs old, career .250/.309/.370, played 101 games for White Sox & Blue Jays in 2016
Pierzynski- 40 yrs old, career .280/.319/.420, played 81 games for Atlanta in 2016
Saltalamacchia- 31 yrs old, career .234/.309/.413, played 92 games for Tigers in 2016
Looking at the career production for these guys, you’re starting to get the picture- if the Blue Jays are going to choose from this list, they are going to have to accept more ‘traditional’ backup catching production. It mightn’t be as woeful as that of Thole, but it is going to be a dramatic dropoff from what Martin will likely put up.
Pierzynski comes with a reputation of being a hitter, but he also comes with another reputation that mightn’t jive with the Blue Jays clubhouse. At first glance, Navarro might be the preferred choice among Blue Jays fans, but he may not be for Blue Jays management. They may not see value in paying him what he could command. We know that they’ve been interested in Hanigan already and he was bought out by the Red Sox for $800K. That financial situation may mean he could take a lesser deal. But, put a pin in that for now.
If you’re hoping that the backup backstop will be able to use their other skills to present value, you might wanna check this out: none of these options even rank positively in “calls per game”. In fact, Thole put up better pitch framing than these guys, though he was likely helped out by the knuckleball…or vice versa. Regardless, the point here is that if you’re looking for a solid defensive catcher who can hit, you’re not going to find one on the open market.
Enter A.J. Jimenez. Once seen as the kid who would blossom into Toronto’s everyday catcher, Jimenez has taken a long time to get to this point- the point where he could actually see any big league playing time. He has battled injuries seemingly every year. He’s not had a season where he played 100 games since 2011. So, any discussion about his future will be accompanied by the assumption of health.
A while ago, our Ryan Mueller wrote that Jimenez was putting in valuable reps in Puerto Rico this winter in preparation for the upcoming season. In that piece, Mueller noted that Jimenez has put up solid defensive numbers: “Jimenez has committed 2 errors, with 4 wild pitches while behind the plate. One of Jimenez’ best tools is his arm and ability to control the running game. During his 12 games in the field, A.J. has allowed 7 stolen bases, catching 5 stolen base attempts. That’s a 42% caught stealing percentage.”
Small sample aside, that’s the kind of defense you want from your backup. As for his hitting, it will leave something to be desired if you’re expecting similar production to Martin. He’ll hit well enough, but won’t hit for a ton of power. In total, in the minors (all levels), he’s hit .263/.307/.374. That is a backup catcher slash line, alright. And, one could argue that it would rival that of Hanigan, who the club seems to like.
There will be those out there who will point out that Jimenez has never played at the big league level. It is one thing to put up even ‘backup catcher’ numbers in the minors, but this is The Show, we’re talking about; if he can’t hit in the minors, how can he come up to Toronto and be successful. That is a valid concern. But, you have to weigh any potential output from him against the cost of obtaining other options. Currently, Jimenez is on the 40 man roster and would cost a minimal amount. For one of the other options, money would have to be spent- money that could be used for say, a bullpen piece.
Realistically, Jimenez will not strike out a lot and he will control the running game. He is a cost effective backup catcher. It’s that simple. When thinking of him, we might have to let go of the “catcher of the future” label and see him for what he is: a suitable backup. Really, the only question is whether he can stay healthy.
Jimenez presents value and very well could be the club’s best option to spell Russell Martin. But, that won’t stop them from exploring other options. Right now, they have Reese McGuire and Mike Ohlman on their 40 man roster as well. Neither of these are being considered for the backup job, though. Heck, more catching depth may simply be required to deal with the very real fear of an injury to Jimenez. Taking his name out of the equation makes the Blue Jays catching situation that much more tenuous.
[Ed. note– Jimenez being out of options will also complicate this situation. It could give him a longer look in Spring Training. The club may not want to risk losing him on waivers should he be placed.]
Many will be uncomfortable with giving a backup catching job to a guy who’s never had any big league playing time, especially when that guy has been hurt as much as A.J. Jimenez. But, on a ‘bang for your buck’ basis, the 26 yr old very well could give you anything and everything that any of the free agent options would, for less financial commitment. Maybe it is time to finally see what Jimenez has got.
*Featured Image Credit: Laura Nawrocik UNDER CC BY-SA 2.0– cropped from original
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Shaun Doyle is a long time Blue Jays fan and writer! He decided to put those things together and create Jays From the Couch. Shaun is the host of Jays From the Couch Radio, which is highly ranked in iTunes, and he has appeared on TV and radio spots.