Examining The Blue Jays' Backup Catcher Issue


Article Written by Adam Corsair  (@ACorsair21)

With the start of Spring Training fast approaching, as well as the free agent market moving at a snail's pace (unless you're Milwaukee...), there still remains some important positions to fill for our Toronto Blue Jays. Granted, the team did address a dire outfield situation by acquiring Randal Grichuk from the St. Louis Cardinals in exchange for prospect Conner Greene and reliever Dominic Leone, as well as signing veteran Curtis Granderson to a modest 1 year deal worth $5 million. Couple those acquisitions with the mainstays of Kevin Pillar, Ezequiel Carrera, and Steve Pearce, along with the prospects that the Jays have in their system in the form of Teoscar Hernández, Anthony Alford, Dwight Smith Jr., and Dalton Pompey, the outfield is more or less passable as it stands and the team will probably stand pat (unless you believe this).

Now, an addition to the starting pitching rotation not withstanding, the Jays most obvious area of need that ought to be addressed is at backup catcher. As it stands, the Jays currently have Luke Maile listed on their depth chart behind Russell Martin to handle the backup catching duties. Given that Martin last season was bitten by the injury bug and was unable to crack the 100 game mark, along with the physical demands of the position, it can be argued that the necessity to have a solid backup catcher is the most vital need for the Jays right now (Note: I don't necessarily agree, but I can see where people are coming from that stand behind this.). With the Jays being projected to win approximately 84 wins (via FanGraphs), the team is looking to be competing for a Wild Card spot in order to find their way into the Post Season. Granted, no one can accurately predict what team will finish with their actual win total, but as a baseline, it'll have to do.

It's admittedly a messy situation with Martin entering this season at age 35, as he will play a more than vital role for his team. His offensive potential along with his incredible abilities to call games behind the dish (not to mention his framing skills) make him a pivotal member of this squad; especially for this season in particular if we are to take the notion of the Jays aiming to become serious contenders. In order to maximize his production for the team, as well as minimize his risk of injury, the team would be better served with a capable and adequate backup catcher for the majority of the 2018 season. Certainly, an upgrade over Maile would be ideal, but may not be as easy as we'd like it to be.

Last season, Maile was a bit of a non-factor, to say the least. Selected off waivers in April and being injured for the better part of July and all of August, Maile appeared in 46 games for the Jays - starting in 36 of them. He finished the year with a line of .146/.176/.231, an OPS of .407, garnering a strikeout rate of 26% and a walk rate of 2% in 136 plate appearances which is... well, pret-ty bad. Currently, Baseball Reference projects him to have an uptick in those numbers based on - what I assume - more playing time and/or the assumption that perhaps Martin may miss time due to injury (or maybe just general rest). To boot, they project him to finish the 2018 season with a line of .216/.266/.355, an OPS of .621 over 281 plate appearances with 68 strikeouts and 16 walks, giving him a projected strikeout rate of 24% and a walk rate of  6% which is... still pret-ty bad.

Thus, while knowing that projections are just that - projections - I think it's more than just a little reasonable to stand behind the notion that the Jays will be better served if they have a better option to backup Martin behind the dish over the course of the entire season. The questions is, who?

If we take a look at the available Free Agent Catchers, it doesn't look that promising. The name that will stick out the most to people is Jonathan Lucroy, but the chances of the Jaysbeing able to both A) sign him and B) sign him as a backup catcher are both a bit daunting. I'd imagine a player like Lucroy is looking to acquire more of an everyday role behind the plate, so although (some) Jays fans may want to see it, the chances of this actually happening are poor. You can also cross players such as Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Josh Thole off the list, as they've already been deemed to be non-contributors for the Jays in previous stints and, thus, there's no reason to believe that they'd offer more than Maile would. With Alex Avilia already signing a deal with the Arizona Diamondbacks, the remaining names aren't sexy and perhaps, other than maybe an invite to Spring Training in order to compete with Maile, no one jumps out as a clear upgrade over what the Jays already have.

Thus, perhaps the Jays would be wise to look from within when addressing their backup catching needs. Currently, both Danny Jansen and Reese McGuire are on the Jays' 40 man roster as available options to fill the void. Of the two, Jansen has seen time in AAA, whereas McGuire highest level of play last year was AA. A bit of hasty reasoning here, but based on their respective tenures, it seems that Jansen's path to becoming a ball player in the Bigs is a bit more linear than McGuire's in terms of development, but neither can really be ruled out based on this alone. Moreover, both players' highest level of play in the Minors last year would render a small sample size, as Jansen's time in Buffalo was only for 21 games, and McGuire's time in New Hampshire was for 34. Further, neither can be considered a lock to be part of the Opening Day roster, as Maile has the slight edge, but I don't rule out both of the prospects beginning the year in AAA with one of them getting a call-up on the earlier side of the season. Call it a hunch. For me, it makes more sense to go this route than to go barrel scrapping for a backup catcher in a Free Agent class that is less than ideal. But again - that's just me.

Both Atkins and Shapiro have both been harping on the notion of prioritizing the team to become both faster and younger, so the aspect of signing an aging veteran to more than a one year deal would seemingly run counter to this (you wanted to mention Granderson, didn't you). Further, Atkins has also said that he prefers to integrate prospects that are new to the Major League club during the season rather than trotting them out on Opening Day in order to better prepare themselves for the task. Thus, this off-season in Spring Training, it may serve best for both McGuire and Jansen to establish some sort of familiarity with the Jays' pitching staff before we jump the gun and declare one of them the back-up to Martin over Maile from the jump. With all of his warts and undesirable performance, as it stands Maile is the best option to start the season as the backup that exists within the organization. Whether or not the brass is able to pull off some sort of trade to acquire a more adequate option or there's a player on the Free Agent list that I'm overlooking in terms of potential is certainly possible. But, if I were to guess, I think that the Powers That Be are prioritizing both Starting and Relief pitching and would rather use their financial resources to acquire someone to fit one of those roles, or two players that can fit one of each of the roles. 

Regardless, it hasn't been since JP Arencibia and Travis d'Arnaud that Jays fans been able to look forward to seeing a catcher come up through the system and earn a spot on the Big League roster (although McGuire was acquired in the trade that involved Drew Hutchinson in '16, he's still coming up through the Jays' system as a prospect). It will be interesting to see how this turns out and, if both McGuire and Jansen begin the year in AAA Buffalo and if the Jays don't sign a Free Agent catcher, it may not be long within the season that we get to see one of them. Hopefully, it's to our pleasant surprise.

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