Friday, December 11, 2009

Farm Report 2009: The Catchers

Again here, as with so many positions for the Jays in 2009, the top of the pre-season list disappointed.
(see the 2008 list here)

1. J.P. Arencibia: 1-5-1986 / 6', 215 / 1st round, 2007

After establishing him self as one of the Blue Jays' most anticipated prospects in 2008, Arencibia was rushed (IMO) to AAA Las Vegas in 2009 and promptly gave back most of the excitement he had earned the previous year.

I said in the report on the catcher position list year that the promotion of a young player who's one outstanding offensive tool was power hitting to the PCL before he had consolidated his others skills at the plate was a mistake and the results seem to support that. JPA hit for power in 2009, with the usual caveat about it being the PCL, but even then his performance was wildly inconsistent. He hit eight homers in May, and eight in August - yet only 21 in all.

The interesting thing to note about his stat breakdowns is that there's a direct correlation between his walk rate and his power production. In his three worst months (April, June and July) he recorded only 4 of his 26 total walks.

Arencibia is still one of the Jays' better prospects. it's not inconsiderable that he spent his age 23 season at AAA. But he's going to have to solve the problem of drawing a walk, at least to a manageable degree, before he is a full time big leaguer.

2. Carlos Perez: 10-27-1990 / 6', 193 / Free Agent signed from Venezuela

Playing at age 18 for the Gulf Coast League Jays, Perez burst onto the teams prospect scene with a very solid season. Perez got a late start and only got into 43 games for the GCL team but he impressed team coaches and scouts with his defense and his bat. And that on the heels of posting a 50:27 BB:K ration in the Dominican league in 2008.

It's always difficult to say too much about rookie league players, but there's a lot of positive buzz around Perez.

3. Brian Jeroloman: 5 - 10 - 1985 / 5'11", 200 / 6th round, 2006

Jeroloman was always a guy who, while a gifted receiver, had a pretty low offensive ceiling. His calling card at the plate was an excellent eye which led to an impressive BB:K ratio. there was no secret, of course, that higher level pitchers would be less inclined to give a free pass to a guy with so few other offensive skills, but the hope was that he would be capable of at least fringy offense in the majors because he so very good on defense.

In 2009, though, Jeroloman's stock took a big dive. He returned to AA so that both he and Arencibia could play every day and he had his worst year with the bat. His walk rate dropped a couple of points but his strikeout rate shot up from 16.5% in 2008 to 27.8% in 2009. If that had accompanied a corresponding increase in power production it might have been mitigated but Jeroloman had exactly the same number of homers and extra base hits in 2009 as in 2008.

Worse still, he got worse as the season progressed. It's uncertain if the Jays tried to rework his swing or something or if he simply had a bad year, but at this point a guy who once drew comparisons to the likes of Brian Schneider is now looking more like Kevin Cash.

4. Sean Ochinko: 10 - 21 - 1987 / 5'11", 205 / 11th round, 2009

Amid the uproar over the 2009 draft picks the Jays didn't sign, and the fact that the two highest picks who did sign didn't play professionally in 2009, little attention was paid to the players who did get significant pro playing time. Of those who did, none got off to a better start than Ochinko. So good, in fact, that I came very close to ranking him ahead of Jeroloman - hesitating only in that we have a much smaller sample of work upon which to judge Ochinko.

Playing his age 21 season at Auburn, the versatile Ochinko posted a .909 OPS and had a sterling .412 wOBA in August before running out of gas at the end (he hit under .200 over his last seven games). His offensive game was solid all around, with the caveat that his walk rate could stand improvement. I've found no reviews on his defense as a pro and there is some speculation afoot that he could end up at first base because he got significant time there at LSU. I'm uncertain how much weight to give to that, though, because that may have been a function of there being a superior defensive catcher on that college team more so than any inability on Ochinko's part.

That said, look for the Jays to give him every opportunity to climb the ladder as a catcher, since the conversion to first is a relatively easy move down the line if it needs to be done. Also, and this is raw speculation on my part, it seems logical that if they give up on him as a catcher there's some possibility that trying him at 3B would make sense.

All in all, Ochinko, who could leap over Lo-A to play in Dunedin in 2010, joins Perez and fellow 2009 draftees Marisnick and Hobson on my list of players I'll be watching closely in 2010.

5. Yan Gomes: 7 - 19 - 1987 / 6'2", 215 / 10th round 2009

I have edited and revised this list based on new information. Originally I had Gomes listed in the "other players to note" section below and explained that choice thusly:

Gomes is a potential sleeper in this group, he could arguably have been listed even above Jimenez. I refrained for two reasons. first, I THINK I have heard negative comments on his defensive ability, though I can't verify that. Second, he turned 22 this year while playing in the rookie league so his impressive offensive numbers have a big caveat.

Just a couple of days later, Lisa Winston gives us an article on the Jays' 2009 draft crop which contains, among other salient quotes, this one relevant to my assertion:

When one caught, the other would DH (or in Ochinko's case, play some first base). Gomes is the better defensive catcher, however.

I sit corrected.

So I revised the list accordingly. Still, while both players had impressive offensive debuts, Ochinko's was enough better that I'll give him the slight edge this time around.

6. Antonio Jimenez: 5 - 1 - 1990 / 5'11", 200 / 9th round, 2008

Potentially Jimenez is following a similar path to Jeroloman except that he lacks even the one offensive talent Jeroloman had displayed. Said to be a solid to potentially superior defender, Jimenez has struggled to tap into any offensive potential. Scouting reports suggest that there might be some there, but his 2009 walk rate was a minuscule 2.4% and he struck out 10 times as often as he drew the walk. His batting average was decent but there wasn't a significant display of power to offset the poor ratios. Still, he's only 19 and he has a couple of years yet to perhaps catch fire.

Other players to note behind the plate include Jon Talley, Matt Luizza, and Kyle Phillips.

The 20 year old Talley is big for the position (6'3" - which suggests a potential move to 1B or DH at some point) but he was expected to capitalize on a nice 2008 by displaying a promising power bat but 2009 was a lost year for the big left handed hitter. He did double his BB% but otherwise he declined across the board. Also worth noting is that his 2008 BABIP was unnaturally high, so some regression was to be expected. The coming season is an important one for the Jays to see what they really have with Talley.

Liuzza is another LSU product, who was playing his age 25 season at Dunedin so any excitement about his .848 OBP has to be seriously tempered. He is, however, considered to be a gifted defender, and he's the sort of player that often gets leap-frogged to AAA when injuries set off a chain reaction in the system. If he gets a chance at the higher levels and runs with it (offensively) then he could put himself on the map as a potentially useful fringe major leaguer. I could see him having a relatively long career as a AAA journeyman at least.

That outcome - non-prospect who does well enough to put himself in a position to be useful - is somewhat reminiscent of another player in the Jays system: Kyle Phillips. Phillips has enough service time to have been a minor league free agent this winter before the Jays resigned him. The 25 year old had registered three consecutive years of solid wOBA numbers as he climbed the ladder in the Jays system, which offsets the temptation to note the PCL effect on his 2009 numbers. The 51's got him into a lot of games at 3B in 2009, which either speaks to potential defensive issues or, more likely, is a recognition of the fact that Arencibia took priority as the "catcher of the future" yet then manager Mike Basso wanted to get Phillips' bat into the lineup.

While he is an entirely unheralded player as a prospect, who's name pretty much never comes up when someone is discussing the future of the Jays behind the plate, I've got a good feeling about Phillips. The remarkable consistency in his production since coming into the Jays' organization - spread over three years and three levels - leads me to believe that he's found an offensive level he can duplicate. Add to that the value of being able to play third and (presumably) first and you have a potentially useful role player in the majors. The Jays could do a lot worse than breaking camp with Phillips as their reserve catcher in 2010.

There's a potential issue for the Jays in where they place these guys in order to get the maximum number of reps. Arencibia and Jeroloman have the top two levels tied up for now. Luizza played at Dunedin last year but at his age, he might be assigned to a higher level next year permanently, or the guy who's moved about as injuries warrant. Below that level it gets really hairy, with one full season team and two short season teams in play, for 5 players. The older guys, Ochinko and Gomes, should logically play at a higher level given their offensive production, and Talley had already advanced to Lansing last year. so for my money, you have to move Liuzza up to one of the higher levels, even if that means he loses some at bats, and go with Ochinko in Dunedin.

I'd then put Gomes and Talley splitting time at Lansing, despite both presumptively needing reps behind the plate, and I'd move Perez up to Auburn even if that meant bumping Jimenez back to the GCL until the log jam sorted itself out some. but anytime you have a guy you consider a prospect not assuming his defensive position most every day, it's not ideal.

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