Probably no position in the Blue Jays system other than the starting pitchers has gotten more real and virtual ink than the catchers, and for good reason. When everyone was healthy, the Jays could field a legitimate potential major league catcher for each of their top five minor league teams, and still have a few intriguing if marginal guys besides.
1. J.P. Arencibia (24) - Perhaps no prospect in the Jays system reversed his fortunes in 2010 more than Arencibia. I took the time before writing this commentary to look back and see what I had to say last year, when JPA was coming off the only bad season at the plate he's ever had. That review was written without my even knowing about the fact that Arencibia had had both kidney surgery, and LASIK eye surgery last offseason, or hearing the comments he made in the spring about how much his vision was hampering his production in 2009.
What I did note last year was that Arencibia was, in my judgment, rushed when the Jays assigned him to AAA after only 67 AA games in 2008. The combination of all those factors couldn't help but have led to less than his best work in 2009 and I retained him at the #1 spot among Jays' catchers on that list. but not even I expected the sort of resurgence he had in 2010.
One of the things that jumped out about the 2009 statistics was that in the same months in which Arencibia hit the most homers, he also drew the most walks. Every observer who commented on that season immediately said "you can't cut it in the majors with that walk rate." Well, Arencibia was apparently listening, increasing his BB% from 5.6% to 9.2% (which is about equal to John Buck's career high in the majors). that is still not great, and it is undoubtedly his greatest weakness, but it's not too low to survive in the majors. Arencibia really is looking an awful lot like Buck 2.0, though one hopes he can live up to his billing over the course of his career better than Buck (who got a lot of praise coming through the minors) did.
2. Carlos Perez (20) - Maybe not the guy you expected to see at this point? I'll get to the other guy in a sec. There was considerable buzz around Perez last off-season (ranked in more than one Top 10 list), though he was and is a long way from the majors in terms of the development chain. He did nothing but get better this year. Playing in 66 games for short-season Auburn, Perez posted an .834 OPS (fueled by a .396 OBP) and had eight triples and seven steals, demonstrating his speed and athleticism. He's expected to develop power as he matures, and that skill - if it comes - would make him as complete a player as their is in the Jays system.
He's considered a skilled defender for his age as well, but given his physical skills, it is not inconcievable that with so many good catchers he ends up being moved to another position if he's blocked when he's ready for the majors in 3-4 years. He'll get his first shot at full season ball in Lansing next year.
3. Travis d'Arnaud (22) - The Jays were really excited to acquire d'Arnaud (whom they had intended to draft with the pick that turned out to be Brett Cecil before the Phillies scooped him up) in the Halladay deal and out of the gate, he certainly justified that praise. In April he put up a sterling .909 OPS but that number began to slip in May as he suffered from what we would eventually learn to be pain in his lower back. A DL stint did little to alleviate the situation and d'Arnaud returned a shell of his former self, striking out 48 times in 44 June and July games (which was wildly off from his career pattern to that point). After he hit .205 in July he was shut down at the end of the month and, I believe, was sent for surgery on his back.
Back injuries are big red flags for catchers, especially one who's in an organization where the major league team plays on turf. It's difficult to forecast what the future holds for d'Arnaud. If healthy, he's arguably a top 10 prospect for the Blue Jays - but that's a big if. Also, it might so happen to be that he's repaired enough to play, but not enough to be a catcher. Keep an eye out for the possibility of him being moved out from behind the plate if the injury is chronic. it the health question that leads me to rank him this low. If healthy, it's possible the Jays might advance him to NH in the spring, despite the poor results at Dunedin.
4. AJ Jimenez (20) - Puerto Rican Jimenez, who'll turn 21 in early May next year, spent the year at Lansing and insisted on being included in the catcher conversation. His manager was former major league catcher Sal Fasano, and Fasano raved about Jimenez's major league potential. Like Perez, he's athletic (he stole 17 bases) and yet to develop as much power as you'd like, and he, too, is said to be a quality defender. Unlike Perez, he has serious work to do on his walk rate, and needs to cut down on his strikeouts.
Of all the guys here so far, if you lay aside potential health issues, Jimenez might be the guy most likely to pull a Sandy Martinez and simply not translate to the majors. But don't assume that means I'm writing him off. He's a talented kid and just needs refinement. Look for him to go to Dunedin next year (in lock-step with d'Arnaud's promotion) and don't be surprised if that pitcher's league makes him look kinda bad - very few hitters put up real impressive states in the FSL.
5. Brian Jeroloman (25) - Thanks to the maddening quirks of MiLB, I can't give you the specific details of Jeroloman's 2010 season but from memory I can tell you this - along about mid-may one of the most intriguing questions in the Jays' system was "What's gotten into Brian Jeroloman?" The defense-first catcher (he's been compared to the best of major league defenders over the last decade or so - think Mike Matheny or Brad Ausmus, for instance) had suddenly figured out what the lumber was for. Sadly, it didn't last and he reverted pretty much to form over the balance of the season.
Still, it was on the whole an impressive second spin around the EL. He raised his OBP (the one offensive skill that had been his calling card before 2009) from .330 to .429 and improved his slugging percentage by almost 100 points. It's difficult to know what to make of the early offensive outburst, but the smart money is still on Jeroloman settling in as a classic all-glove, no-bat major league second string catcher in a year or two. But next year, he'll get to inflate his stats again be heading to Las Vegas.
Other catchers in the system to keep an eye on: Yan Gomes (free-swinger with good pop), Sean Ochinko (versatile guy, can play 3B and 1B), and Santiago Nessy (bonus baby is a LONG way off),