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Backstop Depth: Yankees versus Blue Jays

The Toronto Blue Jays organization has received some attention recently for its strong catching depth throughout the minor leagues. The club’s division mate and hated rival – aka the New York Yankees organization – has some pretty impressive depth behind the dish, as well. Let’s compare the two systems in regards to this common area of strength.

Edit: Since first publishing the post, I’ve added J.R. Murphy to the analysis at the behest of Yankees fans. I originally chose to include just one catcher per organization per level. I chose to go with just Kyle Higashioka because Murphy has played more games at DH (19) than catcher (14). After re-thinking it, I’ve included both prospects, but it does not alter the conclusions of the article.

AAA

New York Yankees
The Yankees’ best hitting prospect is also the triple-A catcher: Jesus Montero. Despite all the hype, he has shown his human side at the plate this season with a triple-slash line of .235/.298/.378 in 230 at-bats. Montero’s also struck out more times in 2010 (48) than he did all of last year (47 times in 347 at-bats). However, he is just 20 years old and has also been focusing on improving his defense. Montero’s 30+ home run potential is still there, as is his ability to hit .280-.300.

Toronto Blue Jays
J.P. Arencibia is arguably the organization’s best hitting prospect (although you could also make a case for Brett Wallace or even Travis d’Arnaud, whom we’ll discuss in a moment). Arencibia got off to a bit of a slow start in 2010 and was also coming off of a poor triple-A showing in ’09. The 24-year-old has posted a 1.157 OPS with seven homers in June and has an overall triple-slash line of .289/.340/.566 in 242 at-bats. Arencibia has also improved significantly on defense since his college days to the point where many consider him an above-average defensive catcher.

Edge: Montero. If you want to toss a wrinkle into the argument, you could point out that Montero is not likely to remain behind the dish when he reaches the Majors. However, he’s still catching in triple-A, so he’s technically still a catcher until they pry the tools of ignorance away from him. Although Arencibia is the better all-around player, Montero’s offensive ceiling is much higher than the Toronto prospect’s.

AA

New York Yankees
Austin Romine is working hard to show why some analysts consider him a better prospect than Montero (mainly due to his defensive value). I’m not 100% convinced in that way of thinking but you definitely have to see Romine as a special player. Just 21, he’s currently hitting .294/.360/.447 and 20 of his 67 hits have gone for doubles. He also has 39 RBI in 57 games. Romine’s brother Andrew plays in the Angels’ system and father Kevin played parts of seven seasons in the Majors.

Toronto Blue Jays
Brian Jeroloman, 25, has made the best of a difficult situation. The organization has Arencibia in triple-A and it wants the defensive whiz to play everyday so he’s stuck repeating double-A for a third year. He’s also coming off a terrible ’09 season in which he posted a .646 OPS. Always known for having a patient approach, the organization felt he was being too passive and letting too many good pitches go by. He’s made adjustments in ’10 and, while he’s still walking at a good clip, his new approach has worked wonders for his overall numbers: .300/.459/.494 in 160 at-bats.

Edge: Romine. Jeroloman’s defense was always good enough to make him a sure-fire MLB catcher, and now his offensive boost increases his value that much more… but Romine has proven to be a special player. He has shown skill both behind the plate and with a bat in his hand… and both his age and bloodlines give him a big boost in terms of value.

A+

New York Yankees
This is the weak spot in the Yankees’ catching depth. The everyday catcher in Tampa has been Mitch Abeita, a 19th round draft pick out of the University of Nebraska in 2008. He has a 2010 triple-slash line of .244/.351/.314.

Toronto Blue Jays
Travis d’Arnaud’s numbers are not quite as impressive as they were earlier in the season, but the 21-year-old catcher has also battled some back issues (which sidelined him in May). Even so, the right-handed batter has a respectable triple-slash line of .276/.330/.436 in 163 at-bats. Even better, the organization has been impressed with his defense and on-field leadership. He could end up being the key to the Roy Halladay trade with Philly.

Edge: d’Arnaud. With apologies to Abeita, it’s not close at all. The Jays backstop projects to be an all-around, above-average backstop.

A-

New York Yankees
Kyle Higashioka received an above-slot deal as a seventh-round pick out of a California high school in ’08 based on his solid defensive reputation and raw power potential. Not much has changed since then. Higashioka continues to show more on defense than offense and is currently hitting just .194/.277/.304 in 217 at-bats. He needs to learn to hit the ball the other way a little more consistently. By no means a lost cause, the University of California recruit is still just 20 years old and would just be finishing his sophomore year of college.

J.R. Murphy began the year in extended spring training before being moved up to low-A ball to play with Higashioka. The right-handed hitting catcher is currently producing a triple-slash line of .250/.299/.318 in 132 at-bats. Clearly, the offensive numbers are not that impressive right now but he has a lot of potential. The Yankees organization grabbed him out of a Florida high school with a second round pick in the ’09 draft. He’s spent 19 games as a DH and 14 games as a catcher this season. While behind the plate, Murphy has thrown out just 21% of base runners.

Toronto Blue Jays
Like Jeroloman, A.J. Jimenez has been stuck in the depth crunch. d’Arnaud’s presence in high-A is keeping Puerto Rico native in low-A ball for a second straight season. In ’09, Jimenez hit .263/.280/.356 in 278 at-bats. This year, the 20-year-old catcher is hitting .308/.356/.456 in 182 at-bats. He also has a career-high 39 RBI in 50 games. A ninth-round pick during the 2008 draft, Jimenez slid due to health concerns (there was a fear that he would have to undergo Tommy John surgery) but he’s been OK and has even thrown out 54% of base runners in ’10.

Edge: Jimenez. Again, don’t give up on Higashioka or Murphy… The Toronto catcher is just much further along in his development at this time. Jimenez has a good defensive reputation, is a solid athlete, and is turning into a respectable hitter who has made adjustments at the plate.

Short-Season Leagues

New York Yankees
Just 17 years old, Gary Sanchez has already put the baseball world on notice. The offensive-minded catcher is batting .353 with two homers through four Gulf Coast League games. He also has eight RBI. It’s easy to see why he was one of the top international free agents in 2009; he signed for $2.5 million and could end up being a steal.

Toronto Blue Jays
Carlos Perez has one of the highest ceilings of any catcher in short-season ball, which is saying a lot. He’s a solid defensive catcher and he has a great eye at the plate. The 19-year-old Venezuela native hit .291/.364/.433 during his state-side debut in ’09 and he’s hitting .360 with seven RBI and eight runs scored through six New York Penn League games in ’10.

Edge: Let’s call this one a draw. Sanchez may have a higher offensive ceiling, and could easily skyrocket up this chart within 12 months, but we also have 2+ years of very impressive data on Perez. The Yankees prospect is in his first pro season, so I’m admittedly being a little cautious (not to be confused with homer-ism).

* * *

Conclusion: Taking into consideration both depth and overall talent ceiling, I’d give the Jays organization a slight edge, as the club really does have solid prospects at five different levels, where the Yankees system tops out with three solid catching prospects at five levels. New York, though, does have two or the top three catching prospects. There really aren’t any true winners or losers in this; both organizations have enviable catching depth.

Top 10 NYY/TOR Catching Prospects:
1. Jesus Montero, New York
2. J.P. Arencibia, Toronto
3. Austin Romine, New York
4. Travis d’Arnaud, Toronto
5. A.J. Jimenez, Toronto
6/7. Gary Sanchez, New York/Carlos Perez, Toronto
8. Brian Jeroloman, Toronto
9. J.R. Murphy, New York
10. Kyle Higashioka, New York

*In fairness a small caveat applies: I am a Canadian and I have covered the Jays’ minor league system extensively for about seven years. I have tried to remain objective, so take that for what it’s worth…