J.P. Arencibia was the kind of bad that finds you. A year ago, the Blue Jays looked like competitor darlings, primarily because of a host of additions. Arencibia was hardly one of the guys to watch, and then before long it became apparent the Blue Jays were hardly one of the teams to watch. It didn’t take long for me to concentrate my viewing elsewhere, but still, I kept hearing about Arencibia’s death spiral. You didn’t have to follow the Blue Jays to be aware of Arencibia’s inability to get on base, and his final line was something borderline legendary. Arencibia hurt me, without my having watched. I weep for those who did.
Now Arencibia’s time in Toronto is just about up. From the free-agent market, the Jays have snagged Dioner Navarro for two years and $8 million. With Josh Thole as the backup, the Jays will now either trade Arencibia or non-tender him, leaving him a free agent. Unsurprisingly, league interest is reportedly limited. Teams won’t fall all over themselves to get a guy whose most recent OBP was lower than Pedro Alvarez‘s most recent batting average. From here, it’s unclear where Arencibia’s career is going to go.
There are two things, I think, that ought to be understood before we go further:
(1) Arencibia, presumably, is not as bad as last year’s 57 wRC+.
(2) Navarro, presumably, is not as good as last year’s 136 wRC+.
Last year, 38 catchers batted at least 250 times. Among them, Navarro was the second-best hitter, while Arencibia was the fourth-worst, a hair worse than Chris Stewart. These are factual things that happened, but they’re also not reflective of the players’ true talents. Navarro hit twice as many homers as doubles, which is the reverse of his career pattern. Arencibia wound up with too few hits on balls in play. The dependable rule of thumb is that all extreme performances must be regressed when considering the future, which is what we’re usually doing.
But despite that, this is a pair of moves that makes plenty of sense. Navarro demonstrated that he’s got some life left. Arencibia has failed to improve anywhere but in his pitch-framing, and that’s the part of his game that’s least understood. Neither catcher is an outstanding defender, and locally Arencibia has been the cause of great frustration. The Jays have run out of patience, and now they get to make one of two kinds of improvements. The most appealing kind of improvement is going from decent to good. The other kind of improvement is going from bad to decent, and that kind of improvement is equally valid.
In theory, Arencibia might just need more time to figure things out. He clearly has power, and he’s been a quality prospect before. Navarro, meanwhile, feels like he’s been around forever, and he did debut in 2004. But Navarro is actually just two years older than Arencibia is, and he’s been a regular starter before with the Rays. He makes more contact than Arencibia, he’s less opposed to walking, and if you can believe it, a year ago, Navarro posted the higher ISO. Squint, and in Navarro you can almost see a potential bargain.
And the contract, I think, might be the real key. Dioner Navarro is by no means a sexy addition, and no one’s going to confuse him with Brian McCann. But he’s going to get $3 million next year, and $5 million the year after that. According to MLB Trade Rumors, Arencibia is projected to earn $2.8 million next year. Navarro is better than Arencibia, yet he won’t be paid more. And he won’t be paid very much at all, for a guy projected to be used as a starter.
No matter where you fall in the ongoing discussion about free-agent market prices for a win, everyone agrees that the cost of a win is much greater than $3 million, and much greater than $5 million. The Jays, then, are paying Navarro to be worth a win, maybe a win and a half, over two seasons. This is a guy who’s supposed to be their starting catcher, and a guy who was just worth 1.7 WAR with the Cubs over a fraction of one season. Navarro isn’t a big splash, by any means, but it’s easy to see him being more valuable over the course than his salary, which isn’t the end goal, but which is helpful. The Jays decided against landing a more high-profile catcher, opting instead for a cheap, value catcher who offers them greater flexibility elsewhere. Even though Navarro won’t lead the team in any offensive categories, he should be adequate for below the market cost of adequacy, allowing the Jays to put money elsewhere, in places where it could be of greater use.
I don’t know what that means, necessarily, in that I don’t know where the Jays are going to go from here, but the whole idea behind contract efficiency is that it increases the effective payroll, allowing for greater talent maximization. The Jays didn’t think they were going to get a real good player for a reasonable cost behind the plate. So they got a cheap, fine player with a little upside, and they’ll look for other upgrades. The temptation will be there to consider Navarro on his own, but really, it’ll be about Navarro and whatever else the Navarro acquisition allows the Jays to accomplish. Everything is connected, and all Navarro needs to do is be worth a couple wins over two years for his team to benefit. It’s not a bad gamble, even considering Navarro isn’t that far removed from being a guy most baseball fans probably forgot about. He doesn’t have to hit much to earn his salary, and he happened to hit much just last season.
In Navarro, you could see a reason for hope for Arencibia. Navarro was a young starting catcher who fell on hard times, and now he’s earned his way back to regular playing time and a multi-year commitment. I don’t know if that’s ultimately going to be Arencibia’s course, but some team is going to be willing to find out. And the Jays will be happy to have that be another team’s concern.
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