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When We Learn Something About a Prospect

At one point during yesterday’s edition of FanGraphs Audio, Carson asked an excellent question. In talking about Sean Smith’s new job with a major league club, he asked what an outsider such as Smith might learn that that is inaccessible to the rest of us. I gave the bland answer about scouting players. Dave, however, came up with quite the interesting insight.

I think one of the things that is interesting is the access to information that could help to project the development paths of certain types of minor leaguers.

Dave went on to talk about how prospects can bust for non-baseball reasons, which was an interesting take on the matter. The overall point is that while we might see Baseball America rate these guys highly, and we might see them produce quality numbers in the minors, there is still plenty that we don’t know about them. Given what we learned yesterday, there might be something we don’t know about Toronto catching prospect J.P. Arencibia.

After the 2009 season Baseball America rated Arencibia the Blue Jays No. 2 prospect. At age 24, there was a good chance that he’d make his debut in 2010, though the Jays had just signed John Buck as their starting catcher for the season. But when Buck got hurt, Arencibia got the call. He caught everyone’s attention in his major league debut, hitting two homers and barely missing another. The rest of his season didn’t go too well, but it lasted just 37 PA, so it didn’t mean much. With the expectation that Buck would seek a multi-year deal, the easy assumption had Arencibia starting behind the plate in 2011, with Jose Molina backing him up. But yesterday we learned that might not necessarily be the plan.

In the evening word broke that the Blue Jays were close to an agreement with A.J. Pierzynski. That immediately put Arencibia’s situation in question. With a young player, a team might opt to carry two low-cost veterans and call up the youngster when they feel he’s ready. But what else can Arencibia prove in the minors? He hit .301/.359/.626 last season and won the Pacific Coast League MVP. True, there’s more to a player’s readiness than his numbers, but it sure seems as though Arencibia is as ready as he’s going to be. But, again, that’s just us looking in from the outside.

Arencibia’s plate discipline issues are well known. He might have made some progress on that in 2010, as his 8.3 percent walk rate was an easy career high. Even if he does walk only 5 or 6 percent of the time in the majors, his power should help mitigate his lack of on-base and contact skills. The problem, though, is when you combine those issues with defensive ones. From Baseball America’s 2011 Blue Jays prospects write-up:

His defense also is in question. He has solid arm strength but threw out just 23 percent of PCL basestealers. His receiving and blocking skills are improving though just average at best, and he can get lackadaisical at times

That he’s a poor defensive catcher is also no secret. What gets me is that lackadaisical line. Does that hint at something greater than the Blue Jays have let on? Or is it just an innocuous line in a scouting report? Again, this is where we simply have no way of knowing. The Blue Jays will keep that information far away from the public eye — as they should. But it does leave us at a loss when analyzing how the Blue Jays construct their roster. That information about Arencibia becomes invaluable when trying to decipher their moves.

The Jays, of course, didn’t end up signing Pierzynski. He’s back in Chicago, where he’ll keep home plate warm for Tyler Flowers. But the most interesting part of this transaction is not where Pierzynski landed, but of Toronto’s intentions. Does this indicate their true feelings towards Arencibia? I wish I could answer. That would make our analysis a bit more complete.