DUNEDIN, Fla. – The surprise out of Toronto Blue Jays camp Monday came not in the decision to keep Henry Blanco as the backup catcher over Josh Thole, but in word that the 41-year-old Venezuelan won’t be the exclusive backstop for R.A. Dickey.
J.P. Arencibia, as it turns out, will indeed get a share of the duties with the knuckleballer, including the plum opening day assignment April 2 against the Cleveland Indians, manager John Gibbons revealed, a development few expected when camp opened.
The club’s initial thinking was that with Arencibia needing occasional days off and the way the reigning NL Cy Young Award winner’s knuckleball pounds whoever is behind the plate, it made sense to give the ace a personal catcher. Having Blanco and Thole, his backstops the past three seasons, around just added to that logic.
Only Arencibia worked relentlessly with Dickey, partly to be ready for their time together on the U.S. team at the World Baseball Classic, but also to prepare himself for the regular season. He impressed enough at the Classic to convince the Blue Jays he was up to the task.
“It’s huge,” Arencibia, who homered twice and doubled in a 13-4 pounding of the Philadelphia Phillies, said of playing April 2. “You grow up watching opening days, excited about opening days and then I’ve been able to be a part of two of them.
“There’s no other feeling like that morning when baseball starts. It’s humbling, at the beginning it was in jeopardy. It was one of those humbling things. But, again, it’s not about me, it’s about the team, and fortunately enough they feel like I’ve done a good enough job to work with him.”
And far from being just about Arencibia, the decision is significant to the Blue Jays in that it gives Gibbons more flexibility to play matchups and take more into consideration than who’s up in the rotation when he works in Blanco.
In games of importance, too, it’s far from ideal being locked into one catcher, while being able to spread around the pairings with Blanco, renowned for his defensive abilities and handling of pitchers, is a useful by-product.
“To be honest with you I thought J.P. might have a hard time with him never having caught a knuckleball, it made sense then,” said Gibbons. “But he’s done a good job, and all the reports we got and everything we saw, Henry won’t strictly be his guy, they’ll both catch him.”
Arencibia and Dickey certainly put in the time to make it happen, getting together for throwing sessions in Nashville after the latter’s acquisition from the New York Mets in December that continued through the World Baseball Classic.
The key point of progress between then and now?
“The biggest thing is letting the ball get as deep as possible before I try and catch it,” said Arencibia. “If you go out and try to catch it, it’s going to move by the time you get to the point where you thought it was going to be. So you’ve got to really just let it get as deep as possible.”
The 27-year-old did that at the World Baseball Classic when Dickey made two starts for the Americans, and the way he handled things in games of meaning went a long way in convincing the Blue Jays.
It was a measuring stick unlike any a spring game provides.
“Game situations are where you want to make sure,” said Arencibia. “Bullpen, and not pressure situations are a lot different than when somebody is on base or there’s a man on third base and you’re trying to protect that run. It’s a valuable experience, but I think also I was able to separate myself from not putting too much pressure and still try and be calm and be confident that I can catch it.”
While the Arencibia-Blanco decisions were the biggest shoes to drop Monday, there were others. Brett Lawrie will start the season on the disabled list, while joining Thole on option to triple-A Buffalo are Anthony Gose and Brad Lincoln, scheduled to throw in a minor-league game Monday after overcoming shoulder inflammation.
Dave Bush was re-assigned and will end up in the Bisons rotation, while catcher Mike Nickeas was also told he’s not making the club but will travel to Philadelphia for exhibition games Friday and Saturday against the Phillies before eventually ending up in Buffalo, too.
Combined, all the moves provided some roster clarity for the Blue Jays heading into training camp’s final days, with one spot in the bullpen still to be settled and Lawrie’s DL stint likely opening a spot, at least for a few days, for another bullpen arm.
J.A. Happ, pushing to bump Ricky Romero from the rotation amid Alex Anthopoulos’s protestations that “we have our five starters,” may end up on the team as the long man, while one of out-of-options relievers Jeremy Jeffress and Brett Cecil, roughed up for four runs in 1.2 innings Monday, could cover for Lawrie.
Romero, meanwhile, is scheduled to make what could be an important outing Tuesday against the Pittsburgh Pirates, while Happ is slated to throw Wednesday against the Tampa Bay Rays at Port Charlotte. Jeffress is also scheduled to pitch in that one, a performance that could determine his fate one way or another.
The only other question at this point appears to be whether closer Casey Janssen will be ready in time, although he struck out the side in the seventh Monday, capped by a 72 m.p.h. curveball that nearly twisted Kevin Frandsen into ground, suggesting he’s on track.
“Opening day is looking more and more realistic,” said Janssen.
All that will sort itself out in the days to come. At least for now, the catching situation is set.
“I’m not going to say it’s easy, but it hasn’t been the craziest transition and I think that I've been able to catch him pretty well,” Arencibia said of learning Dickey. “Obviously you’re always going to have mistakes. Guys that have caught him for years still struggle. I feel very comfortable and very OK with being out there on a regular basis whenever he pitches.”
Contrary to early expectations, the Blue Jays feel the same way.