NEW YORK — The Toronto Blue Jays moved away from peddling the type of better-days-ahead hope so inherent to the Futures Game with their build-up this past off-season, and while arriving at the all-star break 45-49 wasn’t part of the plan, their course is set.
They’re playing for now.
Even still, as demonstrated during a frustrating and injury-filled first half, the Blue Jays still need their minor-league system to be productive and the gaps between the elite-level talent in the organization’s lower levels and largely barren ranks closer to the majors have already come back to haunt them.
All of which makes A.J. Jimenez, the double-A New Hampshire Fisher Cats catcher who was the only Blue Jays representative in Sunday’s Futures Game, such an important asset.
Along with triple-A Buffalo outfielders Anthony Gose and the hard-charging Kevin Pillar, the trio are the only positional prospects with the potential to make an impact in the near future, or likely to have much value on the trade market.
Given that he also plays a premium position and is projected as an everyday player, Jimenez's development really, really matters.
"Any time you have a catcher getting close you're going to be happy to have him, especially one that's starting to put his offence together," assistant GM Tony LaCava, who oversees the farm system, said before the U.S. Team's 4-2 win over the World Team. "We always believed he was the best defensive catcher in the system, even when we had Travis d'Arnaud and Carlos Perez. … "Now he's evolved as a hitter, he's gotten a lot stronger, he's very physical, his swing is a lot more compact and he uses a middle of the field approach. His offence has come along in a way that's got us pretty excited."
Helping the 23-year-old from Puerto Rico on that front is a swing that's become far more compact than the one he used when he was drafted in the ninth round of the 2008 draft. While he posted decent numbers early in his minor-league career, he's really taken a jump in limited action this season, with a .376/.403/.512 slash line between nine games at single-A Dunedin and 24 games with New Hampshire.
Helping, too, is a full return to health following Tommy John surgery on his right elbow last May, repairing a ligament first partially torn before he was drafted in '08. He tried to rehab the injury, and played through pain for years but is now noticing the difference, with a trip to the Futures Game on the World Team part of his reward.
"This is awesome," Jimenez, 0-for-1 with a walk in 5½ innings of action, said of his experience. "It's been a long year but everything happens for a reason. I worked hard throughout rehab, and I'm 100 per cent now. It's the first time in my career I'm playing without pain."
While the ligament tear caused him pain on the follow-through of his swing, the bigger issue was in throwing the ball, which makes the 43 per cent of would-be base stealers he's thrown out in his career all the more remarkable.
LaCava raved about his ability to "shut down the running game" and Jimenez has been better than ever so far this year, getting five of the eight runners silly enough to try and swipe a bag off him.
"I'm just trying to control it, be more accurate, and the arm feels great," said Jimenez. "I think I'll be better."
Already solid are his handling of pitchers and game-calling, something that drew the praise of LaCava during a recent visit. The executive was thinking the game along with the catcher, and found himself pleasantly surprised whenever Jimenez called for a breaking ball in a fastball count, or vice-versa.
"He's not afraid to do something that's unconventional," LaCava said admiringly.
That's all part of knowing the pitcher and having a feel for the game, explains Jimenez, something he picks up on by getting to know his teammates off the field and then paying close attention to what happens on it.
He feels that and his blocking -- "I'm very proud of my blocking, and I'm still working on it," he says -- earns him the trust of pitchers, something he believes is his primary job.
"I like to be known as a great defensive catcher, I like that name," said Jimenez. "Hitting is important, but for me it's not as important as defence, but I take great pride in my offence, too."
The promise of such a multi-dimensional catcher is an enticing one and for the Blue Jays it's a commodity there can never be enough of.
Jimenez has nowhere near the hype of d'Arnaud, dealt to the New York Mets along with Noah Syndergaard in the December trade for R.A. Dickey, but his strong return has helped replenish the organizational depth behind J.P. Arencibia, and gives GM Alex Anthopoulos another chip to play.
That's what ended up happening with Syndergaard, 5-3 with a 2.69 ERA and 1.183 WHIP in 16 starts for single-A St. Lucie and double-A Binghamton this season.
The right-hander, expected to be a key part of the Blue Jays future, started for the U.S. Team at Citi Field before what he hopes will one day soon be his home crowd and threw a shutout inning.
"I was surprised at the trade because I thought I was going to be a Blue Jay for a while, at least," said Syndergaard. "It was kind of a bittersweet moment, I was pretty happy being a Blue Jay and being comfortable, but I love being a Met now and I'm looking forward to playing for them."
Bittersweet is also the way LaCava described watching a player he helped draft and develop represent another organization in the Futures Game.
"Obviously to get the players we brought in you have to give up good players and teams are smart, they know who to ask for," said LaCava. "But it was the right trade for the Mets, and it was the right trade for the Blue Jays. You're always going to have a soft spot for those players, but we're also very excited about the players we have, not only for this year but for the next few seasons."
For better or worse, that's the timeline the Blue Jays are working on, one the trading of Syndergaard helped put in place, and one they hope Jimenez can help keep going.