Blue Jays considering switch behind the plate

Toronto Blue Jays catcher J.P. Arencibia has 20 home runs, but his on-base percentage is just .248. (AP)
November 11, 2013, 9:08 PM

ORLANDO – Amid their priority pursuit of starting pitching upgrades, the Toronto Blue Jays are also actively seeking help behind the plate to either complement or replace incumbent J.P. Arencibia.

The catching market this off-season is a robust one, and as the general managers’ meetings opened Monday at the swanky JW Marriott Grande Lakes in sunny Orlando, Alex Anthopoulos has been in the thick of it, according to multiple sources.

Inquiries have been made on A.J. Pierzynski, Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Carlos Ruiz and given the way Anthopoulos operates, you can bet he’s at least checked in on Brian McCann, as well. None of that means a deal is imminent – far from it, as Saltalamacchia is being linked to the Philadelphia Phillies should Ruiz move on, with several other suitors in the mix for all the backstops.

One source suggested that a couple of teams who weren’t expected to be seeking catching help have also been kicking tires, which could expand the field and make it more difficult to get someone signed. Anthopoulos could go the trade route, although given that he may need to save his bullets to acquire pitching help, that seems problematic, too.

Regardless, it’s clear the Blue Jays are seriously considering a move away from Arencibia, who has drawn interest from other teams in trade talks despite a dismal 2013.

The 27-year-old started out brilliantly this past season, then slumped badly, played through bursitis in his knee, and became embroiled in controversial sniping with Sportsnet analysts Gregg Zaun and Dirk Hayhurst. A solid citizen who is active in the community, he finished with 21 homers, tied for second among big-league backstops, but was largely an offensive non-factor beyond that, batting .194/.227/.365 with 18 walks against 148 strikeouts.

While his power, durability and potential remain coveted qualities – he posted a .720 OPS in 2011 and .710 in 2012, leading some to still see a John Buck-type ceiling for him – there is a school of thought that the package simply won’t come together in Toronto now given the accumulated baggage.

And with the Blue Jays in win-now mode, it may be too risky to gamble on a recovery in his performance at such a crucial position in 2014.

While Anthopoulos could have as much as $20 million at his disposal to address his catching, starting pitching and second base, moving the arbitration-eligible Arencibia would provide a savings of $2.5-$3 million that would subsidize the salary of an incoming backstop.

Even if they signed someone to a contract that paid $8-$9 million a season, they could still have enough wiggle room left to add a mid-range starter and perhaps a second baseman.

Top-end starting pitching will cost a fortune on the free agent market, as Ervin Santana has set his price at $100 million over five years and Ricky Nolasco at $80 million over five. In the current environment, they may get close to those numbers. Matt Garza would be in that neighbourhood too – all probably too rich for the Blue Jays – but one intriguing name is Ubaldo Jimenez, whom Anthopoulos pursued in the past.

The right-hander declined his end of an $8 million option for 2014 with the Cleveland Indians and also turned down their $14.1 million qualifying offer Monday (as did each of the 12 other free agents to receive one). He could slot in below the big three above in terms of dollars and might be a better fit in the Blue Jays payroll structure.

Still, the Blue Jays have been casting a wide net as is their modus operandi, calling on everyone from Santana to Tim Hudson and Hiroki Kuroda (both not likely interested in the Blue Jays).

There are also rumblings that the trade market may include some surprising names, but whether Anthopoulos has enough chips to make such a deal happen from his farm system alone is uncertain.

Regardless, the groundwork is being laid for another interesting off-season.

Other rumblings and grumblings from the lobby at GM meetings in Orlando:

MELKY THE MAN: The Blue Jays appear set to run with Melky Cabrera in left field in 2014 with the outfielder making good and steady progress after having a benign tumour removed from his spine.

Cabrera – entering the final season of a US$16-million, two-year contract – struggled with leg issues during his first campaign with the Blue Jays, when he batted .279/.322/.360 with three homers, 15 doubles and 30 RBIs in 88 games.

His issues with mobility are believed to have stemmed from the tumour, which was removed in September.

Collectively, Blue Jays left-fielders ranked last in the American League in OPS (.667), home runs (10) and total bases (227), and were 10th in OBP (.309) and seventh in average (.259). As a result, observers saw left field as one place the team could upgrade over the winter, but right now Cabrera sounds like the guy.

"He looks great rehabbing, he should be fully recovered and doing extremely well," GM Alex Anthopoulos said during a recent interview. "We expected that but he still has to go through the process. Right now he’s doing incredibly well and we expect him to be significantly better because we found the root of what some of the problems were ailing his legs.

"We expect him to come into spring training ready to go and have a great year for us."

SIERRA WORKS OUT AT FIRST: Outfielder Moises Sierra has been taking ground balls at first base with the Gigantes del Cibao, his winter league team in the Dominican Republic. The Blue Jays would like to see if he adapts enough to the position to become an option there on occasion with his power right-handed bat. Sierra is out of options and won’t likely clear waivers, so the Blue Jays are trying to make him as versatile as possible. He and Anthony Gose provide inexpensive options for a fourth outfielder next year.

DAVIS SEEKS PLAYING TIME: It doesn’t sound like free agent outfielder Rajai Davis is likely to return to the Blue Jays. Davis could earn $3-$4 million per season on the open market and is also believed to be seeking more playing time than the Blue Jays can promise him. By using Sierra or Gose as opposed to Davis, the Blue Jays could save a significant amount of money that could be diverted to other priority areas like pitching, catching and second base.

KAWASAKI IN PLAY?: Munenori Kawasaki may not be done with the Blue Jays after all. The unique and beloved infielder had his $1 million option for 2014 declined last month and there was talk he was eyeing a return to Japan. But another possibility is that he accepts another minor-league deal from the Blue Jays, albeit one that comes with a higher base salary than the $600,000 he collected while at triple-A Buffalo this season.

FIRST-BASE COACH SOON: The sole opening left on the Blue Jays coaching staff is at first base and the position could be filled by next week. Initial thoughts were that the gig would go to an internal candidate but an interesting external possibility is Trey Hillman. Recently fired as by the Dodgers as their bench coach, Hillman was the manager in Kansas City when the Royals hired John Gibbons as bench coach in 2009.

THIS AND THAT: Canadian outfielder Jason Bay is undecided about whether he wants to continue playing or not. The native of Trail, B.C., was released by the Seattle Mariners last August. He’ll be honoured by Baseball Canada during its annual banquet in January with induction to its wall of fame. … Outfielders Manny Ramirez and Grady Sizemore are both looking to play in 2014.

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