Arencibia a risk not worth taking for Blue Jays

The Blue Jays and J.P. Arencibia will part ways after a tumultuous 2013.(Kathy Willens/AP).

TORONTO – Hard to believe it was only three years ago that J.P. Arencibia was among the youngsters at the forefront of a brighter Toronto Blue Jays future, a franchise cornerstone popular for both his play on the field and his charitable work off it.

All those grand visions came to a quick, dramatic and ugly end Monday when the club signed free agent Dioner Navarro to a US$8-million, two-year deal and then didn’t tender the arbitration-eligible Arencibia a contract by the midnight deadline, making him a free agent (Colby Rasmus, Brett Cecil and Esmil Rogers were all tendered contracts).

That the Blue Jays preferred a 29-year-old who hasn’t played more than 100 games since 2009 (albeit one coming off a strong offensive season in a part-time role) as their starter next year to Arencibia, the durable and once promising incumbent who trudged through an abysmal 2013, is telling.

So too is that no trade partner emerged for someone once regarded as a potential all-star, although with the Blue Jays’ need for a change behind the plate so obvious to all, other teams had little incentive to offer anything remotely worthwhile.

So they didn’t.

The Blue Jays could have tendered Arencibia a contract and held on to him until spring training, but they didn’t want the situation to drag on while Anthopoulos tried to find a buyer for pennies on the dollar. Arencibia’s power ensures he’ll find work with another club, at minimum as a backup, and he presents an intriguing buy-low opportunity.

All that being said, it remains remarkable that the union between the Blue Jays and the 27-year-old could not be salvaged. After all, Anthopoulos is obsessive about the way he manages assets and he so rarely sells low (like he did in dealing Emilio Bonifacio to the Royals in August for cash).

What’s clear is that the team believes Arencibia’s personal collapse this past season created too much baggage on both ends for them to continue together, and that his potential was unlikely to be realized in Toronto.

Trying to identify the tipping point from his .194/.227/.365 campaign over 138 games isn’t an easy task, although some of the sideshow created by his public spat with Sportsnet analysts Gregg Zaun and Dirk Hayhurst didn’t help his case.

That he also turned into a lightning rod among the fan-base complicated things, and Arencibia appeared badly stung by the way fans overlooked his community service and his playing through bursitis in his knee, among other ailments.

To his credit, Arencibia continually answered the bell at the most demanding defensive position in baseball, and his 1,059 innings caught ranked fifth in the majors. There is value in that durability, not to mention in his 21 homers, tied for second among big-league backstops.

Still, between the unnecessary drama around him and the number of plate appearances in which he became a complete offensive non-factor (148 strikeouts against 18 walks), the Blue Jays decided a switch behind the plate was one way to generate some of the change they need.

In Navarro, they get a potentially solid switch-hitter who batted .300/.365/.492 in 89 games with the Chicago Cubs, his most since playing 115 contests for the Tampa Bay Rays in 2009. The Blue Jays believe his offensive spike last year is sustainable, and like his contact ability at the bottom of the order.

Navarro struck out in only 13.5 percent of his at-bats last year and owns 13.7 percent clip in his career; Arencibia rates were 29.8 in 2013 and 28.7 over his career.

Defensively, the two players may be a wash, as both are poor blockers, average receivers and average throwers. Navarro does come with a reputation as a good game-caller, but as with Arencibia, his bat will be key in making the rest of the package function.

Ultimately, questions over whether Arencibia’s bat would recover drove him and the Blue Jays apart. Though he said he was trying to make adjustments at the plate, he never did and some around the club wondered whether he was too stubborn to actually make the changes many believe are needed.

Those feelings are a long way from the excitement around his memorable debut Aug. 7, 2010, when he homered on the first pitch he saw, doubled, singled and then went deep again in a 17-11 win over the Rays, and his solid rookie year, when he batted .219/.282/.438 in 129 games.

The stagnation of 2012 and stunning regression of 2013 made gambling on an Arencibia recovery a risk too big for the Blue Jays, one they’ve decided not to take.

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