TORONTO – Sure, Danny Jansen wanted to get to know the Blue Jays’ big-league pitching staff last spring. Learning pitchers’ tendencies and personalities falls within the job description of any professional catcher.
But at the time, Jansen had never played above class-A. Once the season started, the likes of J.A. Happ and Marco Estrada would fly up to Toronto. Jansen would stay put in Dunedin, three promotions away from the Blue Jays’ big-league pitchers.
One year later, Jansen has earned two of those promotions and reached triple-A. Because he’s close enough to envision that third and final promotion, he’ll adjust his approach this spring. Jansen, 22, has resolved to get to know the Blue Jays’ staff as pitchers and as people even better than he did last year.
“I pretty much knew I was going to high-A,” Jansen said. “It’s always good to have that knowledge, but not to this extent where I really want to know these guys just in case I get the opportunity to go up. I want to be prepared. That’s my worst nightmare: coming up and not being prepared.”
Jansen’s one of three catching prospects expected to start the 2018 season in the upper minors along with Reese McGuire and Max Pentecost. General manager Ross Atkins describes that group as an ‘area of strength,’ and it’s a safe assumption that the organization will pay especially close attention to that group, not only because of future potential but because the Blue Jays are currently thin when it comes to big-league catching depth behind Russell Martin.
Even as he enters his age-35 season, Martin’s a vitally important player for the Blue Jays. He was limited to 91 games last year due to shoulder, neck and oblique issues. In 2018, he hopes to play more.
“I don’t like throwing numbers out there, because it puts people in a tough situation sometimes,” Martin said. “If I’m fresh and feel good and healthy, who knows how many games I can play? That’s the key is to stay healthy.”
Martin hit .221/.343/.388 with 13 home runs last year—respectable numbers in line with the MLB averages for the position. And while 91 games represented a dropoff in playing time for Martin, only one catcher older than him appeared in more games: Yadier Molina.
The problem wasn’t Martin, it was his backups. Raffy Lopez, Mike Ohlman, Miguel Montero, Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Luke Maile combined to bat 324 times over 103 games last year. They hit eight home runs with a .155/.217/.267 slash line. Six pitchers had a better OPS than the group’s .484 mark.
Maile, who got the most playing time behind Martin, still projects as the club’s backup. He missed most of July and all of August with a right meniscus issue that required a minor cleanup, but returned in September and took better swings, according to manager John Gibbons.
“I was proud of the way I finished,” Maile said. “I didn’t exactly set the world on fire, but I think I had better at-bats. I felt better at the plate. Health was a big part of that.”
Maile said he feels ‘great’ ahead of spring training, his first with the Blue Jays. Even then, he projects as a below-average hitter, so the Blue Jays will continue looking at backup catching alternatives. As Atkins said, “we’ll continue to look to complement (existing options) as well.”
Still, that might not mean more than a minor-league signing given that the club also seeks a starting pitcher and an experienced reliever.
Regardless of how much catching Atkins adds this spring, both Jansen and McGuire are leading candidates to start the season at triple-A. Speaking in general terms, Atkins has said he prefers to integrate prospects during the season rather than on opening day, when there’s additional pressure to succeed. If all goes well in this case, the club could turn to Jansen or McGuire by mid-season, according to MLB evaluators.
“(Jansen) gives you such a good at-bat that he should be OK if needed sooner than expected,” one rival scout said.
Meanwhile, Pentecost could start the season at double-A, where he’ll look to build on a year that saw him return behind the plate after three shoulder surgeries. The former first-round pick describes his 2017 season as a ‘real positive’ and suggests his arm might be stronger than ever. Though his Arizona Fall League stint ended prematurely, he says it was precautionary — a way to ease the physical toll after missing most of two seasons.
“My body was just beat,” he said. “It was one of those things where it was ‘there’s a week left, let’s not push it.’”
As for 2018, Pentecost would like to catch far more than the 19 games he started at class-A Dunedin last year. Atkins estimated that he could catch five to six out of every 10 games this coming season.
“I’d like to add on to what I did last year,” Pentecost said. “It’s going to be a matter of how my body reacts.”
McGuire, acquired along with Francisco Liriano for Drew Hutchison in 2016, dealt with injuries of his own in 2017, when he underwent surgery to repair a meniscus tear in his right knee. He produced when healthy, though, batting .278/.366/.496 in 34 games at double-A then earning a spot on Toronto’s 40-man roster.
Jansen hit even better in 2017, though he entered the season with a reputation as a defence-first player. He batted .323/.400/.484 last year with more walks than strikeouts — a breakout at least partially attributable to new glasses. He’s now the seventh-ranked prospect in Toronto’s system, according to Baseball America.
Next month, Jansen will arrive at spring training with the purpose of developing soft skills. He’ll look to develop a rapport with Toronto’s pitchers, for one, while also developing his game calling. On that front he’s open to criticism, especially when it comes from Toronto’s catching coordinator Ken Huckaby.
“You’ve got to have a guy that will literally confront you when you make mistakes,” Jansen said. “Every time I messed up, I’d go in there like ‘what did I do?’ And he’d tell me.”
Once applied, those lessons helped Jansen rise through three minor-league levels in 2017. Should that final promotion occur this coming season, he intends to be prepared. Given the current status of the Blue Jays’ catching depth chart, that possibility could present itself before too long.