Jays upgrade behind the plate, but how much?

Dioner Navarro was signed to a two-year deal on Monday. (AP)

TORONTO – After J.P. Arencibia’s historically awful season at the plate in 2013, it was a priority for the Toronto Blue Jays to improve behind the plate as they move forward into what they hope will be a far more successful 2014. It wasn’t as big a priority as improving the near-major-league-worst starting pitching, but it was the one they addressed first, agreeing to terms with former Yankee, Dodger, (Devil) Ray, Red and Cub Dioner Navarro on a two-year contract Monday morning, then cutting Arencibia loose Monday night, having been unsuccessful in their attempts to find a team interested in trading for him.

Effectively, it’s a one-for-one trade with the salaries being a wash. Navarro will earn $8 million over the next two years, which is about what Arencibia was likely to make had the Blue Jays tendered him a contract and either gone to arbitration with him in the New Year or negotiated around a likely arbitration award.

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If you look at the two catchers’ production in 2013, it’s a steal for the Blue Jays. Of course, pretty much anybody is an improvement over Arencibia’s .197/.225/.365 line from this past season, with an atrocious 148:18 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

However, Navarro did have a breakthrough season, hitting .300/.365/.492 as the Cubs’ back-up catcher, belting a career-high 13 homers in just 266 plate appearances. His home run rate of 4.9 percent was nearly twice his pre-2012 career high of 2.5 percent.

The problems with Arencibia are well documented. He strikes out too much, seemingly refusing to cut down his home run swing with two strikes. He appears to be allergic to walks. Behind the plate, more balls get past him than get past the average catcher. Off the field, Arencibia took a lot of heat last season for voicing his displeasure with what he felt was the overly negative criticism of him and his teammates in some corners of the media.

Those problems are real and rather significant, but Arencibia has his strengths, as well, despite the fact that many Blue Jays fans spent Monday engaging in the unseemly celebration of his imminent departure. Only one major-league catcher hit more home runs than he did this past season. Only four big-leaguers played more games behind the plate than Arencibia’s 138. He has matched the major-league average in throwing out potential base-stealers over his career.

There is a chance that Arencibia will hit .260 wherever he lands next season, with an on-base percentage of .285 and 20 to 25 home runs, and will be able to produce those numbers on an ongoing basis for the next five to eight years as a perfectly adequate defensive catcher. But the Blue Jays are looking for more.

In Navarro, the Blue Jays pick up a player with his own list of issues. He has only played 225 major-league games in the past four seasons combined, hitting the same number of home runs over that span as Arencibia did in 2013. Durability and power, two of Arencibia’s greatest strengths, are assets that Navarro hasn’t brought to the table much. He’s not a great defensive catcher – in fact, he has the reputation of being lazy behind the plate, disinterested in blocking pitches in the dirt.

But he’s got a slightly above-average arm and the reputation of being a great game-caller — someone pitches love to throw to — for whatever that’s worth. Navarro was an all-star in 2008 at the age of 24, his .295/.349/.407 line helping the Rays to the World Series (he hit .353 in the World Series), then hit .207/.267/.311 over the next three seasons, going from starter in T-Bay to back-up in L.A. all the way to triple-A.

So where are the Blue Jays improving behind the plate, other than in looking at what could very well be an outlier 2013 for Navarro in the friendly confines of Wrigley Field (his home OPS, after all, was nearly 300 points higher than on the road)?

They’re improving a great deal in plate discipline, for one thing. Navarro has a career walk rate of 7.7 percent, and has struck out 1.77 times for every one of his big-league walks. Arencibia’s career numbers in those categories are 5.3 percent, having fallen each of the last two years (7.4 percent to 4.8 percent to 3.6 percent), and 5.41.

They’re getting a switch-hitter, and they’re getting someone they feel has turned a corner, as opposed to someone whose performance has declined in every one of his major-league seasons since the first.

Navarro is coming off his first good year since that all-star performance in 2008, and he credits a friendship he struck up while a member of the Cincinnati Reds with none other than Etobicoke, Ont.’s own Joey Votto.

Navarro didn’t make the Reds in 2012, starting the season with their triple-A Louisville team. That serious wake-up call combined with his new approach at the plate (with advice from Votto), helped him rediscover his form. He hit .319/.382/.449 for the Bats, then .290 with a .775 OPS after being called up in August to serve as the Reds’ back-up.

Amazingly, Navarro’s line drive rate for the Reds in 2012 was 27 percent, and it was 28 percent with the Cubs this past season. In his previous eight years in the majors, he’d only had a line drive rate above 21 percent once. The last two years, he’s been hitting the ball harder than he ever has before.

Can he keep it up, moving from the NL Central to the incredibly tough AL East? Can he keep it up while playing 100 to 120 games a season, something he hasn’t done in the past five years?

It’s a big gamble for the Blue Jays to take, handing the reins to a guy who burst onto the scene then flamed out spectacularly and now may have found himself again. But this wasn’t a good winter to be looking for catching, with only Brian McCann being an incredibly attractive free agent candidate. Next-tier guys like Carlos Ruiz, A.J. Pierzynski and Jarrod Saltalamacchia are all highly flawed but have either already leveraged or are trying to leverage the weak catching market into serious overpays from desperate bidders. Trade demands for catchers seem to be outrageous.

The Blue Jays hope they’ve hit a diamond in the rough in Navarro, and we’ll find out over the course of the next season whether they have. At the very least, they’ll get more out of the catcher’s spot than they did this past season.

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