“I could never have imagined this,” Arencibia said. “I could never have imagined this — ever.”
Those words were uttered on a sunny, August afternoon in 2010 by (then) rookie JP Arencibia. Arencibia had just made his MLB debut in the grandest of ways, going 4 for 5 with two home runs and three RBI’s, and gave the Blue Jays hope for the future. The future sure did look bright after all, how could it now? Arencibia became the first player since 1900 to have a pair of home runs and four hits in his big league debut. At the time he was only the fifth player in baseball history to launch two home runs in his Major League debut, and the 107th player to homer in his first career AB in the majors.
The power display that Arencibia displayed in his debut was the power that the Blue Jays knew he was capable of when they drafted him with the 21st overall pick in the 2007 MLB draft out of Tennessee. There are few assets that baseball teams covet more than a power hitting, offensive catcher, and the Blue Jays had appeared to have one in their minor leagues. Even before he made his debut Arencibia was turning heads with his offensive upside. In 95 games at AAA Las Vegas JP had hit .303 with 31 home runs, 32 doubles, 71 runs scored and 79 RBIs.
It’s now a cold and miserable day in December 2013. The Blue Jays organization made two announcements earlier today regarding the status of their catcher(s). It started with the signing of free agent C Dioner Navarro for 2 years/$8 million, and ended with the Blue Jays deciding to non-tender JP Arencibia, making him a free agent; and effectively ending his Blue Jay career. All of this comes on the heels of one of the most disappointing seasons in recent memory for both the Blue Jays organization, as well as for JP on a personal level.
Before the season even started their were rumblings that JP was being shopped as part of a potential deal for RA Dickey. Once the Dickey deal was made without JP being included, then it was onto the media and talking heads discussing who should catch Dickey when he pitches. Although JP was the incumbent starter, his defense was far below average to handle a regular pitcher (let alone a knuckleballer), and the Blue Jays had acquired Josh Thole as part of the Dickey deal; Thole was Dickey’s personal catcher in 2012.
You have to give JP credit though, he knew his defense was suspect, so he spent the weeks leading up to spring training working with Dickey and learning to catch the knuckle. It didn’t help. Dickey and JP took the mound on Opening Day 2013 at the Rogers Center, and JP promptly gave up three passed balls on the way to a 4-1 loss. Blue Jays fans took it all in stride… it was only the first game after all… things would get better. They didn’t.
When the Blue Jays drafted Arencibia they did so knowing that he was an offensive minded catcher, but they believed that his offensive upside would outweigh any deficiencies or holes in his game. In his first full season in the majors in 2011, JP put up a very respectable line of .219/23/78. Despite missing a month with a broken hand in 2012, he followed up his 2011 campaign with another decent year: .233/18/56. The Blue Jays could live with the low average and low On-Base Percentage because they knew that his power numbers would compensate for the low averages. They knew that JP was a what one would call a “free swinger” had a bit of a tendency to strike out (at least 100 strikeouts in each of his three full seasons), but they also knew that most teams would kill to have a catcher capable of hitting 20+ homers and 50+ RBI’s; even with an average that usually hung around the Mendoza line.
What they couldn’t live with was a catcher that couldn’t hit for average or power, couldn’t get on base, and worst of all; couldn’t catch. Unfortunately that is exactly what JP Arencibia turned into in 2013. Despite having a fairly good start to the 2013 season, JP quickly became mired in a lengthy slump in May and never seemed to get it going after that. What didn’t make the situation any easier was the fact that JP became overly involved with people who criticized his play; mainly Gregg Zaun and Dirk Hayhurst. Both Zaun and Hayhurst, whom both are analysts for Sportsnet and former Blue Jays, had been critical of JP’s defensive ability behind the plate and lack of plate discipline.
Instead of taking it in stride or just brushing it off, Arencibia decided to blast both Zaun and Hayhurst on Twitter. The feud escalated when Arencibia appeared on a local morning radio show and called Hayhurst “a below average player,” and implied that Zaun had taken steroids because of his mention in the Mitchell Report. What better way to get people to stop criticizing your play than to openly invite them into a flame war? Two weeks after his comments about Zaun and Hayhurst, Arencibia deactivated his Twitter account. His last tweet gave the reason for his decision:
“It’s unfortunate to see how words are twisted to make false stories. I give way too much of myself to have others try and make me out to something/someone I’m not. Solution. I make myself very accessible with constant charitable events, and opening up to social media for the fans. I will no longer be on twitter. Thanks to all the fans who support and praying for the others that hate. God Bless.”
It’s sad that the JP Arencibia era had to end before it really even started. JP’s departure is just the another low point in what has been a disappointing couple years. JP was thought to give the Blue Jays stability at a position that had lacked a steady catcher since the days of Gregg Zaun (ironic?). Instead, JP has gone the way of Travis Snider and Ricky Romero before him, players who were suppose to be cornerstones for years to come and instead look like potential career minor leaguers or backups at best.
What’s a bit surprising about the whole JP situation is the fact that the Blue Jays were more willing to give him away for nothing than to tender him and try to move him before the season. It is known that Alex Anthopolous did try to trade JP before having to make him a free agent, unfortunately there were no takers. JP is still a 27 year old catcher who can hit for power. His power should be able to keep him employed as a backup for the near future. You have to wonder how damaged the relationship became between JP and the Blue Jays in order for them to decide that there was NO WAY that he could return as the starting catcher. The Blue Jays had originally been rumoured to be looking for a backup for JP; instead they picked up his replacement. Dioner Navarro is 29 years old, and like Arencibia is an offensive catcher with a so-so defensive game. Who knows what he’ll bring to the table, but I do know it will be better than what we got in 2013.
JP will be missed. He was a great community guy and a great teammate. What JP did off the field can never be broken down in stats or numbers and that’s unfortunate for him. If it could be done, perhaps it he would still be here. As it is, JP believed that his community and charity efforts should earn him a pass for his shoddy play, and you cant expect that. Would he have wanted people to blame his shoddy play on his off the field contributions? No, so why even put the two in the same sentence?
Ultimately JP’s downfall in Toronto was because of his inability ignore off the field distractions, and because of his play. If he was playing well and hitting well, then no one would care what he thought of Zaun and Hauhurst. But you cant criticize people when they’re right; he was terrible! Maybe he should have taken their criticism and used it as motivation, instead he is 27 and looking for a new team. Good luck JP! Hopefully you fare better than Travis Snider…