Doin’ the Splits: Dioner Navarro as a Replacement for J.P. Arencibia Against Lefties

 

The Toronto Blue Jays have finally gotten into the offseason action, signing catcher Dioner Navarro, who played last year with the Chicago Cubs, to a two-year deal worth $8 million pending a physical.

 

 

Catcher Josh Thole signs an autograph for a young fan.
Catcher Josh Thole signs an autograph for a young fan.

 

While Josh Thole is safe due to the fact that he’s a left-handed hitter and R.A. Dickey‘s personal knuckleball chaser (does anyone really catch a knuckleball?), J.P. Arencibia becomes expendable. Steve Simmons has tweeted this tidbit, so I wouldn’t count on JPA being back in Toronto:


I know that there’s a large group of Blue Jays fans who don’t want to hear this. As charismatic as a player is, he is always expendable, provided that the team can find adequate replacement. Comparing their actual production, we’ll be very pleased with having Navarro on the club.

 

The biggest concern with the Dioner Navarro signing is that he has had exactly one above average offensive season and is known as a below average defender (much like our friend JPA). Taking away from Navarro’s excellent offensive campaign in 2013 is the fact that he only had 266 plate appearances and only started 53 games. His numbers do look good for those 266 plate appearances though, hitting .300/.365/.492 with 13 home runs with an 8.6 BB% and a 13.5% K%.

 

By comparison, if he hold our noses for a bit, we see that J.P. Arencibia hit .216/.265/.405 with 21 home runs in 497 plate appearances with a 3.6% BB% and 29.8 K%. So, in about half as many plate appearances, Navarro hit more than half as many home runs but walked WAY more and struck out WAY less, creating an OBP 100 points higher.

 

Additionally, Navarro’s a great replacement for Arencibia because, as a switch hitter, he pulverizes left-handed pitching from the right side, with an OPS 129 points higher than from the left side along with an 8.9% walk rate and only a 10.1% strikeout rate. His wRC+ is 35 points higher from the right side at 108 while his wOBA is 52 points higher at .339. Even if you went to a strict platoon situation, having Navarro splitting time with Josh Thole, you’d still get an improvement over J.P. Arencibia’s career rates against lefties who has a wOBA of .299 and a wRC+ of 84. And these are both players’ career numbers, taking into account that Navarro has generally been worse than his 2013 numbers and Arencibia has been better than his.

 

I’ve created a chart where you can see this for yourself over at Fangraphs. Just follow the link.

 

So why am I concerned about Navarro? He has played in 100 games only three times in his career (2007 – 2009 for the Tampa Bay Rays – the only time he’s been a starter) and only one time has he produced league average offense (2008). He’s not all that old (he’ll be 30 in 2014, making him just two years older than J.P. Arencibia) but he doesn’t really have a track record of either a) playing a lot; or b) being good.

 

That said, Navarro has historically taken walks: since he left the Rays, he has walked at least 8% of the time in any year that he’s had over 200 plate appearances. He also doesn’t strike out a lot: his HIGHEST K% is 17.3%. JPA’s LOWEST is 27.4%. Also on the plus side, Navarro apparently spent time picking Joey Votto‘s brain in the 2012/13 offseason (as per this Fangraphs article by Bradley Woodrum) which may have helped him make some breakthroughs as a hitter.

 

Both players have weak defense, so we can consider that a wash and the numbers tell me that Navarro will be a big upgrade against left-handed pitching. As a switch hitter, Navarro could play against righties but all of his numbers drop considerably from the left side of the plate. Interestingly, Navarro has had 39 plate appearances against righties from the right side of the plate and his overall numbers are actually much better than his stats against righties from the left side (despite the small sample size).

 

Navarro’s a very good hitter against left-handed pitching and had an outstanding year last year against all comers. In fact, he’s kind of the “anti-Arencibia” when it comes to his plate discipline so it will be nice to watch a catcher come up and not give away at bats by swinging for the moon. Whether Navarro’s hitting gains carry through to a new contract and a new league against mostly new pitchers is the big question. The last time he posted a league average hitting season, he followed it up with four years of below average production.

 

If the plan is to platoon Navarro, then I’m all for it. If he’s going to catch every day (except Dickey Day), I’m not sure how he’s going to hold up.

 

UPDATE: The Blue Jays have non-tendered J.P. Arencibia and he will become a free agent. He will undoubtedly find a new place to play but it will have to be at a price less than the $2.8 million that he was expected to make as an arbitration-eligible player. The also tendered contracts to the other three arbitration-eligible players: Colby Rasmus, Brett Cecil and Esmil Rogers.

 

A few more details have come out with the Navarro signing. It was released that his contract will pay him $3 million in 2014 and $5 million in 2015. With the non-tender of J.P. Arencibia, this contract structure mirrors what Arencibia was expected to earn in arbitration which makes the move to sign Navarro payroll-neutral. The Blue Jays’ expected payroll in 2014 is still about $135 million with the other three arbitration-eligible players yet to agree to new contracts.