With the return of catcher A.J. Jimenez to the New Hamsphire Fisher Cats in AA, the promotion of Josh Thole and the release of Henry Blanco, the catching situation in the upper minor leagues for the Toronto Blue Jays has settled into the way that things will likely shake out for the remainder of the season. Here is a summary of who’s playing where in the Blue Jays’ system.
AAA Buffalo Bisons
B.C. native Mike Nickeas (acquired in the R.A. Dickey deal from the Mets) is the incumbent but will remain the backup in Buffalo but might get more playing time now. By all reports, he is a classic good-glove, no-bat catcher who has managed to put together a horrible stat-line in Buffalo this year. The 30 year old has hit .167/.231/.226 in 84 at bats. Don’t get your hopes up for more offense from Nickeas. Since reaching AAA for the first time in 2008, he has only put up an OPS of .600 or better once (in 66 at bats in Buffalo in 2012).
Newly promoted Sean Ochinko has always had a decent stick through his minor league career. He’s shown the ability to get on base and has shown some pop, especially in his career best power year, 2011, in which he hit 16 home runs in the non-home-run-friendly environment of the Florida State League. So far this year, the 25-year-old has hit .243/.329/375 with 2 home runs in 144 at bats for New Hampshire. I’m not entirely sure about his defensive reputation, although he has moved around on the infield throughout his minor league career, playing both 1st base and 3rd base up until last year in which it looks like he was made a full-time catcher and only had the occasional start at first base. It doesn’t look like he’s going to be another Yan Gomes.
AA New Hampshire Fisher Cats
A.J. Jimenez returns to the Fisher Cats and will be the every day catcher. So far this season, between time spent rehabbing in Dunedin and his first couple of games back in New Hampshire, Jimenez looks like he’s found that batting stroke that he struggled to find in 2012 before his injury. Jimenez is the Jays highest ranked catching prospect, and by far the closest to the majors. By all accounts, he’s an outstanding defensive catcher who will make the majors as at least a backup, but if his bat develops, he could be a starter. In 36 at bats this season (between Dunedin and New Hampshire), he’s hitting .417/.421/.639. Obviously it’s a small sample size and all but two games were played in Dunedin. His stats will normalize soon, but if he hits the ball well, it’s possible he could be in Buffalo by season’s end, or he could get a look in Toronto as a September call-up. This is probably the likeliest scenario as the Jays put him on the 40-man roster to protect him from being taken by another team in the Rule V draft this winter. With the DFA of Henry Blanco, Jimenez is the team’s only other catcher on the 40-man roster. Jimenez is only 23 so the team will not look to rush him, considering that they have committed themselves to J.P. Arencibia at the big league level and with Josh Thole getting the opportunity to demonstrate that he’s a viable alternative to the big-whiff power hitting Arencibia.
Jack Murphy is the classic example of an org guy. He’s been working his way up through the system fairly steadily but without a huge amount of offensive success. Since leaving short-season ball in 2010, he has never had an OPS over .700 (an exception was 2012, where 24 incredible at bats in AA pushed his season total to .722, despite a .696 OPS in 278 Dunedin at bats). Murphy can take a walk and from the defensive metrics I’ve been able to find, is a solid defensive catcher. Now 25, Murphy will probably have a job in professional baseball for a long time as a good-glove catcher.
A-Advanced Dunedin Blue Jays
C Derrick Chung has returned to the Blue Jays after an injury that interrupted a very hot streak. Chung was drafted in 2012 and played several positions for Vancouver that year including 2B, 3B, LF and 1B. Despite playing shortstop in college until 2011, his athleticism is probably working for him behind the plate as he’s got a 41% caught stealing rate and very solid other defensive metrics in 22 games as a catcher this year in Dunedin. At 25 years old, Chung is on a tear in Dunedin, hitting .319. There’s not much power there, though as he’s only got 3 extra base hits this year (all doubles).
Pierce Rankin is the primary backup catcher in Dunedin. A 24-year-old 2010 draftee, Rankin fits the mold of catchers in the Blue Jays system — mostly org. guys who can field the position well that were drafted out of college. Rankin hasn’t done much with the bat, seeing a decline in power and opportunity since hitting full-season ball in 2012. In 82 at bats this year (almost as many as he had last year), he’s hitting .134/.228/.195. His caught stealing totals aren’t impressive either, maxing out at 29% in rookie league Dunedin.
Chris Schaeffer was recently assigned to Dunedin while Chung was injured. Again, Schaeffer is 25 and was a non-drafted free agent signed after college. Without much potential with the bat, Schaeffer will be another org guy for the Jays.
A Lansing Lugnuts
Lansing’s primary catcher is prospect Santiago Nessy. Unlike the other guys hanging around in Dunedin, Nessy is a 20-year-old international free agent from Venezuela who has shown tons of upside with the bat (8 HRs in Bluefield last year) and with his glove. In his first experience with full-season ball, he has struggled, hitting .238/.319/.333 in only 42 at bats with Lansing. He’s been injured a couple of times, but it appears that he will be returning to the Lugnuts sooner rather than later. He had great defensive numbers from last season, but so far this year, he has only been able to throw out 13% of runners while having 7 passed balls in 13 games. The second half of the year is going to be huge for Nessy to get comfortable both behind and at the plate in Lansing.
24 year old Aaron Munoz has split time behind the plate since Nessy’s injury and his demotion from Dunedin. Followers of Blue Jays from Away will be well aware of Aaron by now and I had a chance to meet him when I was in Lansing. He’s a great young man who’s letting his glove do his talking for him despite some limitations with the bat. He’s a small guy (listed as 5’9″ but he’s no taller than me which would make him a bit shorter than that). He’s only hitting .211/.306/.263 with 13 walks and 18 strikeouts in 95 at bats in Lansing which shows that he has a good understanding of the strike zone but doesn’t have much pop. His defensive numbers, however, are outstanding, throwing out over 30% of runners (at all levels, everywhere) and this season, catching the same pitching staff as Santiago Nessy, has only 5 passed balls in 33 games.
Seth Conner is a youngster compared to most catchers in the Jays organization at 21 and he’s been filling in and sharing time with Munoz in Lansing with Nessy on the DL, however offensive and defensive shortcomings will most likely have Conner sent back to Vancouver upon Nessy’s return. Conner has hit .167/.247/.181 in 72 at bats but has only caught 21% of would-be base stealers and has 11 passed balls in 22 games for Lansing.