A.J. Jimenez was unceremoniously released this week. The reaction among some Blue Jays fans on Twitter, noticeably our own Gideon Turk, was mostly “so goes another Toronto Catcher of the Future” (henceforth abbreviated as TCF) and while it might be a stretch to even say that Jiminez was ever the TCF at all, it does provide an opportunity to look back over the storied history of Toronto Blue Jays catching prospects.
Currently, the ostensible TCF is Max Pentecost. Assuming of course his return to catching duties this year goes as planned. Some might argue the real TCF is glove-first Reese McGuire whom, if he could hit like Max (or vice versa) would be among the best catching prospects in the game. Pentecost has held the honor basically since he was drafted in the first round in 2014. But who held it before him? Therein lies our tale.
When we speak of the TCF, typically we’re talking about the player so labeled who failed to work out, given the long-time running joke that was the team’s effort to develop a catcher internally. But for the purpose of this overview let’s also notice a few guys who did work out.
The first and most beloved of these is, of course, Ernie Whitt. While younger fans know him as one of the original generation of Blue Jays, in truth he did not claim the full time job in Toronto until 1980. So, for three years (’77-’79) he held the distinction of being the TCF. Of course he went on to hold the major league job throughout the 80’s.
For the next TCF, you have to look to the draft of 1983 and the “what might have been” story of ninth overall selection Matt Stark. Four years later, Stark headed to Florida rated the Blue Jays No. 4 prospect. He was coming off a AA season in which he’d hit 17 homers and posted an overall result that any Jays fan would be excited about. The 22 year old slugger made the 25 man roster out of Spring Training and with Whitt then 35 years old, he seemed the heir apparent. However less than a month into the season he developed tendonitis in his throwing shoulder. In July he was operated on for tears in his rotor cuff and his season was over.
In 1988 he spent another season at AA, playing DH while the shoulder continued to heal. Over the following winter with his arm still not at full strength, the Jays gambled and left him off the 40 man roster and the Atlanta Braves GM Bobby Cox selected him in the Rule 5 draft. At the end of spring, the Braves released him and for whatever reason, Toronto didn’t bring him back to the organization. He elected to sit out the year in 1989 (which was probably a huge mistake) and his days as a catcher, and as a prospect, were effectively done at 25. After a few more years bouncing around the minors, he’d go on to a long career in the Mexican League. Meanwhile, Pat Borders who had labored in Stark’s shadow in the minors broke into the majors in 1988 and while a well below average hitter he took up the mantle of the aging Whitt for the first half of the 90’s.
Meanwhile, Baseball America had not one but two catchers in their Top 10 Blue Jays prospects in 1988, neither of them Borders. Names familiar to Blue Jays fans of the era for different reasons, Francisco Cabrera (No. 4) and Greg Myers (No. 9). Most of us of a certain age will remember Myers taking the mantle of TCF after Stark, fewer remember that future Atlanta playoff hero got his start in the Toronto system. Cabrera was traded in August 1989 as part of a package for Jim Acker.
Myers perhaps had a higher profile among Jays fans as he’d been a second round pick in 1984 and had made his way to Toronto by 1990. He didn’t hit much in the majors though (at the time) and in the middle of 1992 he and Rod Ducey were shipped to Anaheim to facilitate a reunion with reliever Mark Eichhorn. Over a decade later he would return to the Blue Jays as a free agent and have the best offensive year of his career at the improbably are of 37.
There were two catchers in the 1991 Top 10 too, but lets be honest, Ed Sprague (No. 5) was no catcher. The other was Carlos Delgado (No. 6). Every prospect aware Blue Jays fan was drooling over the idea of Delgado as an All-Star potential Hall of Fame catcher for the next couple of decades. He wasn’t moved permanently out from behind the plate until 1995. I assume you know how that part of the story ends.
After Delgado, very briefly, glove-first Dominican Angel (later Sandy) Martinez was put forward as the successor to Borders, but he couldn’t even hold off the aging Charlie O’Brien. Meanwhile, The Blue Jays drafted their next true TCF in the 10th round of the 1996 draft: a slugger named Josh Phelps. From 1999 to 2002 he pounded minor league pitching and entered the 2002 season as Toronto’s No. 1 prospect. Thing is, ultimately, they couldn’t tolerate his defense and he moved out to the DH position. Jays fans longtime dream of a home grown power hitting catcher remained unrequited.
Further down that 2002 list was another catcher. Remember how I mentioned above the desirability of fusing Pentecost’s bat with McGuire’s glove? That has happened before, and the mate to Phelps’ bat was Kevin Cash’s glove. Cash was an undrafted free agent signed after the 1999 draft and he actually hit well until he hit AAA in 2002. But while a gifted defender, he never managed to handle major league pitching.
Climbing the system behind Cash was Venezuelan Guillermo Quiroz. While scouts liked his potential, he didn’t come into his own offensively until he broke out at AA in 2003 and for this he was anointed the next TCF. Going into the 2004 season he was ranked the 35th best prospect in all of baseball and #3 on the Jay’ list prior to ’04 and ’05. At that point he’d already suffered a partially collapsed lung at the end of the 2003 season and a fractured hand in 2004. In 2005 he suffered a shoulder injury and another collapsed lung and he would go on to be claimed off waivers by Seattle the following April. Now 35, he’s still bouncing around the minors but never hit well enough to hold down a major league job.
As Quiroz was arriving in the major, Blue Jays GM J.P. Ricciardi was drafting the next TCF with the choice of Curtis Thigpen in the 2nd round of the 2004 draft. Thigpen was drafted out of the college ranks and was a reliable but unspectacular performer both offensively and defensively as he climbed the minor league ladder (I feel like I could have described basically every J.P. draft choice with that sentence). He made it to Toronto in 2007 and over the course of two seasons accumulated 131 plate appearances and (stop me if you’ve heard this one) utterly failed to handle major league pitching.
As Thigpen was playing into the “Will the Blue Jays ever develop another catcher?” trope the somewhat desperate eyes of Blue Jays prospect watchers turned to one Robinzon Diaz. Signed out of the Dominican Republic, he made his stateside debut in 2002 and through 2007 showed a high OBP every year except one, and no home run power whatsoever. The ability to get on base and very low K rate made him the best catcher in the system at that point, but his tenure as TCF was brief. While he never turned out to be a major league regular in Toronto (or anywhere else) he indirectly made a larger impact on the fortunes of the Blue Jays than any other player I’ve mentioned other than Delgado. How? He was the guy traded to Pittsburgh for Jose Bautista in August of 2008.
Ricciardi struck again in the widely praised 2007 draft when Toronto selected J.P. Arencibia in the first round. JPA pounded Florida State League pitching in 2008 and moved up to AA mid-season. He was less impressive in his first turn at AAA and there was talk that he’d been rushed, but he was the AAA MVP in 2010 and there he was as 2011 began, seeming at long last the guy who could at least play competent defense and also carry a big bat. He did end up hitting a godly number of homers (relative to the position) but otherwise…not so much. After an ugly 2013, he was out the door and most Jays fans were enthusiastic supporters of that move.
Even as Arencibia was trying to establish himself, prospect watchers had already identified the next TCF: Travis d’Arnaud. d’Arnaud was of course acquired in the Roy Halladay deal in the fall of 2009. He was on everyone’s radar after excellent years in the high minors in 2011 and 2012. Sadly, AA misread the cycle and went all in for the 2013 season by trading d’Arnaud, along with some guy of Nordic heritage you’ve likely never heard of in order to get R.A. Dickey from the Mets. While the 2013 Blue Jays stumbled out of the gates and Arencibia went down in horrific flames, the would-be TCF eventually claimed the starting job in Queens, but he’s only had one fully healthy season since.
This brings us back to the drafting of Max Pentecost in 2014. Not unlike Doctor Who, the Toronto Catcher of the Future is on it’s 12th iteration. If only this series had enjoyed as much success.