Is J.P. Arencibia the next Josh Phelps?
What?! Say it ain't so! Why would we dare compare young slugger J.P. Arencibia to Josh Phelps, the early 2000's Toronto Blue Jays bust? Because the statistics for both players through their age 24 seasons in the minors are eerily similar:
J.P. Arencibia: .275/.319/.507, 19.5 AB/HR, 5.5 BB pct., 22.0 K pct.
Josh Phelps: .277/.361/.499, 19.4 AB/HR, 9.6 BB pct., 28.0 K pct.
Effectively, the only difference between the two -- at comparable stages of their careers, mind you -- was a slightly better walk rate for Phelps and a slightly better contact rate and defensive ability for Arencibia. (Not to suggest that Arencibia is a superb defender; he's merely more fit to remain behind the plate long term than Phelps was, but more on that in a bit.) If you tend to use examples of past failures to steer you from current prospects, you picked well with Phelps.
However, by doing that, we're merely highlighting the negative to keep our expectations in check, and aren't the mass expectations already in check? Arencibia is being drafted 15th among catchers in ESPN.com live drafts (average draft position: 230.7), five spots after the final active position in our standard mixed leagues and a clear No. 2 option in two-catcher leagues, by those measures. He's being picked not as a pricey asset but rather an intriguing, late-round, upside play, or exactly as he should be treated in fantasy leagues.
So before we're swallowed by our Phelps fears, let's first accentuate Arencibia's positives, shall we?
Power, power and more power. In fact, it's so much Arencibia's strength that perhaps his initials should stand for "Just Power." The Triple-A Pacific Coast League's reigning MVP, Arencibia finished third in the league in home runs (32) and second in slugging percentage (.626) and hit a home run in his first major league at-bat and two in his first big league game (Aug. 7). Many attribute Arencibia's outstanding 2010 season to Lasik eye surgery that improved his night vision.
In case you weren't paying attention, power played well at the Rogers Centre last season and was a strength of the Blue Jays as a whole. Per our Park Factors page, Rogers Centre was the fourth-most homer-friendly venue in baseball in 2010, and according to data I ran in July it's most favorable for right-handed power hitters. Arencibia is fortunate to be in this situation. This is a ballpark conducive to translating his 32-homer power in the minors to as many as 25 in Toronto.
Arencibia also lacks any significant platoon splits that might paint him as a potential part-timer. He was a .322/.381/.691 (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage) hitter versus right-handers in Triple-A, so there's no need to worry that he'll begin his big league career as only a sporadic starter against lefties. If he makes the team, it'll be to play regularly.
Another check in the plus column: Arencibia received a huge vote of confidence from Blue Jays management this offseason, when four days after acquiring Mike Napoli from the Los Angeles Angels the Blue Jays sent Napoli to the Texas Rangers. In that four-day span, the Blue Jays went from appearing afraid to trust a rookie as their starting backstop to being completely confident in his handling those duties. This team will be patient with its rookie catcher, and it's also a check in the plus column that Arencibia will have one of the better veteran tutors, Jose Molina, as his backup.
Is it unthinkable that Arencibia might make a run at top-10 status at his position in 2011? Hardly. Few catchers possess his raw power potential; only five catchers in the past 10 years have hit more than 25 home runs in a season, and none hit more than 21 (Brian McCann) in 2010. Just on his homer and RBI potential alone, Arencibia is well worth targeting as a cheap backup or No. 2 option.
As anything more than that, however, he's a risky proposition.
Batting average is almost assuredly going to be a problem for Arencibia, judging by his free-swinging ways. Only 19 (of 149) qualified big leaguers had worse than his 5.5 percent walk rate in the minors, and only 43 had worse than his 22.0 percent strikeout rate. In fact, consider this: In that Aug. 7 debut, his first four plate appearances resulted in a home run, double, single and homer. From that point forward for the Blue Jays, he was 1-for-31 (.032 average) with just two walks and 11 strikeouts. Pitchers are going to exploit a swing with the number of holes Arencibia's has, and his downside is indeed a lengthy-enough slump to earn him a return ticket to Triple-A.
Speaking of Triple-A, don't go gaga over his gaudy numbers in Las Vegas. Besides that the Pacific Coast League is renowned for its hitting-friendly atmospheres, the 51s play in one of the league's most hitter-friendly venues, and the team managed a .293 batting average and .185 isolated power. By most any source of major league equivalency, Arencibia's .301-32-85 stat line for the 51s translates to a .230-20-55 line at the big league level.
As for his defense, Arencibia's skills come with their share of questions, though not to Phelps levels. He threw out only 23 percent of base stealers in Triple-A ball in 2010, meaning he'll need to learn some new tricks from Molina. In fact, it's his defense that might ultimately prove to be Arencibia's greatest obstacle to settling in as a big league regular in 2011. The Blue Jays could tolerate a low batting average from Arencibia because that's what they'll get from Molina, but can they tolerate significantly poorer defense than what Molina would provide?
Ultimately, consider Arencibia reasonably priced (based upon his ADP) but not a catcher you should ignore when speculating late.
I leave you with one more concern, and it's why I won't go even a round earlier on him: Only 18 catchers in modern history have hit 25 or more home runs in a season at 25 or younger (Arencibia will play 2011 at 25), and only 42 have hit 20 or more. And only six catchers have hit 20 or more in their rookie seasons.
If Arencibia does it, it'll be a feat for the history books. That's obviously not something we can count on.
Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.