J.P. Arencibia stood in the clubhouse and glanced at a television program that was ranking baseball's top 10 catchers.
After only one full season in the major leagues, he feels he already belongs in that class.
“I see myself in it right now. I don't care what anyone has to say,” Arencibia said. “Not a lot of catchers have done what I've done in my first year, and it's only going to get better.”
The Toronto Blue Jays certainly hope Arencibia is right. An MVP in the minor leagues, Arencibia hit 23 home runs in 2011 in his first full season as a big leaguer. At 26 years old, he's part of Toronto's attempt to surround slugger Jose Bautista with enough talented hitters to make some headway in the AL East.
Arencibia was a first-round pick in the 2007 draft after a terrific college career at Tennessee, and three years later he was named MVP of the Pacific Coast League. He made his major league debut in August 2010 against Tampa Bay, homering on the first pitch of his first at-bat — part of a two-homer, four-hit day.
He played only 11 games with the Blue Jays that year, and in the offseason, Toronto acquired Mike Napoli — another power hitter who can play catcher. But the Blue Jays traded Napoli a few days later, paving the way for Arencibia to take over the catching job.
And in 129 games last year, he put up impressive power numbers. Only three rookie catchers (Mike Piazza, Earl Williams and Matt Nokes) have hit more homers than Arenicibia, according to STATS, LLC.
“We all knew he had the pop. It's tough as a rookie. Nothing can prepare you for it,” Blue Jays outfielder Eric Thames said. “These guys are nasty, and it takes a while to adjust to it. He did a great job for the year he put up.”
Arencibia said the most challenging part of the transition from the minors was in the field, not in the batter's box.
“I think the biggest thing is going out there and calling a game. ... Not watching it — doing it live,” he said. “Hitting, you have to learn all the guys, but I would say defensively, you've got to learn your pitchers, you've got to learn the hitters in the league, so I think that's the biggest adjustment.”
Arencibia hit only .219 last year and struck out 133 times, but he's part of a group of younger catchers — all under 27 — who have shown they can hit with power. Cleveland's Carlos Santana hit 27 homers last year, Baltimore's Matt Wieters hit 22 and Detroit's Alex Avila had 19. Boston's Jarrod Saltalamacchia hit 16 and Washington's Wilson Ramos had 15.
Arencibia says he keeps an eye on other catchers when he has a chance.
“I think definitely you look at guys around the league and you see what they do,” he said. “Everyone's different, so you have to be yourself, but it's definitely something you look at.”
After an 81-81 season, the Blue Jays face the daunting task of trying to overcome the New York Yankees, Boston and Tampa Bay in their division. Bautista has emerged as one of the game's top power hitters, but Toronto needs production throughout the lineup.
The Blue Jays are looking forward to a full season from Brett Lawrie, the 22-year-old third baseman who was impressive in his first 43 big league games last year. Adam Lind and Edwin Encarnacion can also provide power.
Arencibia hopes to take another step in his own development — and help the team do the same.
“That experience — there's nothing that takes the place of being able to have that experience,” Arencibia said. “I think a year with the pitching staff, a year more around the league, is going to be beneficial.”
NOTES: Blue Jays manager John Farrell said RHP Jesse Litsch is being bothered by inflammation and soreness in his right shoulder. “Right now he is no-throw for the next seven days,” Farrell said. “Upon the examination, it did reveal and confirm that it was inflammation — at least at this point, nothing structural.”
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