Arencibia learning from veterans in camp
Prospect has new attitude after two offseason surgeries
DUNEDIN, Fla. -- The baseball jumped off the bat of J.P. Arencibia and arced high into the air above Joker Marchant Stadium. As the young Blue Jays catcher headed down the first-base line, the ball landed well up the grassy hill that sits just beyond the wall in left-center field.
The blast came in the ninth inning against the Tigers on Thursday -- long after Toronto's starters had exited the spring exhibition in Lakeland, Fla. It was a towering shot that put Arencibia's power potential on full display and gave a glimpse into why the Jays believe he is close to being ready for the big league stage.
It would be tempting for Arencibia to pour all of his energy into trying to convince the Blue Jays to place him on their Opening Day roster. That is not the approach he wants to take, though. He tried that last year and wound up enduring a disappointing 2009 season -- one hindered by a variety of serious health woes that led to a pair of offseason operations.
Arencibia has come to realize that Toronto will call his name when the time is right.
"You know what? All I want to do is be the player that I am," Arencibia said. "Last year, I tried to force their hand, and I was thinking about trying to make it to the big leagues and that whole thing. I put too much pressure on myself and it backfired. Whenever they feel that I'm ready, I'll be ready."
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In the meantime, the 24-year-old Arencibia is using this Spring Training as an opportunity to learn from the veteran catchers around him. Toronto has a trio of experienced big league backstops in camp in John Buck, Jose Molina and Raul Chavez. They are blocking Arencibia's path to the Majors, but he knows that could change in a hurry.
The reality is that Buck, Molina and Chavez are only under contract for the 2010 season, much like Rod Barajas, Michael Barrett and Chavez were last spring. For the second year in a row, Arencibia finds himself dubbed as the "catcher of the future" for the Blue Jays. This time around, Arencibia is trying not to get too caught up in that type of projection.
Arencibia said he learned that the hard way last season.
"It's just you're young and everyone wants to play in the big leagues," Arencibia said. "It was more about trying to get to the big leagues than just learning and taking things day by day and playing and being myself. I was trying to hit three home runs in a game instead of just just going out there and playing and letting it happen."
The end result was a disappointing performance on the field.
Over 116 games with Triple-A Las Vegas, Arencibia -- selected with the 21st overall pick in the 2007 First-Year Player Draft -- hit just .236 with a .284 on-base percentage and a .444 slugging percentage, belting 21 home runs and 75 RBIs along the way. One year earlier, he hit .298 with 27 homers and 105 RBIs in 126 games between stints with Class A Advanced Dunedin and Double-A New Hampshire.
Arencibia knows it was not a great showing, but he is quick to defend himself.
"Everyone now doubts me," Arencibia said. "I had a terrible season supposedly. The thing is, I had a terrible season, but if you look at it, for having the worst season ever, I still produced a lot more than a lot of people.
"The biggest thing for me was I improved defensively last year. Regardless of what I hit, I became a catcher. Now, guys are starting to recognize that I am a good defender."
There is a lot more behind Arencibia's statistical drop-off last year, though.
Since birth, Arencibia has had a problematic kidney condition that remained asymptomatic until last year. He suffered from a ureteropelvic junction (UPJ) obstruction, which is a blockage in a tube between the kidney and bladder. During last season, Arencibia had a liter of fluid that was blocked and his weight increased to 220 pounds.
It reached the point where Arencibia was at risk of needing to have his right kidney removed -- something he wanted to avoid if possible. In September, the catcher underwent a surgery to remove the blockage, saving the kidney, but ultimately losing some of the organ's function. After the operation, Arencibia said his weight dropped to 193 pounds.
"I hadn't been 193 since I played basketball in high school," Arencibia said with a laugh. "The kidney really didn't bother me, as far as physically. But it was more just in the back of my head knowing that baseball is baseball, but my life is my life. I didn't want to lose a kidney, so that was kind of in the back of my mind."
As if that situation was not hard enough, Arencibia dealt with vision problems stemming from an astigmatism throughout last season.
During the day, Arencibia had no problems. It was a completely different story at night. That might explain why the catcher hit .227 in 97 night games and .284 during 19 afternoon contests during the 2009 campaign. Watching TV, recognizing street signs or trying to read stadium scoreboards became increasingly difficult.
After years of trying different contact lenses and glasses, Arencibia decided that undergoing Lasik eye surgery was the best option.
"Every doctor I talked to said, 'Wow, you're playing with that vision?'" Arencibia said. "So that was my indicator."
Over the offseason, Arencibia teamed with a nutritionist and got back to around 205 pounds. That helped make up for the weight he lost from the kidney surgery. With improved vision, Arencibia began to work on his hitting and catching again, gearing up for an important spring -- one with the goal of proving he can still be the player he was before last season.
In December, the Blue Jays swung a major trade with the Phillies, sending ace Roy Halladay to Philadelphia in exchange for a trio of highly-touted prospects. One was young catcher Travis d'Arnaud, who the Blue Jays believe can one day be an impact player behind the plate. Arencibia did not take that move personally.
"There's not only one team -- I've realized that," Arencibia said. "For me, I know when I play to my abilities, I'm an everyday player in the Major Leagues. I know I can be an everyday catcher in the Major Leagues. It's good to have him around, because I want to help him just like anyone helped me. I'm not a guy who's going to be like, 'Oh, I don't want him to do well.'"
Toronto will likely send d'Arnaud -- selected 37th overall in the 2007 Draft -- to Dunedin to open this year. It will likely take a few years for him to be ready for a big league promotion. While he is probably ticketed for Las Vegas, Arencibia has a chance to join the Blue Jays soon.
Arencibia is not worrying about trying to force Toronto's hand.
"They've told me I have a good chance to be the guy one day," Arencibia said. "But I still need to prove myself and I need to get better. I need to earn whatever I get."
Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.