Rangers have intriguing battle at backstop
Returning Soto, former Blue Jays catcher Arencibia want to be strong combo
SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Rangers catcher J.P. Arencibia, having been a starter with the Blue Jays for three seasons, said he is not concerned about having to compete with Geovany Soto for playing time.
"I told Geo, 'Let's be the best catching tandem in baseball,'" Arencibia said. "He knows he can play every day. I can play every day; why not be the best tandem in baseball? I look at things in a positive light."
Soto said that's the only way to approach it.
"I never met him before coming here, but he's been awesome," Soto said. "We're working out together; we're going to have great communication this year."
Soto and Arencibia have a lot of work ahead of them before they can be considered the "best catching tandem" in baseball. But the Rangers do have an interesting situation behind the plate. They have two former highly regarded catchers who are trying to re-establish themselves as front-line players on a team that took the low-budget approach to addressing its backstop situation.
Soto, the 2008 National League Rookie of the Year Award winner with the Cubs, lost his job to Welington Castillo through injury and lack of production. He ended up being traded to the Rangers on July 31, 2012. Since then, Soto has been the backup to Mike Napoli in 2012 and A.J. Pierzynski last season.
"It was all about Welly," Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said. "At that point in time, we had a young player and wanted to make sure we gave him all the opportunity to play virtually every day. That was our biggest consideration. Sometimes you have to make those hard decisions when you have a young player behind a guy like Soto. Geo had a lot of really good years in Chicago, but at that time we felt the right thing to do was to make sure Welly got that opportunity."
Arencibia was the Blue Jays' No. 1 pick in the 2007 First-Year Player Draft and became their starting catcher in 2011. The Blue Jays liked what they saw through his first two seasons, so they were willing to trade Travis d'Arnaud, another top catching prospect, to the Mets in a seven-player trade that brought back 2012 NL Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey. But Arencibia struggled through the 2013 season and was non-tendered by Toronto last winter.
"I think it's going to be pretty good," Rangers manager Ron Washington said. "We've got Soto, who has proved he's ready to step forward, and Arencibia brings a different element. He's got some power and he's already impressed me as a guy who takes care of his pitchers."
Soto, who was a free agent at the end of last season, comes into Spring Training as the No. 1 guy. The Rangers made that clear when they moved quickly in the offseason to re-sign Soto on Nov. 5. They made the decision because they liked the way Soto worked with their pitchers, they felt his throwing had improved working with roving instructor Hector Ortiz, and he showed improvement at the plate. Working with hitting coach Dave Magadan, Soto hit .324 (23-for-71) with five home runs after the All-Star break.
"Dave really opened my eyes to the idea I needed to cut back," Soto said. "I was searching too much and working too hard, instead of sticking to just one thing and staying true to it. Find something simple and stick with it."
The Rangers signed Soto with the idea they would still need a backup catcher. One possibility was Braves All-Star catcher Brian McCann, who was also a free agent. The Rangers saw McCann as an offensive threat who could split time between catcher and designated hitter. But once the Rangers traded Ian Kinsler to the Tigers for Prince Fielder, they decided it was more important to add a leadoff hitter and focused on their relentless pursuit of Shin-Soo Choo.
The additions of Choo and Fielder also made it difficult for the Rangers to bring back Pierzynski, who signed with the Red Sox for $8.25 million. The Rangers were able to sign Soto and Arencibia for approximately $5 million plus incentives.
The Rangers had already shown interest in Arencibia the previous winter when there was a possibility the Blue Jays might go with d'Arnaud. Instead, Toronto kept Arencibia, only to watch him regress in 2013.
Arencibia got off to a strong start. He hit eight home runs in April and by the end of May was hitting .231 with 12 home runs and 29 RBIs through 52 games. But Arencibia hit just .168 with nine home runs and 26 RBIs over his final 86 games. He tried to play through a painful strained left hamstring muscle in the second half but that only made everything worse.
"I was at my worst in the second half," Arencibia said. "It's tough to hit with no legs. You start to make adjustments and from that it only creates bad habits."
Arencibia probably should have gone on the disabled list. He also probably wasn't wise to engage in a media war with Blue Jays broadcasters Gregg Zaun and Dirk Hayhurst. Arencibia, believing he was standing up for his teammates, called out the two broadcasters in July for being too critical and negative about a team that was struggling.
Maybe it would have been different if Arencibia had been having a good year offensively. He wasn't and it turned into a media/Twitter war he couldn't win. It may have factored into Toronto's decision to non-tender him.
"He was a part of our team last year and he was the whipping boy," Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said. "Some things came up and he fought this, fought that, and he brought a lot of that on himself. But he's a better player than he showed last year and I think if he makes some adjustments, I think he's going to have a very good Major League career.
"When a team struggles, you're always looking for reasons why. He had a tough year, from what we expected from him, especially after the start he had. He's a vocal guy, he's a standup guy and he played that social media [game]; that can backfire on you. But he's a standup guy. He came to play every day, he played banged up, he didn't run from anything and to be honest with you, those guys are rare."
Arencibia, who has 64 home runs in three-plus seasons, can hit for power. But he has a career .258 on-base percentage and just 74 walks against 400 strikeouts in 1,299 at-bats. Washington also wants Arencibia to work with Ortiz and first-base coach Bengie Molina on his receiving and throwing. But, like Soto, he has a reputation for being able to work with pitchers.
"He could always hit coming up," said reliever Jason Frasor, who was with Arencibia in Toronto. "He gives you 20 home runs -- how many catchers can do that? The more I threw to him, the more I trusted him behind the plate. All pitchers are better if they believe in their catcher. He does his homework."
When Arencibia was cut loose by the Blue Jays, the Rangers moved quickly to sign him. Now he gets a fresh start and so does Soto. The Rangers need at least one of them to step up and seize the job.
The best-case scenario is they do become the best catching tandem in baseball.
T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Postcards from Elysian Fields, and follow him on Twitter @Sullivan_Ranger. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.