A right-handed hitting catcher with outstanding power potential, J.P. Arencibia was the 21st overall pick in this year’s draft. Taken by the Blue Jays out of the University of Tennessee–where he hit .330/.450/.545 as a junior–the Miami native led Team USA in home runs last summer with nine in 121 at-bats. Arencibia is beginning his professional career with the short-season Auburn Doubledays, and is hitting .250 with a pair of home runs through July 20.
David talked to Arencibia about his draft experience, the best pitchers he caught with Team USA, and the approach he brings to the game.
David Laurila: Give us a scouting report on yourself as a hitter.
J.P. Arencibia: I have power to all fields. I hit the fastball pretty well, and if the pitcher makes a mistake I can usually make him pay for it. But I look at myself as an all-around hitter, someone who can hit for a high average, not just power. I think I have good plate discipline and know my strike zone pretty well. A lot of times it seems like scouting reports are about what you don’t do well, but those are what I consider my strengths.
DL: Give us a scouting report on yourself as a catcher.
JA: I know there’s been some bad stuff written about my defense, but I don’t see myself as a liability back there. Wherever I’ve played, pitchers have wanted to throw to me. I feel that I receive the ball well and recognize hitters’ tendencies and call a solid game. My arm is pretty good. Not that I don’t have room to improve. I’ve worked a lot with our catching instructor, Mike Basso, since signing, and he’s been giving me pointers to help clean things up. Repetition and hard work are a big part of getting better, and I feel I can become a solid major league catcher defensively.
DL: What about as a person? Are you more laid-back, or more intense?
JA: I’m more laid-back and just like to go out and have fun. The way I look at it, there are a lot worse things in life than striking out or having a bad game. Baseball is just a game, and I’m happy to be able to do this for a living.
DL: Do you ever stand on the field and think to yourself, “I’m actually getting paid to do this”?
JA: I’m not a money person, so it hasn’t really crossed my mind in that sense. I have stood on the field and thanked God for giving me an opportunity to play pro ball. I’ve also thanked the Toronto Blue Jays–I feel blessed that they showed faith in me and are giving me this opportunity.
DL: You were drafted in the first round. How meaningful was that to you?
JA: It was a big goal of mine in college. I had passed up an opportunity to sign out of high school, and was going to do everything in my power to earn myself this chance. I thought that I was better than a 17th-round pick when Seattle drafted me in 2004, and had I been taken in one of the early rounds I probably would have signed. As it was, I felt I had a lot to gain by going to college, and I also had something to prove.
DL: What do you feel you gained from playing three years at Tennessee?
JA: I think the biggest thing I gained is more maturity, not just physically, but mentally. In high school, you can hit .500 and still think you’re failing, because you expect to succeed every time. In college, you know that if you hit .350 you’re doing really well, because the competition is so good. Learning how to deal with failure is a big part of succeeding in baseball, and playing in a top college program helped me to understand that. Playing in front of big crowds on the road, where the fans are all against you, was another good learning experience.
DL: Developmentally, are there any specific areas where you might be further along had you spent the last three years in pro ball?
JA: I honestly don’t know. I guess in some ways I probably would be, but in other ways I wouldn’t be the player I am now. You don’t have the same level of specific instruction in college as you do here, with things like hitting and pitching coaches, and catching instructors, but what I experienced playing at Tennessee and with Team USA was invaluable. It would be hard to replace that.
DL: What was draft day like for you, and were you surprised with any of the picks?
JA: I was with my family, watching on TV, and it was definitely memorable. There were 13 players from Team USA taken in the first round–something crazy like that–so I did know a lot of the guys. As far as surprises, there weren’t really any in my mind. I knew David Price would go number one, because he’s an amazing pitcher, and after that everything pretty much made sense to me.
DL: A lot of people were surprised that Matt LaPorta went seventh overall.
JA: Sure, but a lot of people don’t understand just how good he is, or how smart he is. Not only is he a great hitter, he’s a real student of the game. I have the utmost respect for Matt LaPorta, and I think Milwaukee made a really good decision in taking him. He’s going to be a successful major league player for a long time.
DL: Which teams showed the most interest in you prior to the draft, and did you have a pretty good idea of where you’d end up?
JA: I knew who the players were, yes. I met with all of the teams, but I had a decent idea of how it might play out. Toronto was one of the teams that showed the most interest, and I’m glad it worked out the way it did. This is a great organization for me.
DL: You were heavily scouted prior to the draft. How much of a distraction was that?
JA: I didn’t look at it that way. More than anything, I saw it as being lucky, because not everyone has this opportunity, especially to be a first-round pick. It’s only a distraction if you let it be one, and I actually enjoyed the experience.
DL: When you signed, did you primarily leave everything up to your agent, or did you involve yourself in the negotiation process?
JA: I did involve myself. My family and I decided on an agent, but signing was ultimately my decision–that part was up to me. You pretty much know from your pre-draft meetings with scouts what teams are thinking money-wise, so you understand how you’re being valued and what to expect. But money wasn’t a big issue for me. As long as I was treated fairly, I knew I’d sign. What I wanted most was to get started with my pro career.
DL: Outside of the travel, what has been the biggest difference going from college to pro ball?
JA: It’s the everyday routine, learning to keep everything easy and on an even keel. You need to know that if you go 0-for-4, you can come back the next day and go 4-for-4. You can’t get too up or too down, because it’s a long season and you have to be ready day after day, not just a few times a week like in college.
DL: Who is the most impressive pitcher you’re catching right now?
JA: The guy going tonight, Brett Cecil, is lights out. He has great stuff, including a good fastball and slider. He’s just an outstanding pitcher.
DL: Who were the best pitchers you caught in your amateur career?
JA: Having caught for Team USA, there are a lot of good ones. Shoot, I’ve caught David Price, Max Scherzer, Luke Hochevar, and Ian Kennedy, to name just a few. They all have different things that make them so good. Price and Scherzer can get it up there as high as 98 [MPH]; Kennedy is more upper 80s to low 90s, but he dots the zone as well as anyone I’ve ever seen. Something else that separates them is how humble they are. They’re all great guys.
DL: Last one–which big league ballparks are you most looking forward to hitting in?
JA: I’m just looking forward to playing in the big leagues, period. But right now, I just need to take care of today’s game. You can’t look past today in the game of baseball. Everyone needs to develop in the minor leagues, and that’s what I’m here to do. It’s a step on the way to getting where I want to be, and I’m taking it seriously. This is a great opportunity for me, and I’m going to make the most of it.