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Blue Jays face tough decisions behind the plate

Blue Jays face tough decisions behind the plate

TORONTO -- John Buck calls it "going into the unknown." The veteran catcher is poised to become a free agent, and a long-term contract could be in his future.

Buck would also like to return to the Blue Jays, but that proposition is not as easy as it sounds.

As much as Buck earned the right to be Toronto's full-time catcher -- he made the American League All-Star team, turned in the best offensive showing of his career and helped mentor a talented young pitching staff -- the Blue Jays have a complicated decision on their hands.

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Toronto has a top catching prospect in J.P. Arencibia, and he has nothing left to prove in the Minor Leagues. The time has come to test Arencibia's skill set on the big league stage, but that could come at the expense of a full-time opening for Buck.

Buck understands that the Jays might be heading in that direction.

"That's just the business part," Buck said with a shrug. "You can't let it hurt you."

Toronto will take its time evaluating what route to take with the club's catching situation for 2011 and beyond. Arencibia may very well be ready for the big leagues, but the Jays might not hand him the starting job right away. The season could begin with a tandem behind the plate, which would help Arencibia ease into the regular role.

That type of scenario might not appeal to Buck, though, considering he wants to be the No. 1 catcher wherever he pens a new contract. Toronto does have a $1 million club option on veteran backup Jose Molina, who might be more open to sharing the workload with Arencibia than Buck.

"We'd love to have John Buck back here," general manager Alex Anthopoulos said. "But at the same time, John Buck has had a great year and he's earned a long-term contract. That being said, do the values line up? What are the alternatives to the club? What's the opportunity cost? That's all to be debated.

"There's no question you always want someone who has that type of year back on your club. I just can't sit here and tell you with any certainty that the values are going to line up for us. As much as you have an affinity for the player, you still have to be objective enough to do what's right for the organization."

Right now it does not seem to make sense to send Arencibia back to the Minors.

In 104 games with Triple-A Las Vegas this past season, the 24-year-old Arencibia hit .301 with 32 home runs, 36 doubles and 85 RBIs. It marked his second full season at Triple-A and fourth year in the Jays' Minor League system since being selected in the first round of the 2007 First-Year Player Draft.

Arencibia hit just .189 in 11 games with the Blue Jays, but his playing time was sporadic with both Buck and Molina on the roster. The young catcher did his best to maximize his resources, using his time to work with the veterans on their pregame preparation and to go over throwing mechanics, among other things.

"At least on the Minor League level," Arencibia said, "I feel like I've proved that I'm ready for this, for the big leagues. I really haven't had much opportunity to do much, but in the short time here, I feel like I've improved and learned a lot."

Anthopoulos did not argue with Arencibia's assessment.

"At some point we have to give him a chance," Anthopoulos said. "It's hard to look at J.P. and say, 'Well, you hit 32 home runs in the Minor Leagues and we didn't think it was good enough. You have to go hit 45.' The strides he made from a defensive standpoint were really good as well. At some point he needs to break into the big leagues and get some experience.

"He didn't get a chance to get a lot of playing time up here, because John Buck was an All-Star and Molina did a very good job. One way or another, J.P. is going to break in with us in some capacity."

And one way or another, Buck believes he will have a No. 1 job somewhere.

Over 118 games with the Blue Jays, who brought him in on a one-year contract last winter, Buck established career highs with a .281 average, 20 home runs and 66 RBIs.

"It's not a matter of finding a place where I can play every day now," Buck said. "I know there are going to be some options. That being said, I still believe this team can win and if I'm in the plans here, obviously I'd love to come back

"I'm not a big person that thinks everything is greener on the other side. Things have worked for me here. I love the guys here. If it works out here, that would be good. But if not, we'll see."

Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Major League Bastian, and follow him on Twitter @MLBastian. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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