TORONTO -- A.J. Jimenez is finally over a right elbow injury that has plagued him for the past two years, and he could be poised for a breakout season in the Minor Leagues.
Toronto's top catching prospect and the club's No. 9 prospect overall, according to MLB.com, has seen his progress stalled the past couple years because of the lingering arm issue. He was limited to just 27 games in 2012, but even after undergoing Tommy John surgery, things didn't feel quite right.
It wasn't until this offseason that Jimenez finally feels like he's back to full health, and that's welcome news for an organization that could sorely use some catching depth in case anything happens to starter Dioner Navarro.
"It's really good, I just started throwing [in early January], I can't wait to be back in Spring Training," Jimenez said. "I'm letting loose, because I want to find out how it is. But the offseason helped me a lot, because I got stronger and I think that's going to help me stay healthy in the season."
Jimenez has been in the Blue Jays' Minor League system since 2008, but he was often overlooked by many scouts and experts because of the organization's depth behind the plate. J.P. Arencibia and Travis d'Arnaud received most of the attention, while Jimenez flew mostly under the radar.
That started to change last offseason when d'Arnaud was traded to the Mets in a deal for R.A. Dickey. Jimenez then immediately jumped to the forefront in December when Toronto decided to officially cut ties with Arencibia following a disappointing 2013 season at the plate.
There's no hiding now, as the Blue Jays' depth at catcher is rather thin outside of the Major Leagues. Navarro might be the catcher of the present, but Toronto is going to do everything within its power to make Jimenez the catcher of the future.
"I can feel more relaxed, but I don't look at it that way," Jimenez said, when asked about receiving more of an opportunity now that d'Arnaud and Arencibia are elsewhere. "I'll keep working hard, it doesn't matter who's in front of me or who's in the big leagues. I'm going to keep going hard and trying to improve to get to the big league level."
It seems like every couple of years there's a new catcher stepping forward as the backstop of the future in Toronto. During the late 1990s/early 2000s, that title was bestowed upon Josh Phelps, Guillermo Quiroz and Kevin Cash. Later that decade, the same line of thinking was applied to Robinson Diaz, Carlos Perez, d'Arnaud and Arencibia.
In each case, the catcher involved either didn't live up to the expectations or was traded away. The hope is that the situation surrounding Jimenez will be different and the Blue Jays can finally develop their own bona fide No. 1 catcher.
"He has big league talent, he's very good behind the plate, receives well, blocks very well," said Gary Allenson, who managed Jimenez at Double-A New Hampshire last season. "He kind of reminds me of Tony Pena a little bit. I was coaching with Boston in the early '90s when Pena was there.
"I also had Matt Wieters in Triple-A, Arizona Fall League, and he reminds me of him. A quiet, reserved guy, will learn how to take charge. He's more of a gap-to-gap [hitter], [and he'll] hit for more average than Wieters. But he's quick transferring the ball and getting rid of it, with more arm strength there. You're not going to have to worry about too many slide steps with him."
Jimenez couldn't be any more different than his predecessor. Arencibia rose through the ranks of Toronto's Minor League system with some well-documented issues defensively, but the upside of his bat was enough to solidify a spot in the Major Leagues.
When Arencibia was hitting, there were very few complaints. When Arencibia was struggling, though, it was a far different story, and his stock hit rock bottom during the 2013 season when the defensive issues continued and the offensive production completely disappeared.
That's something the Blue Jays should be able to avoid with Jimenez. Even when the native of Puerto Rico isn't hitting, there should be plenty of upside with his work behind the plate. He's known as a defense-first catcher with a plus arm and a keen ability to block balls in the dirt.
The offense remains a work in progress, but there are reasons for optimism, even following two injury-plagued years. Jimenez hit .287 with a .738 OPS in 67 Minor League games last season, and he says he had fixed a glaring hole in his swing.
"I'm seeing the ball better," Jimenez said. "I was a little bit long with the bat, kind of dragging the bat. But it's getting shorter and shorter every day. It's improving. I started the season pretty hot, hitting the ball hard, gap to gap, it's improving.
"I had to fix that when I got back from surgery, because in the past, I got that swing, long swing. But after surgery, I fixed it and it worked ... Obviously, I work more on defense because I'm proud of it. But you have to improve hitting too, so I'm working on both."