12/17/2013 10:30 A.M. ET
Toronto catchers to benefit from Ohka's knuckler
Banks also invited to camp as Blue Jays look to prepare backstops for Dickey
By Gregor Chisholm / MLB.com
TORONTO -- The Blue Jays have yet to make a major addition to their starting rotation this offseason, but they appear to be cornering the market on knuckleballers, and that can only mean good things for the organization's catchers.
Toronto signed Tomo Ohka to a Minor League contract on Monday evening and has extended a Spring Training invitation to Josh Banks. Both right-handers could potentially rebrand themselves with the unconventional (and difficult to catch) pitch in an effort to get their careers back on track.
The addition of those two pitchers also would go a long way in making sure top catching prospect A.J. Jimenez and potential backup Erik Kratz become more familiar with the knuckleball during camp. That could prove crucial later in the year as the Blue Jays look to maintain some flexibility when R.A. Dickey takes the mound every fifth day.
"There's definitely some benefit to a guy like Jimenez, to learn how to catch him," general manager Alex Anthopoulos said during last week's Winter Meetings. "There's always a benefit to having guys like that in camp. You're sitting there and saying you want to look at [Dioner] Navarro, you want to look at Kratz and you have to wait for R.A. every two days to throw a bullpen [session] or something.
"But at the same time, we think Tomo might have a shot, so we'll see. I don't want to make it anything more than it is. There's no such thing as a bad Minor League deal, and we don't have anything to lose."
The only way a catcher can become comfortable with a knuckleball is by working with the pitch on a regular basis. One of the biggest challenges during last year's camp was finding a way to properly audition J.P. Arencibia, Henry Blanco and Josh Thole for the role when Dickey was only able to throw every other day.
Having Ohka and Banks in camp would go a long way in helping alleviate those concerns. It would add two more knuckleballers into the mix and provide a much bigger sample size for the coaching staff to evaluate.
The more knuckleballers an organization has, the better understanding everyone involved will have with the pitch. It's something that not only will impact the catchers but also the coaching staff as they deal with various problems throughout the year.
"I talked to R.A. and he said, 'I'm willing to do whatever you want to help,'" Anthopoulos said. "I said, 'I don't want to take away from you getting ready for the season,' but we would use him as a resource the same as we would use Mike [Nickeas] or Josh [Thole]. We kicked around maybe hiring someone as well, as an extra coach, not at the big league level, but at the Minor League level.
"It makes too much sense for us, when we have some guys that have familiarity and we have R.A., to not take advantage of the knowledge and see where it goes. It might not go anywhere, but on Minor League deals, there is no downside."
There's certainly no guarantee that either Ohka or Banks will have an impact at the big league level. Ohka is expected to start the year at Double-A New Hampshire, while Banks isn't even guaranteed to accept the club's standing offer for a return to baseball.
Even if both pitchers return and start to master the pitch, it's rather unlikely the club will carry more than one knuckleballer at a time. A big advantage to throwing the pitch is that it's rarely seen across the league, and it's therefore very difficult to adjust to.
Having more than one knuckleballer on the staff could be counterproductive, but there's still the added benefit of having two pitchers learn from someone of Dickey's ilk. If Toronto's No. 1 starter can pass along some of his knowledge, then it's possible the Blue Jays will have found a little bit of value.
There's no risk associated with either move, but there could be some upside depending on how things play out.
"On a Minor League deal -- I've said this for years -- you're not guaranteeing a penny, other than a flight," Anthopoulos said. "To be honest, we'll look to add some more guys if we can. If we can, we're looking to delve into that area a little bit.
"I know we got asked about it last year, and I said we just want to get through the season and we may look to get some other guys that we think can be converted. We're talking about having some programs in the Minors, trying to find some candidates. If you find even one player over a 10-year period, it's probably worthwhile."