Saturday, October 4, 2008

Position-by-Position Off-Season Outlook: Catcher

Starting with this post, I'm going to use the next week or two to look at the Nationals' current personnel organization-wide and the opportunities to upgrade this off-season.

I have two key questions in mind, the first far more important than the second: 1. what can we do to speed the arrival of The First Great Nationals Team (I have what I think is an optimistic but not delusional goal of 2011 in mind), and 2. what can we do to move towards respectability in 2009.

The first step is to evaluate accurately and honestly where we stand now, and the next step is to look at opportunities to upgrade. Today, I'm starting with the catcher position, a nice, hopeful place to start.

The Present
  • Starting catcher: Jesus Flores
Flores, who will turn 24 later this month, 'Pipped' PLod and Fatstrada and ended up the youngest catcher in MLB to get 300 AB this year. Unfortunately, he wasn't as good in those 300 ABs as you probably think he was.

On August 8, about 250 PA into the year, he was sitting on a very solid .281 / .329 / .451 line and looking like every bit the future all-star we were hoping for. But he faded horribly over his last month and finished at .256 / .296 / .402. That represents good progress in his power numbers (up from .361 SLG last year), but everything else was worse.

Most alarming was his regression in terms of his approach and patience at the plate. Between '07 and '08, his ISO patience (OBP minus BA) declined from 66 to 40, and his walk percentage fell from an impatient 7.2% to a downright hacktastic 4.7%. Looking deeper, he swung at 36.93% of pitches out of the zone (up from 32.49% last year), a rate that would have put him in the 'top ten' (or bottom ten) of batting title-qualified hitters. That could be the league adjusting to him, bad coaching, fatigue, stunted development of a guy who really did belong in the minors, or something else, but whatever it's problematic.

And really his overall line was probably a bit lucky, as he did this with a BABIP of .321. You probably remember him showing an uncanny ability to get hits while down in the count. Those memories were real, but it probably wasn't a result of 'real' skill.

One important area where he did show some improvement was against righties, who dominated him in '07, holding him to a .572 OPS. This year that split rose to .653--still not very good, but progress.

Defensively, he's probably a touch below average--certainly good enough if he's hitting like he was in June and July, but not good enough to contribute should his offense regress.

In the short term, I think it would be a reasonable expectation for Flores to elevate his offense in '09 to league-average for a catcher (.255 / .328 / .387; 93 OPS+). Longer term, he still has a chance to be an all-star catcher within the next 3-4 years, but the likelihood of that has to be considered at least a bit more remote now. 'Merely' above average may be a more reasonable projection at this point.

It's also possible to imagine him regressing as pitchers take advantage of his willingness to chase. Wily Mo Pena is a great example of a hitter whose inability to command the zone has caused him to plateau and regress in years when you usually see hitters improve. It all comes down to whether he can improve his command of the zone, get himself into more hitters' counts, and thereby maintain or continue to develop his power while upping his OBP.
  • Back-up catcher: Wil Nieves
After the best year of his professional career (.261 / .309 / .341 in 176 MLB AB), Nieves goes into 2009 as the presumptive back-up catcher by default. He'll be 31 years old next season, and although he's a nice-looking guy and bit of a fan favorite, he's at best the epitome of 'replacement level.'

In the Minors
  • Derek Norris
At 19, the Nationals' 2007 fourth-round pick emerged in his second minor league season as arguably the top catching prospect in the Nationals' system. Playing with the low-A Vermont Lake Monsters, he posted a .278 / .444 / .463 line and was rated by Baseball America as the fourth best prospect in the entire NY-Penn League. His best tools are his arm and power, but what I love is that huge .166 ISO Patience number (OBP minus BA). He had 63 walks in 70 games--22 more than any other hitter in the NY-Penn League. He's still 2-3 years away, but he's one to watch.
  • Luke Montz
He's 25 and got a September call-up this year after the team was forced to scrounge for our fifth option behind home plate since Opening Day. It's a nice story for a guy drafted in the 17th round, but he's just an organizational guy.
  • Devin Ivany
At 26, Ivany isn't really a prospect, but he was rated last winter as the best defensive catcher in the system by Baseball America and just finished his best pro season hitting .262 / .327 / .442 in 69 games at AA Harrisburg. He might make it up at some point as a backup catcher.
  • Other guys: Adrian Nieto, Dan Killian, Jhonatan Solano and Sean Rooney will all be under 24 next season and give us nice volume and potential. None of them are top prospects, but if you stockpile enough of these guys one of them might break out.
Free Agents
Courtesy of MLB Trade Rumors, here's this year's list of free agent catchers:
Brad Ausmus (40)
Paul Bako (37)
Rod Barajas (33) - $2.5MM club option for '09 with a $0.5MM buyout
Michael Barrett (32)
Henry Blanco (37) - $3MM mutual option for '09 with a $0.3MM buyout
Johnny Estrada (33)
Toby Hall (33) - $2.25MM club option for '09 with a $0.15MM buyout
Jason LaRue (35)
Paul Lo Duca (37)
Miguel Olivo (30) - $2.7MM mutual option for '09 with a $0.1MM buyout
Mike Redmond (38) - $0.95MM club option for '09 with a $0.1MM buyout
Ivan Rodriguez (37)
David Ross (32)
Javier Valentin (33)
Jason Varitek (37)
Gregg Zaun (38)
FJB's Take
With Flores and the nice collection of young guys in the system, catcher is one of our stronger suits both short- and long-term. Still, it's not as if we're sitting on Matt Weiters or Brian McCann here. We shouldn't be resting on our laurels.

Ideally, I'd like to see the Nationals cut Wil Nieves loose and bring in a younger major league-ready left-handed (or switch-hitting) back-up with at least some upside to pair with Flores and start maybe 40 games next year. That means making a trade. Some guys I see out there who might be available and fit the bill: Miguel Montero (D'Backs), Jason Jaramillo (Phillies), or John Jaso (Rays).

Failing that, I would still rather see them bring in a veteran lefty free agent backup like Greg Zaun (Blue Jays), Josh Bard (Padres), or Javier Valentin (Reds) rather than settling for Nieves or Montz. These guys at least would give us an upgrade in '09 and give us a more credible fall-back should Flores get hurt or something.

One final thought--Flores has just a hair under two full years of MLB service time under his belt and stands a good chance of qulifying for arbitration eligibility under the super-2 rule after next season. That means that, if Flores is looked at as a future all-star, you might want to think about signing him long-term now. I wouldn't advocate this course of action--there are too many risks with any young catcher and too many holes in Flores's game at this stage--but if you wanted to do that, now would be the time.


Bob L. Head said...

Pretty good analysis, Steven. I would keep Nieves around for another year though. It can't hurt to have a defense-first veteran around when you're breaking in a series of minor league pitchers. Plus, he hit this year for the first time, you never know, maybe he's a late-bloomer.

Steven said...

I think he is a late bloomer. This year he bloomed. That's all there is I think.

Also he's not that good of a defensive catcher. His CS% this year was 20.4%. His defensive runs above average (BP stat) was -3. Just cuz he jumps around a lot back there and can't hit doesn't mean he's a good defensive catcher.

I don't mean to sound like I hate him, I just think we could make better use of that roster spot.

Steve Shoup said...

This was a wonderful and detailed look at the Nationals catching situation, and can't wait to read the rest (I was out of town so i'm just catching up on my baseball reading). I think your detailed look into Flores show's exactly why we signed LoDuca and Estrada last year. If they hadn't been so ineffective/injured I think Flores could have stayed in the Minors like planned and worked on his patience at the plate. That being said I still like Flores alot long term. I don't think he will be an 'all-star' catcher but I think he can be pretty good. In my opinion only McCann is above Flores in our own division.

As for the rest of the situation, i'm indifferent to Nieves he's a fine back up but nothing special. I disagree with you on Montz, I think he could be a back-up catcher in this league for a number of years. I would have either Nieves or some other cheap vet for a year with Montz at AAA and then install him as the back-up. My last disagreement here is I don't think the Nats should be in a position to trade for a young catcher, while I fully like guys like Jaso, the Nats shouldn't give up any talent to fill this position. As you mentioned they have some interesting minor leaguers, so its not a bare cupboard.

Steven said...

Steve--You're right about the reason why the Nationals signed a catcher last off-season. I was never against the idea of bringing in a vet for a year and giving Flores the year or maybe till August to develop in the minors. The problem was the amount they spent and who they signed. Guys like Rod Barajas or Jose Molina could have been had for less than half the price, given us much better defense and no worse offense. I guess Jim thought he was getting better hitters, and maybe some 'chemistry,' but that's just terrible judgment on both counts.

Montz could be a low-tier back-up in this league, I agree. "Organizational guy" was probably too damning. My point is that he's not someone who's going to help us win either as a starter or back-up, even with his highest upside. Maybe you still like him more than that, whatever. Not that consequential either way.