Monday, November 16, 2009

Position-by-Position Off-Season Outlook: Catchers

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 2012 in mind), and 2. what can we do to move towards respectability in 2010.

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.

The Present
  • Starting catcher: Jesus Flores
You wouldn't know it from most of the press clippings, but 2009 was a bit of a make-or-break season for Jesus Flores. In 2008, his plate discipline had regressed to almost total non-existence, and he finished the year with a .256 / .296 / .402, ranking among the worst offensive catchers in baseball. Still only 24, he had plenty of time, but it seemed that the lost developmental time as a rule 5 pick was seriously catching up with him. Flores needed to have a strong April and May to avoid a humbling trip back to AAA.

He got it. Flores swung at fewer pitches out of the zone (34.0% to 36.9%) and saw his walk rate jump from a miserable 4.7% to an above-average 10.6%. He's not nearly as good as his .301 / .371 / .505 would suggest, as his .381 BABIP is due for major regression. But still, he was much, much better, especially against right-handed pitching. Whether it was fatigue, experience, Rick Eckstein, or something else, he was basically a totally different hitter in May 2009 than he was in August 2008.

Then, a stress fracture in his shoulder ended his season early for the second-straight year. So what is Flores heading into 2010? It's not clear when he'll be 100% health wise, and the rehab in the minors may do him good anyway. So given his health, the team needs to be ready for someone else to take half or more of he ABs at catcher this season.

Longer-term, Flores will turn 25 later this month, still very young, especially for a catcher. He remains a nice up-and-coming talent in the organization, but his ceiling at this point is probably more like Brian Schneider than Jorge Posada. Mike Rizzo can't be satisfied penciling his name at the top of the organizational depth chart for the next three years.
  • Back-up catcher: Wil Nieves
Wil Nieves continued in 2009 to scrape by at replacement level by taking a few walks and putting the ball in play. Still, he's 32, hits right-handed (the same as Flores), and has less than zero upside. He'll be arbitration-eligible for the first time in his career this off-season, which is an achievement the team will reward by non-tendering him faster than you can say, "who?" That doesn't mean he won't be back, but if the Nationals pay him much if anything over the minimum, that's crazy.

With all the free advertising Nieves has gotten over the last year or two, he should just retire now and focus on opening a nightclub near the stadium. If he could just get all the ladies who have been buying $8 beers from Ted Lerner to watch him buy $8 rail drinks from him, he'd be on his way.

In the Minors
  • Derek Norris
The Nationals' minor league player of the year in 2010, Derek Norris emerged as the best hitting prospect the team has seen since Ryan Zimmerman. He's always shown advanced plate discipline, and that continued this year at Hagerstown with a 17.1% walk rate. But it was his power that really had him rising up the prospect lists, as he slugged 23 dingers and 30 doubles, good for a .227 ISO power. He also threw out 36% of base-stealers, though he's considered a work-in-progress as a receiver. At age 21, he's still a year or two away, and he has many more hurdles to clear (especially sticking at this position), but at the moment he has the look of a star in the making.
  • Adrian Nieto
The Cuban fifth-round draft pick in 2008 had a fine first full season in pro ball. The good: he took lots of walks (12.8%) and threw out 44% of base-stealers. The bad: just seven of his 31 hits went for extra bases, and none were homers. That's not a knock on the 19-year-old, so much as a recognition of how far he is away from the big leagues. I'll look for him to get a little stronger this year while maintaining his mature approach as he moves up in 2010.

Free Agents
Courtesy of MLB Trade Rumors, here's this year's list of free agent catchers:
Eliezer Alfonzo (31)
Brad Ausmus (41)
Paul Bako (38)
Rod Barajas (34) - Type B
Josh Bard (32)
Michael Barrett (33)
Henry Blanco (38)
Ramon Castro (34)
Chris Coste (37)
Sal Fasano (38)
Toby Hall (34)
Ramon Hernandez (34) - $8.5MM club option with a $1MM buyout - Type B
Jason Kendall (36) - Type B
Jason LaRue (36)
Chad Moeller (35)
Bengie Molina (35) - Type A
Jose Molina (35)
Miguel Olivo (31) - Type B
Mike Redmond (39)
Ivan Rodriguez (38) - Type B
Brian Schneider (33)
Yorvit Torrealba (31) - Type B
Matt Treanor (34)
Javier Valentin (34)
Vance Wilson (37)
Gregg Zaun (39) - Type B
FJB's Take
Last year at this time, I advocated that the Nationals send Nieves to the minors and see if they can swing a trade for a younger catcher with upside like Miguel Montero, Jason Jaramillo, or John Jaso.
I love Norris and Flores is a nice young guy to have around, but there are too many question marks with catchers. Failing that, I called for upgrading over Nieves with a better veteran switch-hitter like Josh Bard or Greg Zaun.

This year, some of the names have changed, but I more or less advise the same course of action.

Intriguing younger trade candidates out there include Chris Iannetta (Torrealba's a free agent and Iannetta's arbitration-eligible, so they have to choose), J.R. Towles (Houston's former catcher of the future now passed by Jason Castro), Wilson Ramos (the Twins prospect blocked by Joe Mauer), Bryan Anderson (good left-handed contact hitter blocked by Yadier Molina), Max Ramirez (Texas has a mountain of good young catchers, and MaxRam is coming off an injury-plagued down year), and Chris Snyder (benched for Miguel Montero).

If the Nationals could trade from their bounty of back-end cheap starters
(Craig Stammen, J.D. Martin, Garrett Mock, or Shairon Martis...) for one of these guys, that would make a lot of sense.

If forced to sign a free agent, all you can hope for is to get a Josh Bard, not a Johnny Estrada. I don't see anyone on this list who's better than a stop-gap option just to get by. Torrealba's probably the best of the group, but he's not going to sign with a team that doesn't consider him a #1. The Nationals should pass on the type As to protect their draft picks. Of the rest, but Greg Zaun and Rod Barajas would be upgrades over Nieves. Or they could bring back Josh Bard.


Flores Fan said...

Just a little minor detail, but Flores is 25. He turned 25 on 10/26/09.

Anonymous said...

Bard's Defense is really bad. I do not see them going back to him with Rizzo's and Riggs both being Defensive first guys.

phil dunn said...

That most certainly is a motley list of free agent catchers. Barf!

phil dunn said...

On second thought, why not bring back Brian Schneider? He bats left handed, hits about the same as Josh Bard and is much better defensively. The only downside on Schneider is his proneness to injuries, but that goes with the territory when you wear the Nats uniform.

Scott said...

Was Pudge bold-faced on this list before or after the signing?

Steven said...

That's a copy and paste from MLB Trade Rumors indicating that he's a Boras client.