Tuesday, December 8, 2009

"The Nats Signed Pudge!?!?"

There's been a wave of shock and befuddlement across the baseball world in reaction to the Nationals signing of Ivan Rodriguez.

Everyone from a local
Washington Post columnist to the ESPN shouting heads to the local blogger dudes to the stat-heads to Jim Bowden himself say it's the dumbest effing thing they've ever heard.

That's the rare five-game sweep of disapproval. The argument goes like this: why on earth is a rebuilding team signing a 38-year-old back-up catcher? The Nationals need to go young! And they overpaid. Two years and $6 million is far too much for a washed up catcher.

I'm now in the heretofore unknown position of being the last remaining defender of a Nationals personnel move. Woah, lemme get my bearings.

OK, now I'm ready to respond. First, the Nationals need another catcher. No one disputes this. Jesus Flores, even if totally healthy, cannot be backed up by Jhonathan Solano. No way, no how. There's no one else remotely close to replacement level down there.

Wil Nieves is arbitration-eligible, meaning that his salary is due to jump closer to $1 million if you tender him a contract. So basically Nieves is a free agent.

Now, let's look at the options in free agency (the guys in italics are already signed elsewhere but were available at the end of the season):

Eliezer Alfonzo (31)
Brad Ausmus (41)
Paul Bako (38)
Rod Barajas (34)
Josh Bard (32)
Michael Barrett (33)
Henry Blanco (38)
Ramon Castro (34)
Chris Coste (37)
Toby Hall (34)
Ramon Hernandez (34)
Jason Kendall (36)
Jason LaRue (36)
Chad Moeller (35)
Bengie Molina (35) - Type A
Jose Molina (35)
Miguel Olivo (31)
Mike Redmond (39)
Ivan Rodriguez (38)
Brian Schneider (33)
Yorvit Torrealba (31)
Matt Treanor (34)
Javier Valentin (34)
Vance Wilson (37)
Gregg Zaun (39)

You make the case who on this list is better than Pudge. Torrealba, I guess, but it sounds like he's headed back to Denver. Maybe Ramon Hernandez, though he's mostly washed up too. Bengie Molina's going to cost a draft pick, so that really doesn't make sense. Josh Bard anyone? Miguel Olivo? Jason Kendall? Brad Ausmus? Brian Schneider? Sure, Rodriguez isn't really much if at all better, but he certainly isn't worse.

The outrage here is that the Nationals' player development system has been so terrible over the last 4-5 years that they don't have a replacement level guy to bring up as a back-up catcher. There's no Lou Marson or George Kottaras or Jason Jaramillo. I'm not talking about Matt Wieters or Buster Posey. Just a solid player who can give you replacement value for cheap. That's part of the player development department's job, and this team has failed to do that at the catcher position (not to mention first base, bullpen, outfield...).

Now, did the Nationals overpay? No question about it. They paid probably double what any other team would have spent. I believe that Rodriguez probably was getting offers around one-year deals for three million. But the Nationals do have to overpay to get free agents to come here. If they don't overpay, then they're going to be left with Gustavo Molina. And $3 million a year isn't that much money. The minimum wage is about half a million, so you're paying $2.5 million more than that, assuming he doesn't totally crater and get released at some point. Whatever. If $2.5 million extra in payroll stops this team from doing something that's really going to help, we're doomed anyway.

One could argue that Rodriguez is so washed up, that there really isn't much if any difference between him and Wil Nieves or Paul Bako or whoever else would be that last man standing. So it's not that costly, but it's still bad judgment. That's not a bad argument.
But at least Pudge can field his position reasonably well. I don't think you can take that away from him yet.

You also can't totally discount the value of having a well-known future Hall of Famer on the roster. No, you don't want to go back to the days of Bob Short marketing Ted Williams managing an entire team of washed up has-beens like Denny McClain and Curt Flood. But I promise you that you will see lots of Rodriguez quotes in the paper and Rodriguez jerseys in the pro-shop selling better than anything other than Zimmerman, Dunn, and maybe Strasburg. Pudge is immediately one of their most recognizable players. So if the argument is that this is bad business, you have to factor in the additional revenue that will be generated by having at least one guy who casual fans have heard of.

If they had traded a C-level prospect or a rule 5 draft pick or signed Rodriguez as a type-A, costing them a draft pick, then I'd be against it. But this is just money. As it is, the Nationals payroll is only $60 million. There's no reason they couldn't add $30-40 million in payroll right now, and truth be told there isn't that much value out there to spend on anyway.

So is this a deal Nationals fans should be excited about? No. It's just a back-up catcher. But I certainly don't see why this is worth getting worked up over. I'd be much more upset about the Nationals' weak efforts in international free agency and they way they drafted for signability after Strasburg this year.


Sasskuash said...

My favorite reactions have been the one's along the lines of "no wonder the Nationals are so bad." Or in the case of one Baseball Prospectus writer (unfortunately, the article was pasted in an email without the author's name attached), "This
signing is a waste of resources that doesn’t speak well of an
organization that maybe I have to stop making excuses for."

The thing that concerns me is Shenin writing today that the Nats expect to give Pudge 2-3 starts a week even if Flores is healthy. Considering they play about 5 games a week, that's a large split- probably somewhere around 40/60 %(Pudge/Flores). If Flores isn't ready, or gets hurt again, then I'm happy we have Pudge. But if Flores is healthy, he should be starting 70-80% of the time. He's your young catcher of the forseeable future, and was on the path to an all-star caliber season before his injury last year- let him play!

An Briosca Mor said...

Where were all these guys with their outrage when Bowden signed LoDuca and Estrada? Hell, Pudge at worst is a future HoFer in the twilight of his career. The other two were just washed up refuse.

Geez, you'd think the Nats had just signed Dmitri Young for 2/$10M or picked up Daniel Cabrera off the scrap heap or somesuch.

Steven said...

Sass--yes, you're right, if they're thinking about a 50/50 time-share, they should really be going after a platoon partner with more upside, probably in a trade. I would not be happy with a Pudge-Jesus righty-righty straight platoon.

Elan said...

steven, I think youre absolutely right. keep it up.

Section 222 said...

Excellent points. I just don't get so many commentators' and commenters' concern about how much money it took to sign him. Unless there's solid evidence that this signing actually depletes the resources available for other improvements, who cares??

I'm usually not big on the "good clubhouse guy" factor, but I do like the idea of having someone on the team who has been in the World Series -- twice.

William said...


I think that you have nailed this (although I would have expected your reaction to be more like the sabre guys!). I don't love it and it is an overpay, but I also don't hate it and can't imagine it affects other moves. It must be a pretty slow Hot Stove time if a $3m/yr contract to a backup catcher gets this kind of bashing.

estuartj said...

Assuming they don't trade Willingham they can still have him as emergency catcher (or Morse if he makes the 25man roster) they can pinch hit Pudge 3-4 times a week plus give him 1-2 starts, that's somewhere North of 200ABs and a huge improvement over what Nieves or Bard would give you with those ABs.

Will said...

Just a slight correction- During the season, there's usually about 6.5 games played per week. So if they're expecting to give Pudge 2-3 starts, it's not a 50/50 split. Flores will still be getting the majority of the starts. In the end, Flores should get about 100 starts, and Pudge ~60.
There's very few teams that don't use a system like this, even when they have a vastly superior catcher. Just check out the Yankees with Posada and others, the Angels with Napoli and Mathis, the Rockies with Iannetta and Torrealba, the DBacks with Montero and others, and so on. Considering Flores' injury history and the physical strain involved in catching, it wouldn't make sense to expect him to play anywhere close to 162 games. Add that to the fact he's still developing at age 25, it becomes clear that Pudge should and will get ample playing time with good reason.

With that aside, I don't understand the uproar over paying anyone $3million per year, when certain relief pitchers, who pitch only one inning per game in no more than 60 games per year are getting paid $12million/year, $15mil/year, and $11.5mil/year.
Where's the uproar for these guys?

MIke Liszewski said...

I wonder what impact Pudge is going to have on the pitching staff? I honestly have no idea how much a veteran catcher can teach a young pitching staff, but it that's a potential bonus with this signing.

Besides, he should get about 2-3x the amount of extra base hits that Nieves would likely hit. Even when Flores starts, it'll be nice having someone who's at least a mild HR threat to come in an pinch hit. Between Rodriguez and Flores, 20 HRs from the catcher's spot isn't unreasonable.

Also, I wonder if Pudge would benefit from playing little less at his age. Maybe that's wishful thinking.

In terms of playing time, hopefully it will become apparent the Flores should get the majority of starts. If they both play like they did last season, it should be rather obvious who should get the bulk of the time. Maybe the team is saying this to encourage Flores to step up his game?

You're totally on point, it's a boring, but solid and reasonable signing considering their other options.

Steven said...

There's very very little evidence that any catcher has a repeatable impact on pitcher ERA. I would refer you to the chapter titled something like "Is Mike Matheny a Catching Genius" or something like that in Baseball Between the Numbers.

James Bjork said...

I'm with you, Steven.

I don't think the naysayers really sat down and evaluated the other options in free-agency or in the Nats' farm system.

I at least have to respect that Rizzo and company seem to be taking steps to make sure there are no gaping holes on the team....

... But I'll really believe it if they land a really solid starting pitcher.

HH said...

I watched him play quite a bit last year with the Rangers, and Rodriguez is not washed up by any means.

He wants to be an everyday player and can still throw with the best of them. He basically won the everyday catcher job with Texas when he was traded over to be a backup. He was too good to keep out of the lineup.

At 38, he could go south fast but he's still a pretty good catcher now and keeps in great shape. If Flores can play, he makes a great backup and mentor. If not, he can fill in as the starter.

It's a pretty good move even if it is a little pricey. Washington can definitely afford the luxury with its payroll. It's a good fit. You'll definitely notice the difference between him and Josh Bard behind the plate.