As promised several hours ago, here is my breakdown of the positions around the American League East starting with the catchers. Catching isn’t exactly the same as the rest of the every day positions, but don’t fret! I have devised an ingenius way of analysing it to attempt to level it out with the other positions; Typical every day catchers play around 75-80% of the innings behind the plate (unless you work for Joe Torre in which case its more like 85-90% and your “off days” are actually just days at a position other than catcher). Putting together the starter and the primary backup should give you, at least prospectively, a combination covering near 100% of the team’s innings.
Let’s start with Boston, who is currently deploying the fearsome duo of Jason Varitek and Josh Bard (Well, fearsome if you are a fan of the team). Both are switch hitters, and each of them had a horrible season at the plate last year. That creates some mystery as far as who is going to get the majority of the playing time. Before re-signing with the Sox, Varitek’s agent Scott Boras let it be known that his client wanted full time catching duties somewhere. There is zero chance of that, but a near equal split seems likely. Both players put up a negative VORP last year (which shows just how terrible their bats were, since VORP accounts for position), though Varitek did have a WARP of 1.5 due to his defensive contributions. Bard, on the other hand, was atrocious throwing out runners, nailing 15% of them.
Varitek has the potential to bounce back to a below average catcher, rather than a replacement level one. Since he was an all star last year in a season where the Red Sox may have been better off DHing for the catcher instead of pitcher, if he improves to simply “bad” then he should win MVP. Bard is going to improve simply by virtue of leaving Petco, but even then there is not much hope on either side of the ball for him.
Assuming a 50/50 split (I would guess Varitek will get penciled in for slightly more playing time, but he’s also 37 this season), what will the combination of Varitek and Bard do this season? I’m going to use Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA projections. Let’s assume 625 plate appearances for them, batting at the bottom of the order and with the possibility of occasional pinch hitters. Weighing each equally, the Red Sox can expect a season of .242/.325/.390 with a .245 EqA. Of course, there is always the possibility that Varitek regains some of his form from 2007, when he was a legitimate bat. There is also the magical ability of his to catch no-hitters, which can be 100% attributed to Tek and not to the pitcher. In any case, Boston is coming off of a trip to the ALCS and any marginal improvement from the catchers would be a boon.
The Yankees catching situation has significant more upside than the Red Sox, though that does not altogether say much. Jorge Posada has been one of the best hitting catchers in baseball for the better part of a decade, but is coming off shoulder surgery. His backup and the starter for much of last season, Jose Molina, combines one of the worst bats in the majors with one of the arms forged in the mythical womb of Mama Molina, who has birthed three stellar major league defensive catchers. The Yankees may also have a contribution from Francisco Cervelli, though his ceiling is probably a major league backup.
Posada will probably end up seeing a fair amount of time at DH, and at 37 years old physical ailments are inevitable. Excluding his potential time at DH, the best case scenario for New York is that he ends up playing half of the games behind the plate (PECOTA projects him for only 257 PA’s total, so even this may be looking on the sunnyside of things). So, like Boston, we will be assuming a 50/50 timeshare behind the plate for the Yankees. The projected line for this would be .239/.309/.409 with a .243 EqA. Jose Molina’s bat is so inept that it completely negates the huge slugging advantage Posada has over his Boston counterparts. Molina is of course excellent defensively, but for the Yankees to hold any advantage at this position within the division Posada needs to play a significant role, one that physically I don’t think he’ll be up to filling.
Continuing around the division, the Tampa Bay Rays have, like they do at just about every position, a solid young player. Dioner Navarro bounced around as a one time highly regarded Yankees prospect, being traded to the Diamondbacks in the Randy Johnson deal, then to the Dodgers and finally to the Rays , where he has been since midseason 2006. Navarro struggled in just about every major league stint from 2005-2007, though his defense was and is valuable. Always with a low strikeout rate, Navarro finally made something of his talent for making contact with a .295/.349/.407 line. His BABIP was not excessively high, so while a batting average regression is to be expected, it also should not be expected to crash completely to the levels he was at prior to 2008. Note, though, that Navarro’s offensive value came mostly from his atting average last year, as he does not have a lot of power and his walk rate isn’t particularly high. Either way, he will bring strong defense (he threw out 38% of runners last season) and is only 25 years old, so showing improvement last year does not necessarily indicate a fluke.
Navarro’s backup last season, Shawn Riggans, has some power, makes very low contact, and if your child were strapped to a bomb on second base and someone had to throw a baseball there to disable it, you would choose Michael Barrett before Shawn Riggins. And be warned, if this situation ever arises and your choices really are Shawn Riggins and Michael Barrett, welp. This should be a hollywood blockbuster starring Jean-Claude Van Damme; we can call it Sudden Death II: Extra Innings.
Remember when we were talking about catchers? Me too. Navarro had 470 PA’s last season (and 434 the year before), and Riggins had 152. Navarro’s time accounts for 75% of the catchers PA’s (six plate appearances were as a pinch hitter), so let us assume that this trend will continue and he will start three-fourth’s of the upcoming season’s games. Now, PECOTA has Navarro dropping down to 381 at bats with a 26% attrition rate, which predicts the likelihood of a drastic decrease in playing time, and has Riggins pegged for 246 PA’s. This would be the almost the same total number of plate appearances as last year (only 5 more), but I think Navarro’s age, durability the last two years and defensive talents will keep him in the lineup no matter what so I’m going to stretch PECOTA’s projected line for him out to cover the 75% playing time he had last year, and contract Riggins to cover the remianing 25%. The weighted line would then be .255/.319/.398 and a .250 EqA. PECOTA is pretty down on Navarro, but even if this line holds up (remember, it is a weighted combination of the two catchers) Navarro will have value on the defensive side.
Well, we’ve already discussed Michael Barrett in the context of saving children strapped to bombs, and concluded that this would be a great movie idea. Now, let’s discuss him as a baseball player, and catcher for the Toronto Blue Jays. Rod Barajas is the projected starter after having taken over for the injured and now departed Greg Zaun last season. Michael Barrett and Raul Chavez each were brought in on minor league deals to compete for the backup job. The two combined for a .280 on-base percentage last year; this is good news for Barajas because his .294 on-base clip only looks good in comparison.
This is certainly the worst catching core in the division, as Barajas is no better than backup material, and his backups will be hard pressed to exceed replacement level offense. Barajas and Chavez are at least decent defensive players; Barajas has an above average arm, which along with his middling power are his only assets. With a lack of competition for the job, Barajas should be locked into the starting role, but there is little difference between the three, particularly if Barrett rebounds from injury back to mediocrity. It’s likely that only one of Barrett and Chavez will make the team out of Spring, and that they interchange throughout the year, but I think Barrett’s past season’s of good offense will get him the job over Chavez. Barajas had 57% of the playing time last year, and only took over as starter in Late May after Zaun’s injury. A full year as starter will probably net him closer to 70% of the playing time, and I will allocate the other 30% to Barrett. The weighted line of these two hitters is .246/.307/.399 with an EqA of .245. Surprisingly this is a slight step above the Yankees, and on par with Boston, but there is less potential here and the defense isn’t quite as good. By the end of the season 2007 first round pick J.P. Arencibia could be on his way to the majors, so there is still hope in Toronto as far as this position goes.
For the Orioles, the one position outside of right field where they have an advantage over their division rivals could be catcher. Matt Wieters is pretty much the consensus top prospect in baseball; he is ML ready after tearing up both single and double A last season to the tune of a combined line of a 1.054 OPS with 27 homers in only 437 at bats. He takes walks, he has power, and he plays defense. He has every tool outside of base-stealing, andaside from Russ Martin any stolen bases your catcher gives you are probably more of a fluke than anything.
He is ready for the big leagues now, and will be the catcher on opening day unless they decide to let him simmer for a month or two in triple A (which would delay his arbitration and give them an extra year of control over him). This is a guy who, like Langoria and Braun, will get locked up to a long term deal before he goes to arbitration anyway, so I don’t think the team will wait unless he really tanks in spring training. He has an all star caliber bat at any position, but when you consider he is a catcher he stands out even more.
PECOTA absolutely loves Wieters (essentially declaring him the best catcher in the league for 2009 and one of the best in the league with a projected 59.6 VORP), and the Orioles did themselves a service by signing a solid backup in Greg Zaun. I think Wieters will be starting opening day, and playing a majority of the time in the big leagues. Since he is young and the Orioles are not going anywhere without a starting rotation, I’ll take a conservative approach to his playing time and say he takes 75% of the time behind the plate (around 120 games). He won’t be in Russ Martin territory but starting 130 games at catcher would not surprise me. With his bat he can also DH on off days, so expect to see a lot of him this coming season. The extraordinary expectations of PECOTA probably need to be tempered slightly, but the combined line of Wieters weighed with 25% time from Zaun is .287/.376/.502 (!) with a .299 EqA (!!). And that is the line AFTER factoring in 25% of Zaun’s weak line. Couple that with plus defense and the Orioles are set at catcher for the next decade or more.
I’ll conclude this wordy article by saying that aside from Wieters, there isn’t much to get excited about as far as the catching position goes. Jorge Posada, while aging and unhealthy last season, still has a chance to hit for power with a good on base percentage. The Red Sox and Blue Jays have little to get excited about this season. Tampa should be set, but at best Navarro still is not a star. It is a transitional year for the Yankees, Red Sox, and Blue Jays at this position, except there is no one immediately ready to take the reigns. The Blue Jays and Yankees may have help in 2010, and the Red Sox have pitching depth which could be used to deal for a young catcher (Teagarden or Saltalamacchia perhaps), but for the time being it is 32 year old plus or 25 and under in the east.
Later this week: A.L. East First Baseman!