Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Mets Catcher Situation

As has been reported, and re-reported, the Mets have apparently decided to target a free agent catcher in this year's hot stove league.

The Mets have targeted three catchers -- Barajas, Bengi Molina and Yorvit Torrealba. I have listed them in the Mets' preference and, they suspect, in the order of likelihood. - Marty Noble, MLB.com

Folks around the internet have weighed in on that idea. Should the Mets bring in a free agent catcher to pair with Omir Santos or Josh Thole or to give Thole more time in the minor leagues?

It depends on the price, but for the most part I am against the idea.

The Free Agents

Some have speculated that Barajas would settle for a contract as low as one year and $2 million. He made $2.5 million on a one year deal with the Blue Jays this year, and would likely command a raise if he went on the free agent market.

Bengie Molina is coming off a contract where he made over $16 million over three years with the Giants. He's likely due a pay cut, but he's a well-known run producer and would likely command upwards of $4 million a year.

So let's assume we're talking best-case scenario -- a short contract, for cheap, to bring in Molina or Barajas to catch for a year and ease Thole into the role. Is that even a good idea then?

I STILL think no.

Rod Barajas is coming off a season where he hit .226/.258/.403 with 19 home runs. Sure, the power is great, but we are talking about a guy who posted a lower OPS than Anderson Hernandez did last season. Even Jeremy Reed, who couldn't hit his way out of a paper bag last season, posted an on-base percentage of .301 -- or 5% higher than Barajas.

The same goes for Molina. Molina is coming off a year where he hit .265/.285/.442 with 20 home runs. Once again, the pop is nice, but the VAST MAJORITY of at bats taken by this catcher is going to end in abject failure.

Molina is going to be 35 this year. Barajas is going to be 34. Both hit worse than Omir Santos, who we watched flail around this season like a blind person. Santos hit .260/.296/.391 in one of the most infuriating displays of baseball ineptitude that I've been forced to watch this decade.

So yes, the financial commitment to Molina/Barajas might be low, but be giving either of them playing time, we are going to be making things worse instead of better. We do not need to spend money - ANY money - on a big name catcher.

The Incumbent - Josh Thole

I don't think that Thole is ready to dominate the National League. In fact, I think Thole might end up being a better baseball player over his career if he had more time in AAA to learn and maybe hit for a little power. However - if there ever was a time to throw a rookie into the fire, it is now.

Thole had an excellent year last year. In AA, he hit .328/.395/.422 over 384 at-bats. He followed that up with a line of .321/.356/.396 in the majors over a short 53 at-bat visit. He struck out less than 10% of the time in the majors, and owned a 42-34 walk to strikeout ratio in the minors.

In addition, as of October 30th, Thole has been hitting .389 in the Venezeuelan Winter league, striking out only five times. It has been a comprehensively excellent season, start to finish, for Thole.

So how might Thole fare in the majors next year? Well, according to minorleaguesplits.com's MLE calculator, Thole's AA stats translate to a batting line of .247/.307/.314. Subpar, to be sure, but major league equivalences are just an exercise and don't factor in the individual characteristics of the player -- like for instance, Thole's amazing place discipline and bat control.

Onviously, his final line if allowed to play next year would be somewhere between his fantastic major league audition and the MLE above. Even being pessimistic, I see good things for Thole. An average between .280-.300 is attainable, an on-base percentage between .310-.330, and a slugging percentage between .350-.370.

Being conservative, I'd forecast him somewhere around .290/.320/.360.(1)


That line, like I said, does not make Thole a star. It does not make it that he is not a drag on the lineup. It does not make up for any defensive problems that he may have as a young catcher breaking into the big leagues for the first time. But it is as good, or better, than the free agent catcher options that have been discussed.

Catchers around the league don't hit. These free agents being discussed don't hit. The Mets can survive, and thrive, with a catcher who is merely average at the plate. For example, Brian Schneider posted a line of .257/.339/.367 for the Mets in 2008, his first season with the club.

Nobody Schneider him for the Mets failure that year, and he was due over $8 million dollars over two years. Thole will make the minimum. Why are we so reluctant to give a young, good-hitting catcher the opportunity to play every day when we are so willing to let a guy like Daniel Murphy, who can barely hit, play first base every day?(2)

The Mets need to be very careful this offseason. There is not a lot of money to go around, and there are a lot of things that need fixing. A few million here or there might not sound like a lot, but if you sign a catcher, and then two guys like Cora and Redding from last year - that adds up.

I'm not dead set against bringing in a more experienced guy to platoon with Thole or give him a few months in AAA, but I think it would be a big mistake to sign any of the guys that have been linked to the Mets so far in rumor.


(1) Though as a 23 year old who hit .300, .328, and .321 in A, AA, and MLB, he's got the potential to keep growing and maturing and beating that forecast easily.

(2) Murphy makes for a good comparison. Murphy hit .308/.374/.496 in AA last year before being called directly to the Mets and having a very strong debut.

Murphy's AA OPS was 870, Thole's was 817. Then in MLB, Murphy's OPS was 870 again while Thole's was 752.

The critical difference is that Thole is being asked to play a position where the average player bats .255/.316/.390. Murphy was slotted to play left field and first base, where the average player hits .274/.353/.437.

Murphy may have been slightly more advanced than Thole at the time of their callups, but the disparity between what is being asked of them is enormous. There was nothing in Murphy's resume to indicate that he would ever hit like a first baseman.

Thole, on the other hand, has provided us ample evidence that he will not only hit well enough as a catcher to earn his keep, but that there is a chance that he will someday excel.

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