March 9, 2010
Hot Spots: Catcher, Second Base, and Shortstop
According to Rangers manager Ron Washington, Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Taylor Teagarden are both in a "dead heat" for the starting catcher job in Texas. PECOTA has them in a dead heat offensively as well, as both project to a TAv around .250 with strikeout at rates upward of 25%. The primary difference lies in how they make up for those strikeouts. According to PECOTA's 50th percentile projections, Saltalamacchia has a higher-than-average BABIP projection (.325 to Teagarden's .308) and has the better contact rate (70.5% to 66.9%) between the two, while Teagarden adds value in his walks (11.1% to Salty's 9.8%) and better home run power (25.5 HR/600PA to 22.8). For both players, PECOTA's projected batting lines would be marked improvements over their past performance.
According to Heater Rangers author Joey Matschulat of Baseball Time in Arlington, there is a minimal chance that the Rangers will platoon Saltamacchia and Teagarden, meaning the playing time will go strictly to the winner. The team probably trusts the upside on Saltalamacchia’s offense more, as he is the younger player. PECOTA agrees, pegging Salty for a higher breakout and improvement chance. However, defense may also play a factor for the starting role, and that is Teagarden's primary strength; he was highly regarded in the minors as a top defensive backstop, and while Salty has improved according to Matschulat, he is still the inferior defensive option.
Saltalmacchia's better contact skills will lead to a passable batting average and could yield slightly more RBI than Teagarden’s Three True Outcome style. Salty is not far behind in the home run category either, making him a slightly better choice in situations when you missed the boat on better catchers. Consider the winner an upside pick and an acceptable AL-only starter.
J.R. Towles is a former top prospect, though Houston has soured on him after an awful 2008 start as the major league starter. However, PECOTA projects a solid (for a catcher) .243/.329/.412 slash line. That should not be too surprising, as Towles displayed his ability to rake in two Triple-A stints in 2008 and 2009, batting a composite .291/.378/.479 line in 378 PA. Despite a history of decent contact rates in the minors, Towles won’t help you with batting average thanks to a subpar .286 projected BABIP, though his average walk rates could bump his OBP to respectable levels. What you'll get most out of Towles is power: his past performance in TB/H is well above average for a catcher, and the 50th percentile PECOTA projection pegs him for an above average ISO and almost 17 HR/600 PA.
Of course, as Marc Normandin mentioned in his catcher rankings, it will all come down to playing time for Towles, but there should be few concerns in that regard. Jason Castro, who ranked as the second best prospect in the Astros' organization according to our own Kevin Goldstein, has not played above Double-A yet and did not have the strongest of seasons there either (.293/.362/.385 line), so there's no reason for the Astros to rush him to the majors now. Houston manager Brad Mills has already committed to Humberto Quintero as the backup catcher, though he should still receive a decent chunk of the playing time according to Heater's latest radar tracking. Though Towles does come with some injury concern, you can expect 400 PA, and at that playing time, you could do a lot worse than him in an NL-only league.
* Lopez' PECOTA projections are not specific for St. Louis.
The arrival of Felipe Lopez has jumbled the playing time for the Cardinals infield. For the moment, he will man shortstop until Brendan Ryan recovers from wrist surgery; Ryan is currently listed day-to-day and should be ready by season's start. Lopez could also platoon with 2B Skip Schumaker once Ryan returns. For his career, Lopez has fared slightly better versus lefties than righties (.268/.343/.402 vs. lefties, .274/.331/.390 vs. righties). Schumaker, on the other hand, displays your classic lefty platoon problems, to the tune of an awful .205/.271/.220 career line so far in 283 PA versus left handers.
Lopez has always had a solid contact rate upwards of 80%, with last season's 83.1% marking his best since 2005. His value lives and dies with BABIP; a mark around .350 and you get a .300+ batting average and results like his 2009 value, but a .280 BABIP gives you a .240 average and results like his 2007 season. Overall, he is projected for a believable (if a bit low) .270 batting average off of a .315 BABIP. Lopez has always been solid for runs, and any player with an average OBP batting behind Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday should score plenty of runs playing full-time.
The problem is Lopez will not play full time. As the small half of a platoon, Lopez won't be expected to rack up more than 300 PA without some injury to a starting infielder. In addition, his presence against lefites will sap some of the runs that would normally go to Schumaker. Neither player provides much power (career ISO of .122 and .093 for Lopez and Schumaker respectively) or speed (just 26 SB between them the last two seasons), rendering them one-category players with reduced playing time. The other infielders are weak options at best due to a combination of lack of playing time and general ineffectiveness. Keep an eye on Lopez in case of a problem in the Cardinals' infield, and knock Schumaker down a tier in the second base rankings for sharing PA.