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November 9, 2010

So You Need

Catchers

by Marc Normandin

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Catcher is one of the thinnest positions in the major leagues, which goes for the free-agent market as well as the collection of backstops already under team control. That doesn't mean that a club looking to add one is totally out of luck, as there are a few names worth looking at for either their bats or their gloves. Still, the teams that don't move fast may find themselves bereft of a capable presence behind the plate; supplies are limited.

I hit, therefore I start

Victor Martinez is far and away the most attractive catcher available, since he can match or surpass the offensive production of many first basemen. His defense, while not great by any means, is good enough to carry because of what his lumber adds to a lineup. He was slowed for a time last season due to a finger injury, but finished with a huge September that hid the earlier slump in his final numbers. The main negative for Martinez is his age: 2011 will be his age-33 season, and catchers generally don't hold up very well over time (the Red Sox already know something about this, thanks to the four-year, $40 million contract they gave Jason Varitek before the 2005 season). Martinez will most likely command a three- or four-year deal that pays him handsomely, and the number of suitors will be low due to the risk combined with the money. He is also a Type-A free agent, and since he won't accept arbitration, Boston will likely offer it, just to reap the reward of a 2011 draft pick forfeited by the signing team.

Miguel Olivo posted a .261 TAv for the second year in a row. His second-half performance was terrible, especially when you consider that he was playing in the thin air of Colorado (.193/.225/.313 in 166 at-bats), and it dragged down his overall numbers after a very strong start. Olivo isn't going to walk (though the 6.3 percent base on balls rate he posted in 2010 was far more tolerable than his past work), but he will fulfill the other True Outcomes by hitting for power and striking out plenty. A team playing in a park that favors right-handed power hitters could do far worse than signing Olivo; Toronto actually would have been perfect for him, though the Jays declined his option in order to garner a 2011 draft pick as compensation.

John Buck, a right-handed hitter, went to Toronto last season and posted an ISO of .208, the second-best mark of his career after 2009's .237 showing. There are some concerns here, as his walk rate cratered, but his on-base percentage was propped up by his batting average, which in turn received support from a .335 BABIP. The idea of Buck losing 20-30 points of batting average with a 3-4 percent walk rate is a scary one, even if he can hit 15-plus homers. He is younger than many of the other free-agent options, and less stretched as a starter than most of the rest of this year's class. He can start 110-120 games while paired with a more defensive-minded catcher.

Gregg Zaun will turn 40 shortly after Opening Day, and played in just 28 games in 2010 before undergoing shoulder surgery. However, he has hit .251/.344/.389 over the last three seasons (a total of 701 plate appearances, with TAvs of .261, .269, and .279, respectively). He will be inexpensive, given his age and shortened 2010 campaign, and will most likely perform better in 2011 than everyone on this list except Martinez. Paired up with another catcher, but getting the bulk of the playing time, Zaun would constitute an upgrade at the position for many clubs, thanks to his strong on-base skills and seemingly ageless performance.

Interested in a time share?

At first glance, Yorvit Torrealba looks like he had a pretty good season with the stick, but a closer analysis will show you that a repeat isn’t in the cards. His .273 TAv was the best of his career, since his .273/.343/.378 line came despite playing in Petco Park, but that surprising production was due to a near-.400 BABIP in home games. Torrealba hit loads of balls between left-center and right-center that fell just in front of the fielders. He can't rely on that happening again, meaning that he's still a defense-first catcher who won't kill a team with his bat, but isn't bringing anything extra to the table with it, either. In a situation like the one he enjoyed with last year's Padres, which saw him splitting time with Nick Hundley, Torrealba has value. He is stretched as a full-time starter, though.

Ramon Hernandez is a Type-A free agent, but there are some warning signs here. Hernandez will be 35 in 2011, had a .332 BABIP while playing in an environment that favored offense, and was essentially average for the position in the two years prior—his three-year-average slash line is .269/.332/.401, and that's with those iffy 2010 numbers included. Due to positional scarcity, Hernandez should get attention, but buyers should be leery of any contract that involves multiple years or heavy dollars, because he merits neither. His 10-Year PECOTA forecast heading into 2010 had him remaining an average-or-better contributor at the plate for a few more seasons, with the caveat of severely diminished playing time. He may be better splitting time going forward.

The last of the Type-A catchers is A.J. Pierzynski. His walk rate fell to 3 percent, and though he rarely struck out, his balls in play didn't help his club much—his line was .270/.300/.388, and he saw just 3.2 pitches per plate appearance. The 35-year-old Pierzynski is another of the aging catchers populating this year's market, and although he's still throwing out runners at around his career rate (26 percent in 2010, 25 percent career), the bat just isn't there—U.S. Cellular is a hitter's park that boosts power, yet his slugging percentage was still poor. The White Sox may offer Pierzynski arbitration, which means that there's a chance that he'll require a compensation pick. There are better options available that won't come with that additional cost.

The aforementioned Varitek doesn't have much—-if anything—left in the tank, but given his history and reputation as a clubhouse presence with the ability to handle a pitching staff, it's hard to believe that he'll remain unemployed. The Red Sox captain hit .232/.293/.473 in just 123 plate appearances in 2010, and may be able to retain value from the right side of the plate. Over the last three seasons, Varitek has hit .252/.347/.491 (in 226 at-bats) from the right side, but just .208/.301/.355 (in 665 at-bats) from the left. That has been the trend for his entire career, though it's become more pronounced as he's aged and his bat has slowed. Defensively, Varitek isn't going to do anything to stop the running game, but as a No. 2 catcher who can maybe mash lefties and help out in a mentoring role, he could be useful if the price is right.

If Bengie Molina chooses to return for another season rather than retire, he may find at least a few suitors for his services, given the lack of alternative catching talent available. Let the potential buyers beware: Molina will turn 37 next season and sports a three-year average of .271/.302/.412. In the case of an aging player, a sudden drop in performance is a cause for concern, so Molina's 2010 will wrinkle a few brows: his line was .249/.297/.326, which fell under the 10thpercentile of his PECOTA forecast. He may be better in 2011, but betting on that with a guaranteed contract may not be the best use of resources, especially with other catchers on the market who could at least manage to match Molina's horrid 2010 showing. 

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