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Since 1998, when the Devil Rays and Diamondbacks came into existence, teams have been hard-pressed to keep two catchers on their rosters who they actually want to play on a semi-regular basis. The Cincinnati Reds had a number of problems in 2005 (among them a negative starting-pitcher VORP), but depth at catcher was not one of them. While not necessarily strict platoons, below we can see the best catcher combinations of each season since 1998:

Most Productive Catcher Platoons, 1998-2005 (min. 200 PA/player)
                                            <-------Year +1------>
Year   Tm    Player      PA   PA%   VORP    Tm     PA   PA%   VORP
2005   CIN   Larue      422   6.7   27.4      ?     ?     ?      ?
       CIN   Valentin   254   4.0   23.7      ?     ?     ?      ?

2004   OAK   Miller     442   6.8   16.8    MIL   431   7.0   21.9
       OAK   Melhuse    231   3.6    9.4    OAK   102   1.6    1.3

2003   ARI   Hammock    216   3.4   11.2    ARI   210   3.4    0.9
       ARI   Moeller    269   4.3   10.1    MIL   349   5.6  -10.7

2002   MON   Barrett    428   6.8   20.7    MON   252   4.1   -0.7
       MON   Schneider  232   3.7   14.9    MON   377   6.2    2.0

2001   LAN   Lo Duca    519   8.4   59.6    LAN   632  10.3   33.6
       LAN   Kreuter    234   3.8   10.8    LAN   108   1.8    4.9

2000   LAN   Hundley    353   5.6   39.4    CHN   276   4.4    0.0
       LAN   Kreuter    271   4.3   19.2    LAN   234   3.8   10.8

1999   SFN   Mayne      374   5.8   26.9    COL   395   6.1   13.6
       SFN   Servais    217   3.4    7.6    SFN    10   0.2    0.2

1998   BAL   Hoiles     318   5.0   22.6    OUT OF BASEBALL
       BAL   Webster    328   5.2   16.3    BAL    45   0.7   -1.9

As the chart above shows, these have not been great tandems overall. 2005’s best, which featured Jason LaRue and Javier Valentin, was the third-most effective tandem behind the 2000 and 2001 L.A. pairs. These tandems have also rarely stayed together. In the two cases that the tandem was back on the same team the following season, they either stunk up the joint (Expos ’03) or effectively ceased to be a tandem (Dodgers ’02).

High-profile examples like Paul Lo Duca and Jason Varitek lend anecdotal evidence to the theory that catchers lose their steam towards the end of each season. Having an effective catcher tandem would seem to thwart such a problem, and as evidenced above, once a team finds an effective one, they should try to hold onto it. Will Cincinnati hold onto theirs in 2006?

Both LaRue and Valentin are eligible for arbitration for the final time this winter; the third time for Valentin and the fourth time for Larue, who achieved Super Two status after the 2002 season. Looking at the nine other catchers who have been eligible for arbitration for the final time since 2000 indicates a mixed bag, with salaries that range from $650,000 to $4,600,000. Only two of the nine–Charles Johnson in 2000 and Gregg Zaun in 2001–actually went through the process, and both earned healthy raises. Two of the seven who did not go through the process–Michael Barrett and Mike Redmond in 2004–earned less money. Overall, LaRue and Valentin’s 2005 seasons compare very favorably to this group, and both figure to do well in arbitration. A conservative estimate for the two combined would be in the neighborhood of $6-$7 million, though the sum could certainly be higher. If the duo approached their ’05 production (7.2 WARP1) then they would be a worthy investment. However, with the dearth of catching on the open market this off-season, the Reds may get an offer they can’t refuse for one of the two.

In Other News: While it has not yet been approved by the other 28 members of MLB’s ownership circle, the Reds have found a taker for the majority stake in the team. The torch will be passed from current owner Carl Lindner to a group headed by produce giant Robert Castellini. Among the important factors in choosing Castellini was the fact that he is a local Cincinnatian and is unlikely to try to move his beloved Reds. In addition, Castellini is not a newcomer to the baseball ownership ranks. He had a minority stake in George Bush’s Texas Rangers, and the Cardinals with Bill DeWitt. Cincinnati Reds fans hope that the philanthropic Castellini–who gives both his time and money as a board member at local Xavier University, among other things–can bring glory back to the recently moribund Reds.

Paul Swydan

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General manager Kevin Towers is returning to guide the NL West champion Padres into the 2006 season following a period of constant talk of his imminent departure. Towers must now address an offense that scored just 684 runs in 2005, 27th-most in the majors, and determine which of San Diego’s free agents the team should keep from a group that includes Brian Giles, Trevor Hoffmanand Ramon Hernandez.

Giles is certainly not the ideal free agent around which to build an offense, in that his days of hitting 30 home runs while slugging north of .500 are in the past. The retention of his superb batting eye, however, has helped Giles maintain his status as an elite offensive player. Because he plays in the cavernous environs of Petco Park (batting park factor of 90 in 2005, lowest in the NL), Giles’s 903 2005 OPS is even healthier than it seems.

Giles was practically the entire Friars’ offense in 2005. No other player on the team compiled even half of his 65.1 hitting VORP, with Dave Roberts second at 25.5. With the punchless Roberts entrenched in center field next year, Xavier Nady and Ryan Klesko in left, and Ben Johnson the in-house alternative in right, the Padres 2006 outfield could look especially ugly if Giles is allowed to bolt. Johnson, who turns 25 next season, had a breakout 2005, hitting .312/.394/.558 with 25 homers in 414 at bats in Triple-A Portland and slugging .467 in 75 at-bats with San Diego. However, Johnson had a .255/.344/.429 line in 2,745 minor-league plate appearances entering 2005, casting doubt on his ability to be the type of middle-of-the-order bat the Padres desperately need. By keeping Giles, Johnson would become a strong fourth outfielder, spelling Roberts in center and supplementing the disappointing Nady and aging Klesko in the left field/first base rotation.

Despite their potential offensive crisis, San Diego is concentrating its efforts on ensuring the face of the franchise retires in Friars flannels. It is doubtful the team can give Hoffman the three years and close to $30 million that he seeks and still have enough to bring back its top offensive free agents. Furthermore, Hoffman can no longer lay claim to being the linchpin of the San Diego bullpen:

Player                  IP    ARP*   WXRL**
Scott Linebrink       73.2   25.6    3.73
Rudy Seanez           60.1   17.5    1.68
Clay Hensley          42.2   16.6    1.97
Trevor Hoffman        57.2    9.9    3.71
Akinori Otsuka        62.2    5.1    1.54

*Adjusted Runs Prevented from scoring
**Expected Wins Added Above Replacement Level

For the fourth straight year, Hoffman threw fewer than 60 innings. His high WXRL total is largely due to an NL-leading 2.11 leverage rating, meaning he heavily influenced the outcome of games by pitching in more critical situations than the rest of the San Diego pen did. Hoffman is still a valuable pitcher, but from a context-independent run-prevention standpoint (ARP) there were three other Padres firemen who fared better this season. Scott Linebrink (29 next year), Clay Hensley (26) and Akinori Otsuka (34) are all under contract and form a bullpen nucleus that should keep leads safe in Hoffman’s absence. Even if Hensley makes a successful transition to the starting rotation, there are other internal options to contribute in relief, such as Brad Baker, Ryan Meaux and Chris Oxspring. The bullpen is where a team like San Diego should creatively fill holes through the farm system and one-year signings (inking Rudy Seanez last off-season was an outstanding scrap-heap pickup). Ideally, the team would be able to keep Hoffman, but paying eight figures for 60 relief innings is a serious misallocation of resources for a team in need of some good old-fashioned power.

Letting Hoffman walk would give San Diego a realistic chance to sign not only Giles, but also their incumbent catcher Hernandez, who is one of the prominent backstops on the market this winter:

Player                2005 Age      2005 VORPr*   Career OPS
Ramon Hernandez          29           .274            743
Bengie Molina            30           .273            706
Mike Piazza              36           .240            937
Brad Ausmus              36           .111            681

*VORP rate. Runs/game contributed above replacement level

The Padres are rightfully hesitant to give Hernandez the four-year deal he is asking for due to the tendency for catchers to have brief peaks and age rapidly, but locking him up–perhaps by paying more per annum for a two or three year deal–would give the team a stability behind the plate alternatives can’t provide. Japanese free agent Kenji Jojima is an enigma, as is Miguel Olivo, whom the team acquired from Seattle at the trade deadline. In deciding what role Olivo will have in 2006, San Diego must determine whether the real Olivo is the one who posted an 841 OPS in a tough run environment at Double-A Birmingham from 2001-02, or the one who has a 664 OPS in nearly 1000 major-league plate appearances. Olivo has only shown flashes of being an asset offensively, but he would become a strong backup should Hernandez return. In any event, the solution at catcher should in no way include Brad Ausmus, whose VORP of 12 in 451 plate appearances this year–his highest in five seasons–was still less than the 12.4 Olivo compiled with San Diego in less than 30% of the plate appearances.

Although letting Padres’ fans know they’ve heard the last tolling of Hell’s Bells certainly wouldn’t be a popular move, if San Diego wants to enter 2006 with something more than a Triple-A offense, the team should start picking out which song to play when Linebrink trots in for the ninth.

Caleb Peiffer

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