Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Trade Deadline Targets: Catcher

The title for this post is a little bit of a red herring. You will not see any catching trade targets in this post. Well you will, briefly, but not for the purpose of listing people the Red Sox may acquire. You see, after a horrible start to the season in which no Red Sox catcher homered until May 15th, both Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Jason Varitek are hitting above average for the season.

In case you have forgotten how bad things were with the Red Sox catching position back in May, here is an excerpt from my Week 5 Observations post back on May 10:
Red Sox catchers. If you combine the OPS’s of Jarrod Saltalamacchia(.522) and Jason Varitek (.466), they would still rank just 6th in all of baseball. Salty has allowed the most stolen bases in the AL and Varitek ranks to third last in caught stealing percentage of all AL catchers with at least 15 starts. We are supposed to believe that Varitek has played a large role in Beckett’s and Dice K’s turn around and apparently Salty is getting much better at calling games. But when do we see some tangible production from this crew? Varitek is hanging on because he’s the captain and Salty is holding it down because he still has promise and is the same age as Varitek when it clicked for him. This is all well and good, and I can live with low production from this spot on offense, but it appears neither are doing anything well, which is just depressing.
Mark Twain taught us that tragedy plus time equals comedy so feel free to laugh at that early season depression. As of this writing, Salty’s On Base Plus Slugging (OPS) is .758 and Tek’s is .741. Combined, Red Sox catchers rank 7th in all of baseball in OPS and they are closer to 2nd than they are to 12th. And if you put stock in this sort of thing, the two have helped guide a rag tag bunch of starting pitching replacements to a respectable 15th in runs allowed in baseball. It seems pretty clear to me that catching is no longer a problem for this team this year, and that is a very, very good thing.

The trade market for the catching position is about as thread bare as Oscar Bluth’s remaining pair of pants. Former General Manager Jim Bowden lists as his top available catchers Rod Barajas, Dioner Navarro, Ivan Rodriguez and Jose Molina. Of the first three, Rodriguez has the highest average (.214) and on base percentage (.276) this season and Barajas has the highest slugging percentage (.370). Molina is having a strong season in limited playing time, but at 36 years old he has a career .286 OBP so I would not expect his strong start to continue.

The fact of the matter is there are not a lot of great hitting catchers out there. Besides the insanely underrated Brian McCann (6 All Star games in his 6 full seasons and he gets very little mention as a potential Hall of Famer why?), the rest of the top performing catchers (by OPS+*) are a strange brew. Detroit’s Alex Avila had “nepotism” written all over him last year, but this year is the best hitting catcher in the American League. Ramon Hernandez of Cincinnati is a former All Star, but he is 35 and shares time with Ryan Hannigan. Carlos Santana spends 1/3 of his time wearing a first baseman’s mitt for Cleveland. Miguel Montero, Buster Posey, Wilson Ramos and Matt Wieters (ranked 5th-8th, respectively, in OPS+) represent the next tier of established catchers in or approaching their prime behind McCann. Then sitting 9th is our own Salty (Tek is 13th ) ahead of recent or current All Stars Yadier Molina, Carlos Ruiz, Geovanny Soto and the cold as ice Russell Martin.

*OPS+ is the percent above or below average (average represented by a value of 100) a batter's OPS is compared to his position with adjustments for playing in a hitter's or pitcher's park.

Should either of the current catchers falter or get hurt, the Sox should still be all set. Down in Pawtuckett, 23-year-old Ryan Lavarnway is establishing himself as a legitimate player and pulling away as the Sox top catching prospect. Since his promotion to AAA in June, he has hit .381/.451/.729 in 133 plate appearances. He could definitely use some more time in the minors, but in a pinch he should serve as a more than adequate compliment to the remaining catcher. For more on Lavarnway, here is prospect maven John Sickels
All told, Lavarnway is a career .284/.375/.509 hitter in 320 minor league games, with no deterioration in his performance as he's moved up the ladder. Indeed, if anything he's improved, easing scout concerns about a long swing by showing power to all fields. He has decent plate discipline and his strikeout rate has actually declined as he's moved up. Although he won't win batting titles in the majors, I expect that he'll carry the power forward. The serious question has always been defense, and while Lavarnway has spent much of his career as a DH, his glove has improved...Although Lavarnway will never win gold gloves, if he maintains his current progress he can be at least adequate defensively, while providing considerable power on the offensive side. We should see him in Fenway later this year, and he could take a larger role on the major league roster in 2012.
Sum it all up and there is a great chance that Boston will be all set at catcher for the rest of this season and possibly for years to come. Salty seems to be cashing in on some of his immense promise, Tek is having a bit of a resurgence and Lavarnway appears to be the catcher of the future. Good times behind the dish for the Sox.

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