Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
November 14, 2005
BASEBALL: Now Catching, For The Mets . . .
One of the big question marks for the Mets this offseason is the catching job. Mike Piazza's 7-year contract is up, and all signs point to the Mets looking to go in a new direction.
Now, as long as you don't compare them to the Piazza of old, Mets catchers did OK with the bat: .245/.436/.322 with 36 doubles, 26 HR and 99 RBI. That's about even with the 2005 production of Ben Molina, apparently one of the leading candidates for the job, who batted .295/.446/.336 in a career year with the bat in his walk year at age 30. Molina is a career .273/.397/.309 hitter who hasn't had 450 at bats since he was 25 and would get lapped in a footrace with Piazza. Let's turn to Matt Welch, who's watched Molina on a daily basis:
I'm not sure Bengie's even a good defensive catcher at this point. His throwing has deteriorated -- from 36 of 81 base-stealers (44%) in 2003, to 18/69 (26%) in 2004, to 20/64 (31%) this year; even while his barely younger brother has been improving from 28% to 49% to 53%. And more noticeable on a day-to-day basis is Bengie's increasingly desperate habit of jabbing with his glove at pitches in the dirt, instead of trying to move his fat body in the way.
Other than the batting average, Molina's career numbers are a pretty good match for Ramon Castro, the for-the-moment incumbent (.222/.387/.304). Not that I think Castro is up to the job of catching every day, but unlike Molina he's not just a singles hitter with a sketchy history as far as hitting those singles. (I'm assuming for now that Mike Jacobs can't handle the glovework and/or would blow his arm out if he caught everyday; obviously, if he's up to the job, he'd be ideal).
Then there's Ramon Hernandez, who reportedly is interested in the Mets. Hernandez, unlike Molina, can actually hit a little: .283/.463/.330 the past two seasons in the best pitcher's park in baseball. On the other hand, Hernandez is turning 30 and has missed 114 games over those two seasons.
Honestly, I don't think Hernandez gives me a lot of comfort with the bat. He'd never hit nearly that well until he turned 27. More to the point, I took a look at baseball-reference.com's list of comparable players through age 29, and it was a gruesome list of guys who aged badly, including Jody Davis, Rich Gedman, Terry Kennedy, and Tony Pena.
In fact, that got me wondering: who's a better bet over the next two years, a decent hitter just off his prime like Hernandez, or an old superstar like Piazza? I looked at what those 10 catchers did at age 29, 30 and 31. To do the same for Piazza, I only had 5 catchers to work with, since four of his most-comparables are non-catchers and one (Bill Dickey) either retired or went in the military after batting .351 in 1943. Those five were Yogi Berra, Gary Carter, Lance Parrish, Gabby Hartnett, and Carlton Fisk, and I looked at their numbers at 36 (Piazza's age in 2005), 37 and 38.
Let's look at the results. First, Hernandez at 29, followed by his comps at 29, 30 and 31:
Now, Piazza at 36, followed by his comps at 36, 37 and 38:
As you can see, while the Piazza-style old guys are still a better bet with the bat, neither player's comps give much in terms of reason to hope (although Hernandez was ahead of his comps the last two years; several of them had hit the wall by 28). If Piazza at one year is a realistic option, the Mets could do far worse than to re-up him and spot Castro in there.
I guess my real bottom line here is this: Hernandez and Molina have value because catchers are scarce . . . but they're just not that good, and they're at least as likely to depreciate rapidly in value as Piazza is. Scarcity or no, you don't win pennants by throwing tens of millions of dollars at players who just aren't that good. Better to save the money, maybe get Castro a cheap platoon partner or something, and spend elsewhere to upgrade with genuine quality.
Oh, and one more thing I saved for last because it seems so implausible: Tom Verducci claims that the Hated Yankees are looking to move Jorge Posada, or - even more bizarrely - shift him to first base. I understand why the Yanks would be unhappy with Posada's $12 million price tag, but look at alternatives like Hernandez and Molina, far inferior players asking $8-10 million per, and Posada doesn't look so bad. (As far as I know, the Yanks' only other internal option is John Flaherty, who barely his enough to survive as Randy Johnson's personal catcher at this point). Of course, the Mets are the one team that would regard Posada as a younger, cheaper replacement for the outgoing incumbent, and they do have one thing the Yankees could use: a Gold Glove-caliber center fielder to spare. If it weren't the Mets and the Yankees, that deal might make some sense.