Kill-Gore over at Nats Journal is reporting that Riggleman said that Pudge is the starting catcher. This is not a surprise but it doesn't mean it isn't terrible news.
We all should agree that at this point in his career Pudge is a terrible offensive player. There is no arguement to be had. He hasn't cracked a 90 OPS+ since 1996. He doesn't get on base effectively (66 walks in the last 4 years combined - less than Josh Willingham had in 114 games of one injury riddled season). He doesn't hit for power (23 extra base hits last year - less than just the homer totals of 48 players last season). He was 27th out of 29 catchers with 300 or more plate appearances last year in OPS. And that's saying something because catchers aren't usually good hitters. He's a liability at the plate.
The idea that he "just got tired" is also nonsense (sorry Adam). Here's his monthly splits from last year.
That's an awful offensive player who had a lucky month, not an ok one that wore down. Past years also show that he's doesn't start fast and wear down. In 2009 his best month was May and August was second best. In 2008 it was June and July. He may get slightly worse in the 2nd half but it's going from terrible to slightly more so.
But the Nats are not playing Pudge because he's good offensively they're playing him because he's a leader that helps his pitchers and plays great D! Right?
Well you know I think the first two points are nonsense spouted out in order to justify playing terrible offensive players. But if you must I'll remind you that the Nats starting pitching was awful last year and they won only 69 games. Unless you want to give Pudge all the credit for winning 10 more games than in 2009 or say he selectively decided to help Livan and the bullpen but let everyone else fend for themselves, these arguments fail.
The catcher defense argument holds a bit of weight, I'll admit. Catcher defensive metrics are even more difficult to gauge than the ones for other fielders but both The Hardball Times and Beyond the Boxscore have Pudge as the 2nd best defensive catcher in the league. Though to be completely fair a lot of his value comes from passed ball and wild pitch numbers* which haven't been controlled for by staff, and the Nats staff doesn't strike me as agressively hard to handle. I'm a little reticent to believe he's really #2, but I'll buy that he's still a good to very good defensive catcher.
*as opposed to caught stealings. He's still ok at that - 7th out of NL catchers with 600+ innings in caught stealing rate - but it isnt' that better than a typical catcher and nothing like Yadier Molina. I do think his presense does depress attempts though, since he's 3rd in NL catcher in attempts per 9 innings and more significantly different from the average. Again he's no Yadier Molina - who is #1 in both. This means he's only getting the fastest guys in the best opportunities running against him and he's still throwing out almost 50% of them. The guy is a MONSTER behind the plate when it comes to caught stealing.
But is that enough? If we look at the same 29 catchers in WAR, which tries to account for both offense and defense, Pudge does move up from 27th but only to 25th. His defense is barely making an effect in how much the Nats win. A good to very good defensive catcher will help but overall he has to be incredibly good like Yadier Molina to make that big a difference.
Should the Nats get rid of Pudge? I don't necessarily think so at this point. While grossly overpaid it is "only" 3 million, and I do like to think youngsters can learn from veterans. I also don't like putting two young guys competing for the same spot as starter and back-up. I think managers are quicker to pull the trigger on young guys struggling and I think neither would benefit from the few weeks in, few weeks out that may happen because of it. I do think though that Ramos and Flores should be fighting for the starting nod, with Pudge set as back-up ready to play 60-80 games as necessary (preferably closer to 60). The starter should get a good half-season to show his stuff, and if he's struggling come late June and the guy in AAA looks good to go - switch them up and play out the rest of the season with the other guy as the starter. I think moving foward this is the best play for the Nats, not giving Pudge 100+ games while trying to figure out which young catcher is best from the back-up slot.