Nationals Baseball: Offseason Position Discussion : Catcher

Monday, October 12, 2015

Offseason Position Discussion : Catcher

And so it begins. We go position by position, just like last year and the year before. What we assume the plan is and why, potential issues, my opinion, and finally an outside the box suggestion (if I can come up with one)

Presumed Plan :  Ramos and Lobaton, right? I don't see anything else happening right now.

Reasoning on Presumed Plan :  Catcher is primarily seen as a defensive position and despite being pretty bad at the plate, both Lobaton and Ramos were good defenders behind it last year. They lie somewhere between solid and very good defenders depending on what flawed catcher defense statistic you choose to use. Ramos is better in the typical way; blocking balls, throwing out runners. Lobaton is the better pitch framer.

Along with the defense, all the other incidentals are favorable. The two are still under arbitration and relatively cheap. Ramos should make about 5 million next year, Lobaton under 2.  Both made it through 2015 unscathed.  Both are on the younger side for catchers with Lobaton turning 31 in a week and Ramos a couple months into being 28.

You still might want to consider a replacement, but the Nats don't have an internal option. They like Pedro Severino's defense but the kid (turned 22 in July) has yet to put up a good offensive season in the minors. That's not a mark against him. Like I said, he's young. But it does mean he's doubtful to contribute in 2016. The Nats preseason favorite, Spencer Kieboom, went Kiebust in High-A hitting .248 / . 344 / .346 after impressive showing in rookie and A-ball last year. Don't like Kieboom's year? It was the 5th best offensive season by a catcher in the Nats organizaion in 2015 (20 catchers). Remove a couple of under 40 PA guys and it's 3rd best. If Severino doesn't start hitting it's a wasteland.

Free agency is a little better but not much. Matt Wieters is considered the prize but he can't stay on the field (100 games played since 2013) and has only flashed offensive skill. Arguably the best reliable offensive catcher available is AJ Pierzynski who will be 39 next year. Geovany Soto is ok in a pinch but at so-so defensively is he worth replacing Ramos for?

Problems with Presumed Plan :  Man, they were terrible offensively last year. Ramos wasn't the worst regular catcher in the league but he was down there. His fair power was completely undermined by his inability to take a walk (21 in 504 PA this year), his issues hitting for average (.229), and his terrible slowness (another 16 GIDP this year). As bad as Wilson was Jose was worse, hitting .199 / .279 / .294 last year. These aren't isolated odd years but trends as both guys have been going in the wrong direction now for 2 seasons.

What do the fancy stats say? They say it's mostly deserved. Lobaton might get a few more singles but that's about it. Ramos is swinging and missing more and getting slower. Lobaton has likely aged to the point where he is not finding that modest pop that gave him an average offensive year back in 2013.

So if you stick with these guys you'll have one guy who might hit a homer, and a back-up who might take a walk. In other words you have a hole in your line-up. The only consolation being that about a third of the league has the same sort of hole.

My take : What are you going to do? As noted above the Nats minor leagues is barren when it comes to catcher. A normal team doesn't bring up a Pedro Severino but he was literally the best the Nats had at the time. Free agency is only slightly better. Signing Weiters is a fool's move. He can't stay healthy and he's only really had one impressive offensive season. 80-90 games of average offense is far more likely with him, yet he'll get paid on promise. No one else makes much sense to replace Ramos, either as a one-year signing or a long-term deal. AJ, who was good last year at the plate but bad the year before that and will turn 39 in December? No thank you. Dioner Navarro, with defense so mediocre the Blue Jays spent a fortune on Russell Martin? No thank you again. Geovany Soto, the 9 of clubs of all trades? I suppose, if you deal Ramos for something and need a couple year stop gap.

But really with Ramos developing into an actually good defender behind the plate I don't see how any of that is a better bet than giving Wilson one more go at it. He doesn't have to be good, merely average and he was average just a year ago. Maybe you give him more rest? He was pretty wretched in July and September. If that's your goal then you might look to replace Lobaton. AJ or a Brayan Pena as a solely lefty hitter would be interesting. But AJ will probably get a 1yr starting job somewhere and signing Pena is a tradeoff with terrible defense for a guy that's never actually been a good hitter, just recently better than terrible.

No by default Ramos and Lobaton wins out. Cross your fingers everybody.

Outside the Box Suggestion : This isn't really outside of the box, but let's explore trades. There are probably two good targets. One is John Lucroy, a fine catcher offensively and defensively making peanuts, who might be available because the Brewers should be rebuilding, because a slow start and an injury caused a dip in production this year, and because he's had concussion issues.  However, it's still very likely it'll take an arm and a leg to pry Lucroy from the Brewers and the Nats aren't inclined to do that. So that leaves Derek Norris. He's not a particularly adept defensive catcher but has improved over time and despite an off-year last year, he's a much better bet to perform offensively than Ramos at this point. The Padres have a young catcher, in Austin Hedges, who is a fantastic defender and should hit so Norris will likely be available, if not this offseason then soon. So why not force the issue?

Ship the Padres Yunel Escobar (they were terrible at 3B), Wilson Ramos (they'll need a back-up C) and Storen (they were terrible in relief) for Norris and Melvin Upton. Why Melvin Upton? Well, you can't expect the Padres to eat all that salary (like 20 million or so) for nothing? Melvin brings back a hefty 15 mill for this year (and 16 mill for next) but he fills that need for an real live 4th OF that could play everyday if needed. If you can just assume the Braves time was some sort of self-induced fluke he'd be a perfect, albeit expensive, fit. The only other big salary guys are Kimbrel, who makes no sense for the Pads to trade if they are going to try to compete; Kemp, who should be a DH and is owed a ton; and Sheilds, who is older and has a ton of innings on that arm. So you suck it up, take on Melvin for more than he's wroth and take away the ultra cheap Norris (paid ~500K last year going into his first arb year) for the next 3 seasons.

You can actually see the Padres doing a deal like this if they want to sell on Melvin when they have the chance rather than risk a bad year next year and be stuck with 3 albatross contracts for 2017. This arguably would make them better, and if it doesn't this gives them 3 guys who will be FA after next year. The question would be - could they get something young and good for Norris by himself?


SM said...

Catching prospects are so dismal no one wants to talk to you today, Harper.

Is this a trend affecting the Major Leagues in general?

SM said...

. . . the "catching prospects" part, not the "no one wants to talk to you today" part.

Anonymous said...

My old man used to tell me the fastest way to the bigs is to be a left-handed pitcher or a left-handed hitting catcher. Too bad I wasn't either :-)

Donald said...

Interesting out-of-box idea but my guess is that the Nats stay put with Ramos and Lobaton. Now if Norris batted lefty, maybe they'd think about it. But they have enough higher-priority issues that I don't see them giving up Escobar and adding significant payroll to solve this one. Plus, does Norris really provide that much of an upgrade that you give up 3 players and take on that much salary?

Anonymous said...

If a catcher can hit, he either splits his time between first base and catcher i.e. Mauer, Posey or is converted to an outfielder outright if he is truly extraordinary-Bryce Harper. So in the majors, it would appear that teams are looking for someone who can manage the pitchers, can throw out runners somewhat predictably and block balls in the dirt. If he can hit a bit, it's a plus but not a necessity it seems. Looking at the beating they take throughout the year, it's a wonder they are functional at the end of the year.

Harper said...

SM - don't think so. but not unusual that some teams have holes at certain positions.

Anon - go with LHP for your children. can move from starter to reliever if fail in former role. also saves the knees

donald - Yes it's an upgrade - plus you make it sound one sided beyond that. Ramos has not place and is trending wrong way, Storen is a head case, Yuney, like Melvin, is being dealt high. And you save 5 mill this year in pure dollars, and don't lose too much in 2017 assuming you'd have to bring in a C.

Anon - Eh - only special hitting catchers really split time. The average guys stick behind the plate. That's all I'm asking for - average. Yeah you go for D first, but good D and average hitting shouldn't be out of reach. And for a team with few places to easily get better it's something to think about.

JBillones said...

Pierzynski? Only if he's rooming with Papelbon.

Jay said...

That's why I was hoping the Nats would get Russel Martin last year. Lucroy would be fun. No way I take Upton unless I'm getting Kimbrel too. They should have snagged Upton, Kimbrel, and Norris at the deadline. Oh yeah. I forgot the Lerners run the team on a strict budget and won't add payroll at the deadline. How did that work out again???

Kenny B. said...

Even more out of the box: Play Bryce Harper at catcher.

Yeah, I know, it will never happen because it's a terrible idea, but as long as we're throwing things out there...

Gr8day4Bsbll said...

Matt Wieters. Any questions? Yes, I know, another potentially high-priced FA signing, but so much better than either Wilson or Loby both offensively AND defensively (I bet he catches at least 95 out of 100 balls thrown from the outfield...), that the high price may be worth it. Plus, we might be doing Boras a favor then, and considering that we'll need Boras on our side in a couple of years when Stras and then Harper enter their walk years, that might be another plus of signing Wieters...

mike k said...

Jay - I don't think the Padres are trading Kimbrel for anything less than an arm + leg. Doesn't matter if he's a reliever, he's elite.

Gr8 - I don't think Boras will give the Nats a break on two of his biggest clients because we threw some extra money at Matt Weiters.

Harper I like your trade idea, and I think it might be worth it for both sides. The only thing that worries me is the added salary for 2017...that's a time the Nats will need $$ if they want to expand their window (for re-signings and new signings)...if they rebuild then it doesn't matter. If Norris is the answer long-term you do it anyway. Is he?

Never would have thought we'd be having this discussion three years ago...

Froggy said...

Why not just put Ramos on an off-season crossfit firness program so he can drop 10-20 lbs and gain a half step?

Probably be cheaper.

John C. said...

Ramos/Lobaton is likely the tandem for next year. It's not a completely terrible idea - the replacements are either very expensive (Lucroy) or not likely to be better overall (Wieters). Yeah, Wieters. He isn't better than Ramos defensively and can't stay on the field. Add in that he's going to cost a lot more, and no thank you.

Lucroy is under team control for only two seasons, and would cost the Nationals Giolito + a couple of mid range prospects. The Brewers are going to be bad for a while at least, so they won't be taking any current players/contracts off of the Nationals' hands.

Norris is a possibility; he's improved some defensively. But as Donald indirectly noted, Norris bats RH so he doesn't help the lineup balance. Even more so, Norris just kills LHP (just ask Gio) but is pretty terrible (career .646 OPS, .678 OPS last season) against RHP.

Anonymous said...

"Why not just put Ramos on an off-season crossfit firness program so he can drop 10-20 lbs and gain a half step?"

Excellent question. When Harper got attacked by Papelbon for allegedly not hustling enough, I wondered to myself how it's possible that Ramos doesn't get physically attacked by his teammates about every other game.

And I don't to hear the fact that he's a catcher used as an excuse either. He's not even that old (he just turned 28), and I routinely see starting catchers around the league give double the effort that he does on a daily basis.

JE34 said...

@Froggy - great question about Ramos - that crossed my mind too, while reading Harper's post. Watching Severino field the position (albeit briefly) provided a rather stark comparison, didn't it? I don't expect the GM's office to get on him... hopefully the new manager is named quickly and has the intestinal fortitude to challenge Wilson in this way.

Cal's first stop should be the Ramos home in Venezuela.

Zimmerman11 said...

Have to stop calling Rizzo a savvy personnel guy if we have to keep trading to get back the guys we traded away, lol.

Sammy Kent said...

I can just paste what I posted earlier in another discussion.

"...find a place in some other city for Wilson Ramos. The everlasting image of Nationals catching prowess in 2015 is Ramos dropping ball after ball after ball on plays at the plate, grounding into double play after double play after double play, and admiring his home runs that wind up being long singles because he likes to watch."

With all due respect, Harper, I honestly don't know how you can grade Ramos higher than a D-minus defensively. The only thing he does well is throw runners out attempting to steal. I don't marginalize that attribute at all. But that's not enough on its own to cover the gross inefficiencies other posters as well as I have pointed out.

John C. said...

Sammy Kent, et al:

By pretty much every catcher defensive metric there is, Ramos ranges from above average to excellent. Even at pitch framing he is average or slightly above average. Baseball Information Solutions even rates him as above average at calling a game (how they figure that, I haven't the foggiest idea). You can quibble with the metrics and counter with your Mark I eyeball results, and that's fine - it's hard to quantify defense at any time, and catcher defense is especially tough to evaluate. But by range factor, blocking balls, keeping balls from getting to the backstop, and throwing out baserunners, Ramos is a good defensive catcher. So to say that you "honestly don't know how [one] can grade Ramos higher than a D-minus defensively" only means that you aren't looking at other possible ways of evaluating his defense. Because one doesn't have to look very hard at all to make the argument that Ramos IS not just higher than D-minus, but is in fact an above average defensive catcher.

As for his [sloooooow] baserunning, I don't think that his teammates are going to get on Ramos for a "lack of hustle." After multiple hamstring pulls, the team more or less said that they have told Ramos to take it easy on his hamstrings. One can quibble with that decision one way or the other, but it's silly to criticize the player for doing what the team/coaches tell him to do.

Sammy Kent said...

Is catching the ball part of the defensive metric? I mean, you'd think it would be, considering the name of the position is "catcher." If Ramos is an above average defensive catcher it speaks volumes about the sorry state of catching in MLB...or the shortcomings of sabermetric analysis. I readily admit that he is well above average in the "caught stealing" category. It's an especially good thing he throws guys out at second because if they make it all the way around the diamond he darn sure can't tag them out at the plate--that little detail about having the ball in the mitt.

If Rizzo is determined to keep him I sure hope to heck someone in the new regime will work with him til he vomits if necessary on making plays at home. If he doesn't improve considerably guys will run on him even if Bryce and company are sending frozen ropes to the plate and it will cost even more runs than it did in 2015.

John C. said...

Catching the ball is a major part of the metrics, whether pitch framing or simply keeping the baseball from going to the backstop. But what drives us wiggy as fans - catching a relay throw from the outfield - is probably not a big factor in those metrics. To be fair, Ramos is probably worse than average at that, but I've seen Lobaton (and plenty of other catchers like Posey or Lucroy) whiff throws from the outfield. We just notice when Ramos whiffs because it's now such a "thing" that every miss reinforces the narrative and, beyond momentary surprise, we don't even remember when he DOES successfully receive the relay throw.

The key problem is that the catcher's mitt is not well designed for those plays. But it's much better suited for receiving throws from the pitcher, and throws for plays at the plate only a very small part of what a catcher does. On throws from the pitcher, Ramos's WP/PB numbers are better than most, and much better than Lobaton's. And no, it's not because Lobaton caught most of Gio's innings and Gio is all over the place (I checked the numbers). Ramos is actually better at catching Gio (as measured by balls to the backstop/inning) than Lobaton is - but Ramos is a whole helluva lot better catching everyone else. To the point where I wonder whether one of the reasons that Lobaton catches Gio is that he is less of a comparative liability catching Gio than he is catching everyone else.

notBobby said...

@ Froggy -

I have been wondering this for the past two years. He doesn't hustle down the line bc he is worried about pulling a hammy everytime he puts in second gear... I remember hearing an interview of Molina and he stated that before every game he makes a hot bath and stretchs in the bath tub for hours to make sure his muscles are fully stretched and he doesn't pull anything. Buffalo could use that kind of thing.