October 27, 2009

Joe Needs a Caddy: Redmond or Morales?

After spending the past five seasons as the Twins' backup catcher Mike Redmond is now a free agent and the 38-year-old made it clear last week that he has no plans for retirement. "I'm definitely planning on playing next year," Redmond said. "For some reason, I think people think I'm going to retire. I still feel like I've got a lot of fight left in me, a lot of energy left to play. I don't know if it will be here. But if not, I plan on being somewhere."

Redmond signed a two-year, $1.8 million contract with the Twins as a free agent in November of 2005 after spending the first seven seasons of his career with the Marlins and then agreed to a three-year, $2.85 million extension in mid-2006. He's been a near-perfect fit in Minnesota, serving as the veteran, right-handed-hitting backup for the young, left-handed-hitting Joe Mauer while batting .297/.339/.359, throwing out 30 percent of steal attempts, and emerging as a team leader (and source of nude hijinks).

He's remained a productive player far longer than most catchers, but Redmond has shown significant signs of decline both offensively and defensively over the past two seasons, batting .261/.310/.311 and throwing out 10-of-63 steal attempts. Even that kind of minimal hitting and weak-armed defense would leave Redmond as a reasonable backup catcher because the standard for that job is so low, but he can't be counted on to avoid further decline at age 39 and the Twins have another in-house option.

Jose Morales shared catching duties with Redmond while Mauer spent all of April on the disabled list and hit .340/.380/.404 in 50 plate appearances, but was sent back to Triple-A once Mauer returned. He was called up again a couple weeks later and went 7-for-20 (.350) in a bench role before heading back to Rochester, where he hit .336/.413/.436 in 58 games. Morales rejoined the Twins for a third and final time when rosters expanded in September, hitting .269/.361/.308 in frequent starts at designated hitter.

Morales has batted .328 through his first 55 games in the majors, which along with Ron Gardenhire turning to him as the DH down the stretch has the fans who don't know any better assuming that he's destined to be an impact hitter. In reality Morales will be 27 years old next season and failed to homer in 134 plate appearances with the Twins after going deep a grand total of eight times in 868 trips to the plate at Triple-A, so he's not exactly destined for stardom.

However, he's a switch-hitter with a line-drive swing who rarely strikes out and draws plenty of walks, which combined with being somewhere between atrocious and passable defensively behind the plate makes him a very solid backup catcher. Morales has hit .317/.373/.413 in 222 games at Triple-A and .328/.394/.385 in 55 games with the Twins, so a reasonable projection for him going forward is likely pretty similar to the .297/.339/.359 line that Redmond produced over the past five seasons.

The downside to Morales is that his defensive reputation pales in comparison to Redmond and his bat was more potent versus right-handed pitching in the minors, which makes him a less ideal fit to back up a catcher who should take most of his days off versus left-handed pitching. The upside to Morales is that he's a dozen years younger than Redmond and would probably be significantly more productive offensively if pressed into a full-time role because of a Mauer injury.

My guess is that the decision to let Redmond depart as a free agent while turning backup duties over to Morales won't be an easy one for a team that no doubt places a huge amount of value on the veteran's leadership and experience, but realistically going younger and cheaper in the role makes sense given Morales' track record over the past three years. Don't let his batting average fool you into thinking that Morales has star upside, but he's earned a chance and is a better bet than a 39-year-old Redmond.

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