November 10, 2011

Offseason shopping on a budget: Catchers

Joe Mauer's days as a full-time catcher may be over and current backup Drew Butera is one of the worst hitters in the history of baseball, which means the Twins should be in the market for help behind the plate this winter. Below are 15 free agents and possible trade targets who realistically figure to be on their catching radar along with my thoughts about how much sense it would make for the Twins to pursue each of them.

Ryan Doumit: His defense grades out horribly in every category behind the plate, but Doumit has plenty of catching experience in addition to playing right field and first base. His bat is the real asset, with a .271/.334/.442 career line and .303/.353/.477 mark this year. By comparison Michael Cuddyer has a .272/.343/.451 career line and .284/.346/.469 mark this year. Doumit has flaws, but a younger, switch-hitting poor man's Cuddyer who can catch is plenty useful.

Ryan Hanigan: With top prospect Devin Mesoraco looking MLB-ready the Reds may be willing to deal Hanigan, who's been stuck in a backup role. Hanigan is 31 years old with minimal pop, but among all catchers over the past five years his .371 on-base percentage trails only Mauer at .405. He's also hit .275 with more walks (116) than strikeouts (95) while throwing out 36 percent of steal attempts and is signed for just $1.2 million in 2012 and $2.1 million in 2013.

Ramon Hernandez: Hernandez is a free agent and coming off one of his best years at age 35, hitting .282/.341/.446 in 91 games for the Reds. He's a career .266/.330/.419 hitter, topping a .700 OPS in eight of the past nine years, and gunned down 36 percent of steal attempts since 2009. He hasn't played 100 games since 2008, but as a right-handed hitter presumably open to a one-year deal and a part-time role Hernandez would be a good fit for the Twins.

Chris Iannetta: Iannetta hasn't lived up to the promise he showed in 2008, falling out of favor in Colorado at age 28, yet despite a .235 career batting average his .788 OPS is ninth among active catchers. Coors Field inflates offense and away from home he's hit just .208/.338/.369, but that's still above average for catchers and the Coors effect tends to hurt Rockies hitters on the road. Signed for two more seasons and a total of $8.5 million, he'd be an affordable risk.

Chris Snyder: Snyder has long been a starting-caliber catcher, but missed most of this season following back surgery before the Pirates declined his $6.75 million option for 2012. Obviously back problems are bad news for catchers, but Snyder is still reasonably young at 31 and offers 15-homer power along with good plate discipline and a solid arm. His batting average won't be pretty, but if healthy Snyder can be an above-average hitter for the position.

Jesus Flores: Thanks to the Twins trading them Wilson Ramos the Nationals are set behind the plate, so they'll shop Flores now that he's healthy after missing two years with shoulder problems. He's a big question mark, but Flores is still just 27 years old, showed promise before the injury, and has played well in winter ball. If the Twins want a reliable veteran backup he's not the answer, but if they're looking for a younger catcher with some upside he's flier worthy.

Yorvit Torrealba: Texas gave Torrealba a two-year deal to be a starter and he filled that role for much of this season, but Mike Napoli's emergence benched him for the playoffs and could make him available via trade. Torrealba has never had a huge season, but he's topped a .700 OPS in three straight years with a .260/.318/.390 career line that's average for catchers. As a right-handed hitter and solid defender he'd be worth the one-year, $3.25 million commitment.

Kelly Shoppach: When pressed into extended duty Shoppach has struggled to hit above .200, but if limited to a platoon role versus left-handed pitching he's capable of being very effective. Shoppach has been useless against righties during the past three seasons, hitting just .156, but he's hit .262/.372/.488 off lefties. With the Rays declining his $3.2 million option the Twins would do well to pair Shoppach with Mauer.

Ramon Castro: An ideal backup/platoon partner for Mauer if not for the fact that he's 35 years old and missed the second half with a fractured right hand. Castro has never had a chance to start regularly, but he's been a top backup for a decade and hit .261/.336/.552 versus lefties over the past three seasons. If healthy he'd be a fine one-year, $1 million investment, but the age/injury combination is scary and Castro would be overmatched if pushed into a bigger role.

Miguel Olivo: Joe Christensen of the Minneapolis Star Tribune has mentioned Olivo a few times to make me think the 33-year-old free agent is on the Twins' radar. Olivo has 20-homer power, but he's also MLB's most undisciplined hitter, posting a putrid .279 career on-base percentage. That includes this year's 140/20 K/BB ratio and .254 OBP, which prior to 2011 was the lowest by a qualified hitter since 1989. And he's led the league in passed balls four times in six years.

Rod Barajas: Barajas is similar to Olivo in that he's a veteran with 20-homer pop whose awful on-base skills drag his value down. He had 16 homers in 98 games for the Dodgers, but also hit just .230 with a .287 on-base percentage. Barajas played this season on a one-year, $3.25 million contract and a similar deal wouldn't be the worst investment for the Twins, but at age 36 and with a .231/.275/.424 line over the past three seasons they can do better.

Ivan Rodriguez: He's one of the greatest catchers of all time and can still shut down a running game, but Rodriguez hasn't cracked a .300 on-base percentage or .700 OPS since 2008 and is so old that the Twins drafted his son, high school outfielder Dereck Rodriguez, with this year's sixth-round pick. Combined over the past three seasons Rodriguez has hit .252/.286/.360 for a .646 OPS that ranks sixth-worst among all players with at least 1,000 plate appearances.

Jason Varitek: He has more pop left in his bat than Rodriguez, but that isn't saying much and Varitek has become a major defensive liability at age 39. He's hit .216/.306/.414 over the past three seasons, which is around average for a catcher if it didn't come with a throw-out rate of 15 percent and age-related durability issues. For some teams Varitek, like Rodriguez, wouldn't be the worst choice as a cheap one-year backup, but he's not what the Twins should look for.

Jorge Posada: One of the most underrated players of his generation, but unfortunately at this stage of his career Posada is more designated hitter than catcher/designated hitter. He made zero starts behind the plate in 2011, which along with a late-career inability to hit left-handed pitching makes Posada a poor fit for the Twins, but it's worth noting that he hit .269/.348/.466 versus right-handers this season.

A.J. Pierzynski: It's tough to imagine the Twins being interested in a reunion with Pierzynski, but he's under contract for $6 million in 2012 and figures to be available as the White Sox turn to Tyler Flowers behind the plate. At age 34 he struggles to throw out runners and has never hit left-handed pitching particularly well, but Pierzynski remains durable and productive versus right-handers. Under different circumstances he might be a fit, but in reality don't count on it.

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