Earlier today I reviewed the 2011 catching position for the Pittsburgh Pirates, with a look towards the 2012 season. The Pirates will enter the off-season looking for a starting catcher, as they currently have no one under contract for the job in 2012. Ryan Doumit and Chris Snyder both have options, although each option is far too expensive when you consider the time missed by each player due to injuries over the last few years. Michael McKenry had a strong year in 2011, but has only caught 494 innings in the majors, and probably isn’t more than a strong defensive backup.
The Pirates will probably look externally for a catching option, and we saw the start of that in the second half of the 2011 season. They were rumored to be looking at Chris Iannetta, Geovany Soto, and Francisco Cervelli around the trade deadline, although no deal was struck. They also claimed Matt Pagnozzi in September, although he seems more like a replacement for Jason Jaramillo as the third catcher, working out of AAA.
Since it’s hard to say who could be involved in a trade, and since there are so many factors to consider in trades, even when we know who is on the block, let’s take a look at the free agent options for the 2012 season. I looked at the numbers for everyone on the list, found at MLBTR, specifically looking at the caught stealing rates, the passed ball numbers, and the OPS stats over the last three seasons. Here are the top and bottom five in each category.
The Top Five
1. Henry Blanco (43.96%, 91 attempts)
2. Yadier Molina (39.57%, 187 attempts)
3. Ivan Rodriguez (37.50%, 152 attempts)
4. Gerald Laird (36.36%, 209 attempts)
5. Ramon Hernandez (35.54%, 166 attempts)
The Bottom Five
1. Jason Varitek (14.68%, 252 attempts)
2. Ryan Doumit (21.15%, 208 attempts)
3. Brian Schneider (23.33%, 90 attempts)
4. Chris Snyder (23.74%, 139 attempts)
5. Matt Treanor (25.62%, 121 attempts)
The Top Five
1. Josh Bard (378.56 Inn/PB, 1135.2 Inn)
2. Ramon Hernandez (368.20 Inn/PB, 1841 Inn)
3. Brian Schneider (359.78 Inn/PB, 1079.1 Inn)
4. Matt Treanor (303.08 Inn/PB, 1212.1 Inn)
5. Jason Varitek (221.75 Inn/PB, 1774 Inn)
The Bottom Five
1. Jose Molina (75.02 Inn/PB, 1200.1 Inn)
2. Chris Snyder (110.07 Inn/PB, 1541 Inn)
3. Gerald Laird (116.12 Inn/PB, 1974 Inn)
4. Ryan Doumit (124.47 Inn/PB, 1867 Inn)
5. Ivan Rodriguez (179.22 Inn/PB, 2150.2 Inn)
The Top Five
1. Ramon Hernandez (.761, 1011 PA)
2. Ramon Castro (.757, 374 PA)
3. Ryan Doumit (.753, 996 PA)
4. Yadier Molina (.745, 1583 PA)
5. Jason Varitek (.720, 798 PA)
The Bottom Five
1. Dioner Navarro (.578, 754 PA)
2. Matt Treanor (.596, 528 PA)
3. Gerald Laird (.610, 884 PA)
4. Brian Schneider (.621, 480 PA)
5. Jason Kendall (.626, 1016 PA)
The first thing that stands out is that Doumit and Snyder are at the bottom of the list in each defensive category. I’m not saying that the only defensive factors to consider are passed balls and caught stealing. They’re just the easiest to compare statistically across the board. On the other side of the game, Doumit ranks as one of the top five free agent offensive catchers over the last three years, and Chris Snyder comes in at number six.
The offense from either player is good, but ultimately a catcher’s value comes from his defense. I think that’s easy to see when we consider that the best from this group has averaged a .761 OPS over the last three years, and one of the best all around catchers in the game (Yadier Molina) only came in with a .745 OPS in that time frame.
Theoretically, you want a guy who can do both: offense and defense. The only two options on this list for that are Ramon Hernandez and Yadier Molina. I doubt Molina even sees the open market, as the Cardinals have an option for $7 M, which is reasonable considering how he compares to the alternatives. Hernandez will probably be a free agent, as the Reds have top prospect Devin Mesoraco coming up from AAA next year. The only drawback is that he’s a Type A free agent, and would only be due a raise over his $3 M salary if he accepts arbitration. That combination, plus the fact that he will probably receive more than $3 M in free agency, will probably guarantee that he gets compensation. For the Pirates that would mean giving up their second round pick.
If the Pirates managed to get a compensation pick for Doumit or Snyder, this could off-set. They’d lose their second round pick by signing Hernandez, but they would gain a first round compensation pick for getting rid of Doumit and/or Snyder. To get this pick, Doumit and/or Snyder would have to be offered arbitration, and would have to turn down that offer. That’s unlikely for Snyder, considering his injury, although it could happen with Doumit, as there might be an AL team out there that would consider him as a designated hitter.
One thing to keep in mind about Hernandez is that he’s played the last three years in Great American Ballpark. His road OPS in 2011 was .637, compared to a .916 at home. In 2010 the splits were close together, with an .818 home OPS, and a .763 road OPS. In 2009 he had a .768 OPS at home, and a .641 OPS on the road. Hernandez played for Baltimore in 2007 and 2008, and piy ip a .714 OPS in both years. Expecting a .761 OPS might be unrealistic, and there’s a chance that he could put up an OPS below .700 playing mostly at PNC Park.
One option that could make sense is Rod Barajas. He’s 36 years old next year, putting him in the same company as Ramon Hernandez. Unlike most on the free agent list, he’s received a lot of playing time the last few years, with almost 2500 innings caught (only Yaider Molina has more). He has a .699 OPS over the last three years, which isn’t strong, but is pretty good compared to the rest of the class. Defensively he’s about middle of the pack in each of the above categories. He has a 26.5% caught stealing rate over the last three years, and a passed ball every 206.97 innings. He’s a Type B free agent, so unlike Hernandez, he wouldn’t require a draft pick.
Again, in theory you want a guy who can hit and play strong defense. Those options just don’t exist on the open market (which is why I don’t see Yadier Molina becoming a free agent this year). From there, you either look for a guy that does well in one area, or you look for a guy who is average or better in all areas. Barajas is the latter. It seems like the Pirates have three choices this off-season:
1. Go with an offensively strong catcher like Doumit, and sacrifice defense.
2. Go with a strong defensive combo and sacrifice offense.
3. Go with someone like Barajas, which gives up a bit of defense for a bit more offense, or vice-versa.
The ideal choice from the free agent list would be Ramon Hernandez, and if he somehow shows that his 2009-2011 numbers weren’t a product of Great American, then he could be that rare all-around catcher. It’s more likely that he’s a strong defensive catcher with a sub-.700 OPS at this point. If you don’t mind getting rid of the draft pick, Hernandez is the best bet. If you don’t want to lose a second round pick, then Rod Barajas isn’t a bad option. The difference over about 900 innings is about two passed balls and seven stolen bases, based on recent history. Considering the Pirates have landed top 10-15 talents in the second round in each of the last two years, I’m not sure that the difference in defense between Hernandez and Barajas is worth a second round pick.