Please check out the Hippeaux's weekly posts at SNY affiliate, It's About The Money.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Fantastic Thoughts: "Bengie Molina ate one of my keepers." (Catcher Preview)

A couple weeks ago, it looked all but certain that the eldest Molina was headed to New York, but Brian Sabean swooped in at the last minute and saved Omar Minaya from further embarrassment.  Giants fans can look at the move with ambivalence.  Molina, despite his pathetic on-base percentages, is a decent contact hitter with good power (for a catcher), who is a dependable defensive presence and is familiar with the pitching staff.  When your success is deeply tied to the starting rotation, as San Francisco's so clearly is, it's hard to hand the catcher position to a rookie, no matter how promising he is.

From a fantasy perspective, this is bad, bad news.  Molina is a known commodity who doesn't excite anybody, because his decent power totals (20 HR, 80 RBI in '09) are offset by mediocre performances elsewhere (52 R, .265 AVG).  Molina is the kind of catcher you get stuck with late in a draft or auction because you unwisely spent your funds elsewhere.  Buster Posey, on the other hand, when he was slated as the Giants primary backstop, was the kind of high-upside rookie that fantasy owners get all tweeked about, especially in keeper leagues.  Splitting time between two minor-league levels last season, Posey hit .325 with 18 HR, 84 R, 80 RBI, 6 SB, and a 947 OPS in just 115 games.  Obviously, there will be a learning curve for the 23-year-old at the major-league level, but given 450+ at-bats, I'd be willing to bet that Posey could outhit Molina, even as a rookie.  Unfortunately, it looks like we'll never know.

The catcher position is, as usual, painfully thin.  There are two logical approaches, in my opinion, assuming you're in a league that uses only one catcher.  Either you spend one of your first three picks on Joe Mauer, Victor Martinez, or Brian McCann, or you wait until the very end of the draft and hope to strike gold with a flyer and some diligent waiver wire work.  Most everything in between - the Molinas, the A. J. Pierzynski's, etc. - aren't worth the money or draft position you will have to waste on them.  There will be a couple catchers who emerge this season with comparable stats (.275, 70 R, 15 HR, 70 RBI).  The key is identifying the potential candidates so you can jump on them in April or May, because in all likelihood, you won't be the only one combing the waiver wire for a better backstop.

In leagues that require you to carry two active catchers, the strategy is much different.  In such leagues, the Molinas, Pierzynskis, and Ramon Hernandez's of the world are pure gold, merely because they are holding down regular ABs.  Only sixteen catchers got 400 plate appearances in 2009.  Only nine got as many as 500.  In a twelve-team league, that means more that half the owners were starting part-time players, perhaps juggling a couple of them, trying to guess which day Mike Scioscia would go with Jeff Mathis, or which day Jim Tracy would rest Yorvit Torrealba.  Needless to say, this can be a frustrating experience.  When Miguel Olivo goes yard on the Sunday afternoon you chose to start Jason Varitek, who ended up getting the night off, it's like leaving your windows down during a rainstorm the night after you paid full price for a car wash.  You're double fucked.

1. Joe Mauer (Twins)
2. Victor Martinez (Red Sox)
3. Brian McCann (Braves)
4. Russell Martin (Dodgers)

These are, obviously, the cream of the crop, and with the exception of Martin, you'll have to pay through the nose to get them, even though they probably won't register as many ABs as a starting first-baseman or outfielder.  Moreover, each of the big three have had injury issues at some point during the last two seasons, which makes that second or third round pick even more unsettling.

Martin was horrible in 2009 and many will, justifiably, knock him down into the second or third tier, but I'm choosing instead to focus on how consistently good he was in his two previous seasons, during which he averaged 87 R, 16 HR, 78 RBI, and 20 SB, with a .286 AVG.  Those totals, especially the steals, are exceedingly rare out of the catcher position, so I'll happily have another go-round with Trane this spring, rather than settle for somebody who's yet to prove they can get anywhere near such numbers.

5. Miguel Montero (D-Backs)
6. Kurt Suzuki (Athletics)
7. Matt Wieters (Orioles)
8. Geovany Soto (Cubs)
9. Mike Napoli (Angels)
10. Yadier Molina (Cardinals)

All of the catcher listed above are 28-years-old or younger and all are currently slated as first-stringers (though Scioscia always seems to find a reason to limit Napoli's starts more than his owners would like).  Not all of these guys will outperform the guys in the tier below them, but they've got much more "upside," so I think it's worth the moderate risk.  After all, in the case of the geezers in the next tier, you never know when they're finally going to hit the wall (see Varitek, Jason circa 2008).

Montero quietly had a breakout year in 2009, hitting 16 HR in just 425 AB and maintaining a .294 AVG (only Mauer and Martinez exceeded him in both categories).  He'll be the D-Backs primary backstop to begin 2010, so he's got a chance to improve his run and RBI numbers correspondingly.  The only problem is, young catchers are notoriously inconsistent and injury-prone, as they haven't yet proven their ability to handle the grueling physical tole exacted upon them from one year to the next.  In 2009, guys like Geovany Soto and Chris Iannetta took big steps backwards in their seasons as regulars.  So, buyer beware.

I like Molina, the younger, because he hit for a high average for his second straight season in 2009 and, because of his superior defensive skills, you know Tony LaRussa will have him in the lineup close to everyday.  Molina is probably never going to get to double-digit homers (he's hit between six and eight in each of his first five seasons), but last year he stole nine bases (which is a nice bonus), and his OBP has gone up in each of the last three seasons, to a stellar (for a catcher) .366 in '09.  Moreover, Molina is only 27-years-old, so there's a good chance he could improve on already solid numbers, as opposed to guys like his brother and Posada, who are trending in the other direction.

11. Jorge Posada (Yankees)
12. A. J. Pierzynski (White Sox)
13. Ramon Hernandez (Reds)
14. Bengie Molina (Giants)

Ye olde standbys.  See above.

Keep in mind, also, that all three of these guys will be pushed slightly this season because they've got top prospects (Posey, Jesus Montero, and Tyler Flowers) hot on their tails.  Maybe that will urge them to perform, or maybe it will just cut into their at-bats.

15. Chris Iannetta (Rockies)
16. Ryan Doumit (Pirates)
17. Jarrod Saltalamacchia (Rangers)

A year ago I saw Iannetta and Doumit get drafted in front of Mauer and Martinez in many leagues because of concerns about the health of the latter pair, but also because they looked on the verge of breakout campaigns.  It didn't work out so well, as Doumit suffered a serious injury and Iannetta played so badly that he lost his job to Torrealba.  That doesn't mean it won't happen this year.  The talent is still there and so is the youth.  Saltalamacchia, who was once the key component in a trade for Mark Texeira, is only 24.  Iannetta is 26 and Doumit is 28.  They'll get another shot or two from their franchises and are thus worthy of a late-round flyer or a $1-$5 bid, especially in leagues that require multiple catchers.

18. Angel Salome (Brewers)
19. J. P. Arencibia (Toronto)
20. Carlos Santana (Indians)
21. Max Ramirez (Rangers)
22. Buster Posey (Giants)
23. Tyler Flowers (White Sox)
24. Jesus Montero (Yankees)

Unless you are in a very deep keeper league, you probably don't need to worry about these names on draft day.  However, each of these players has a good chance of arriving in the big leagues before the end of the 2010 season.  It might take a major injury to get them regular at-bats, but such things do happen, so they are worth having on your radar, because once give those at-bats they could immediately be among the best dozen players at the position.  I've listed them here not according to talent, but rather according to the likelihood their organization will turn to them sooner rather than later.  The Blue Jays, for instance, will have little reason to hold Arencibia back if they're 20 games out at the All-Star break, whereas I doubt the Yankees would allow Montero to be their primary backstop in the postseason, even if Posada broke a leg.  Girardi would almost certainly insist on promoting or acquiring a more veteran presence.

25. Miguel Olivo (Rockies)
26. John Baker (Marlins)
27. Omir Santos (Mets)
28. Carlos Ruiz (Phillies)
29. J. R. Towles (Astros)
30. Lou Marson (Indians)

At this point you've entered the desperation zone and there's very little which separates one crappy catcher from the next.  Go with somebody who's being handed the gig and has very little competition (because none of these guys can hold off a serious challenge) and you might as well go with a young guy like Towles or Marson, even though they aren't exactly premier prospects, rather than Ivan Rodriguez or Jason Kendall, because those guys have no place to go but down.

The one exception may be Olivo.  Olivo has quietly become a serious power hitter.  He hit 23 HR in only 409 plate appearances in '09, playing for lowly Kansas City.  He's hit at least a dozen homers in each of the last four seasons and, at 31, there's no reason to think he set to decline. This year he will start off as the backup in Colorado, but if Iannetta falters again, he could become a regular in very friendly confines.

No comments: