Ben Nicholson-Smith had a post yesterday morning at Sportsnet about Cuban backstop Yenier Bello, who is a step closer to being made available to MLB teams, and is sure to get a certain subset of fans salivating (or, actually, maybe all of them). We’re told that he’s a power hitting 28-year-old backstop with significant experience who– most important of all– is not J.P. Arencibia. Sounds refreshing, right?
Well, the free catching market isn’t exactly bountiful, so yes. Yes he does. Even knowing next to absolutely nothing about the guy. That’s just how great it’s been this year!
But the thing is, that means if Bello is a player teams looking for catching help are truly eyeing, it’s very possibly going to be a long, uncomfortable winter, because holding such a narrow focus may mean sitting out the catching market altogether, waiting for the Cuban to be cleared by the United States’ Office of Foreign Assets Control. Nicholson-Smith explains that “it could take many months for OFAC to grant Bello the permission he needs to finalize a deal.”
He also notes that “multiple teams have already expressed interest” in him, and that the Jays– while not necessarily one of those teams– are one of a few big league clubs who’ll be looking for catching upgrades this winter. Could we be breathlessly awaiting news on him all winter? I’m not sure putting so many eggs in one basket is a realistic possibility– not for the Jays, and not for the other teams we’re told will be looking for help behind the plate, the Mariners and the Phillies.
The reason the Phillies could be in the market for a catcher, you may be aware, is that their incumbent starter, Carlos Ruiz, will be a free agent. Over at Benny Fresh’s old stomping ground, MLB Trade Rumors, they profiled Ruiz yesterday, noting that the Jays may be one of the teams who’d be a fit, should he choose to leave Philadelphia– and, perhaps intriguingly, that he’s not likely going to be made a qualifying offer by the club. His departure from Philadelphia is not necessarily a foregone conclusion though, as both he and the Phillies have expressed interest in his return. Doing so would give the late-blooming 35-year-old-to-be a good chance to spend his entire career in the organization, and is made all the more plausible by the fact that the Phillies don’t have much in terms of an in-house replacement.
But that may not all work out, and MLBTR also tells us that, despite his having a down year– which included a 25-game suspension for not getting a proper fake script for Adderall like the rest of the damn league– Ruiz looked a little more like himself in the season’s final two months, posting “a more Chooch-like .288/.343/.444 line.” He could be an intriguing guy to look at for the Jays. Then again, he’s getting old, and including the minors was behind the plate for 100+ games for nine straight years before only getting into 92 this season. You worry that a down year, at that age and at a physically demanding position like that, just maybe isn’t so easy to bounce back from. Plus, based just on reputation he’ll likely be somewhat expensive– sort of like the other guy we’ve heard the most about, as far as the catching market goes: Brian McCann.
Now, if the Jays can convince McCann to take their money and still have the resources to do whatever else they need, sure. Do it. McCann is going to be 30 next season, so a deal in the five year range is at least palatable, theoretically, and he hits well enough that you can use him at DH– plus, he’s a left-handed power bat this team should could certainly not turn their noses up at.
But it ain’t happening. (I’m pretty sure, at least.)
That, however, doesn’t mean there aren’t some interesting options on the market. Especially if– wait for it…– the Jays are maybe willing to work a little bit with what they’ve already got.
The MLBTR piece on Ruiz suggests he is one of just five realistic starting catching options possible to hit the market, along with McCann, A.J. Pierzynski, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, and “perhaps” Dionner Navarro.
The latter three options– the more realistic ones– don’t come without warts.
Pierzynski, for example, has by far the most even platoon splits over the last three seasons; solely hitting left handed, he posted a .330 wOBA against right-handed pitching over that span, and a .317 wOBA against lefties. However, he got there somewhat unevenly, being better against left than right in 2013, but putting up a woeful .293 wOBA against lefties the year before.
Of course, woeful is a relative term, and Pierzynski still would make for a marked improvement over J.P. Arencibia, who had some pretty even platoon splits of his own this year, posting a fugly .260 wOBA against right-handers, and a fuglier .256 against lefties.
Over three years, however, Arencibia has been quite a bit better than that against left handed pitching, posting a .308 wOBA– and combined over 2011 and 2012, his wOBA against left-handers was a damn near respectable .343 (albeit in just 211 plate appearances). That, sad as it will be for many to contemplate, might make Pierzynski a reasonable option, should he choose to come here.
This is a guy who got on base less than 30% of the time in 2013, but that number looks positively Ruthian next to Arencibia’s .227 OBP. And by bringing in a left-handed hitter who, if not for the last three years, over the course of his career has generally been weaker against same side pitchers, you could do a whole lot worse than making his backup a guy who has generally hit lefties pretty well. That’s right: ol’ J.P.A.
Of course, that assumes two things: one, that Arencibia’s ego would be able to handle the demotion– and given the kid gloves used by Alex Anthopoulos and John Gibbons all season when asked to address their club’s gaping hole behind the plate, I’m not sure we ought to think it will. And two, that Arencibia’s absolute falling off a fucking cliff this year was just a little bump in the road, and he can get his production up to a level where even just as a backup or, at most, a platoon guy, he’d actually be competent. I know what a tonne of Jays fans are going to say to that, but if the playing time is strictly limited, maybe we shouldn’t be too quick to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Oh, and I suppose it assumes a third thing as well: that Pierzynski can handle catching R.A. Dickey’s knuckleball. Since becoming a starter Pierzynski has never had a negative value by the defensive component of FanGraphs’ WAR, and only once has been in the negative by the defensive WAR stat at Baseball Reference, but his reputation is hardly so glowing– the Yankees reportedly were concerned about his defence last year, and in Matt Klaassen’s excellent work on catcher defence last year for Getting Blanked, he fared quite, quite poorly. So… I’m not so sure.
How about, then, someone to pair with Josh Thole, who we know can catch Dickey and is also still under contract?
Pierzynski still technically works in that scenario, though it would mean always having his bat in the lineup against left-handers. On the other hand, Dioner Navarro has absolutely mashed left-handed pitching over the last three years, albeit in a small sample (.392 wOBA over 125 plate appearances), and has done well in the split in the minors over that time as well, and in his career as a big leaguer, though the bulk of those plate appearances are from 2009 and before.
Navarro is a switch hitter, too, so you wouldn’t necessarily be committing to Thole as the more active half of a lefty-righty platoon. However, in Navarro’s last 416 plate appearances against right-handed pitching his wOBA is just .305. His on-base is .311, though, which by the standard we’ve grown accustomed to around here is downright decent. The high OBP watermark for Arencibia in his three years is .282, and over that span against right-handers it’s a pitiful .257.
Holy shit, I think I actually just talked myself into Navarro– sad as it is to think that a .305 wOBA and .311 on-base against right-handers is, like, a vast improvement.
But there’s another alternative, and maybe even a better one. It only works, though, if fans and the club are willing to stomach it, and a guy looking to get paid is willing to sign on to largely be a platoon player– and since neither of those things are likely going to happen (especially given that it involves retaining J.P. Arencibia) it may be a total non-starter.
Regardless, it’s Jarrod Saltalamacchia!
Keith Law, in a recent post at ESPN.com about potential free agents who’ve done the most to improve their stock this season, notes that Saltalamacchia ”wasn’t quite as atrocious batting right-handed in 2013 as he’d been in the past, but he’d probably still be better off abandoning switch-hitting or working with a platoon partner.”
That, of course, is where Arencibia and his “prowess” against left-handers would come in.
Law adds that ol’ Salty is “a solid defensive catcher, better at framing and receiving than at throwing, but clearly superior overall to McCann.” Does that mean he could catch Dickey’s knuckleball? Not necessarily. And with a gross .269 wOBA over the last three years against left-handers, you’d certainly would want to have that platoon partner for him, whether it’s J.P.A. or… well… anyone, really.
So… Navarro, then?
Actually, I could maybe throw Geovany Soto’s name into the mix, as well. Over three year’s he’s posted an Arecibia-like .290 wOBA against right-handers, but in a very small sample he was actually pretty good this year in the split (.380 wOBA in 118 PA), and his three-year sample against lefties is good: a .349 wOBA, albeit in just 280 PA. He’s also flashed a much higher ceiling than we’ve ever seen out of our incumbent, posting a pair of 3.5-ish win seasons in 2008 and 2010, and another 2.2 win season in 2011, per FanGraphs.
Speaking of FanGraphs, there’s also this note from a Matt Klaassen piece there less than a year ago:
In terms of throwing out base stealers Soto has been below average, while being a bit above average when it comes to blocking pitches. However, when it comes to pitch framing, the balance might shift in Soto’s favor. He is no Jose Molina or Russell Martin, but as Mike Fast’s well-known study of pitch-framing from 2007-2011 shows, and Matthew Carruth privately confirmed with me from his own calculations that include Soto’s 2012 season, Soto has regularly been above-average when it comes to framing pitches. Matthew has Soto at about four or five runs above average each of the last few years.
Plus, as a right-handed hitter, having him would setup nicely with Josh Thole, who you could then obviously keep around to catch Dickey.
Soto has only been worth 1.3 wins over his last 153 games, and hopefully you’d be able to make a greater improvement than that, but… once again, sadly that is still an improvement on what we’ve got. And one with a few crumbs of upside possibly still remaining, too. I mean, him or Navarro and Saltalamacchia sure would start looking pretty nice, in relative terms, but realistically you’d have to figure the Jays are only looking at adding one– at least when it comes to the free agent route.
And doesn’t even take into account whether they can even manage to sign one of these “premier” guys! Though Nicholson-Smith’s list was small, it’s not like a lot of teams won’t be looking to upgrade behind the plate– see, for example, the dogshit year had by the guy, Ryan Hanigan, who the Reds started last night in a damn playoff game!
Ugh. Catchers, you guys!