Creeping Inexorably Toward A Worthwhile Sub-Heading.
Wednesday, December 10, 2003
Assuming the Position - Part 4 - Catcher
For those of you who have followed this series, you’ll notice that I’ve gone out of sequence a bit. Third Base was the next most logical position to cover, but since that’s a fairly static situation, I thought I’d go with the last position on the infield where some movement was possible. Don’t want to get beaten to the punch, now, do I?
That being said, offensive punch was severely lacking from the Cubs catching corps in 2003.
For those of you who are unfamiliar, RCAP stands for Runs Created Above Position. Basically, it takes Bill James’ Runs Created stat and states how many runs the player produced over the average player at his position, with negative numbers indicating that a player was below average.
As you can see from the table above, last year was not a positive one for the Cubs’ backstops when wielding the stick. They were much better with the leather, however, in particular Miller who played 7% better than a league average catcher according to his DT’s over at Baseball Prospectus.
But that’s not good enough for me. This team has a chance to get over the hump now, and into the future, and this position is a prime candidate for an overhaul. Here are the options, as I see them.
Jason Kendall – He’s really the only trade option left, after AJ Pierzynski was snapped up by the Giants, and I’m going over him first because I just don’t see it happening. Don’t get me wrong, he would be a lovely addition to the lineup, solving the troubling lead-off problem, and serving ably, if unspectacularly, behind the plate.
The real problem here, like in so many other places, is money. Kendall’s contract is absolutely obscene, and the only way to make a deal for him palatable is for the Bucs to pay at least half, and I find that scenario unlikely. Or rather, I’d be shocked to see the Cubs giving up the type of prospects the Bucs would demand in order to make it worth their while to pay over $20M for the privilege of playing against their former catcher for 18+ games. Yeah, the deal is fun to talk about, but practically, I can’t see it working to the satisfaction of both parties.
Javy Lopez – He just blew the hell up in 2003, and nobody saw it coming. He was hands down the most productive offensive catcher in the game last year, posting a .328/.378/.687 line, every bit of it a career high for a full season of play. Just to emphasize how out of the blue this was, here are his lines from the previous three years. Watch out. There’s stuff at the end you shouldn’t let your children see.
That’s a truly stunning transformation. As a point of comparison, Sammy Sosa’s morph from undisciplined slugger to elite offensive threat yielded an increase in production from 85 EQR in 1997 to 139 EQR in 1998, an jump of 63.5%. We all remember how impressed everyone was with that. Well, get ready to pick your jaw up, because Lopez went from 36 EQR in 2002 to 101 EQR in 2003, an astounding bump in production of 180.5%! I don’t know if that’s a historic increase in offensive output, but I’d be willing to bet that it’s never been seen from a 32 year-old catcher with about 1,000 games on his legs.
Of course, I can’t help but think this is too good to be true. Those previous three seasons can’t be meaningless, and there’s nothing in Lopez’ peripheral stats that makes me think he’s changed his approach and become a truly different hitter. He still walks and strikes out at comparable rates. The real difference is that he just hit the ball a whole lot harder. There’s something to be said for that, after all it’s not like you can attribute the increases in BA and SLG to luck. He hit the ball over fences and into gaps, not through fortunate holes in drawn in infields. However, I have my doubts that a now 33 year-old catcher can maintain that power spike through the life of a three or four year contract. I’m not even sure we’ll see comparable numbers next year.
If it looks like a fluke, sounds like a fluke, and smells like a fluke, chances are good it isn’t a new baseline production level. As great as last season was for Lopez, I think whoever winds up signing him is taking a huge risk. The Cubs will, almost certainly, not be that team.
Ivan Rodriguez - This guy is my pipe dream. When he’s healthy, which he finally seems to be, he’ll catch 140 games a year, hitting around .300/.350/.480, absolutely smokin’ numbers for a backstop. The best part is, you can just write that line in. Last year was the first time since 1994 that he hit under .300, batting .297 with half of his games in the decidedly unfriendly hitting environment of Pro Player Stadium, and it was also the first time he slugged under .480 since 1996, with a .474 mark for the year. It’s a pretty safe bet that, with good health, he would be at or above those numbers in a friendlier park.
He’s not the same level of spectacular on defense that he was in the past (his DT’s put him at about 2% better than average last year, versus a series of years where he was percentage over average was consistently in the mid to high teens), but he’s still good, and with the offense he puts on the board, any defense you get out of the package is a bonus.
There are two catches here. I’ve already mentioned health a little, and the reality is, Pudge will be 32 next year, and has already caught over 1,500 games. While the consistency has been there, even in the years shortened by injury, the miles have to start taking their toll eventually. Which brings us to the other catch, Pudge’s contract demands, which will be for something in the $10M range for 3-4 years, substantially higher than anything else out there. The question, or course, is whether the risk is worth the possible reward.
For me, it is. A lot of folks out there have been waiting for the move that would take the Cubs to that next level, from being very good to being an elite force, a source of fear, envy and dread throughout the Majors. This, more than any other deal available this off-season, has the potential to move the team into that lofty stratosphere. There’s a very real danger, of course, that Rodriguez could get hurt, his production could drop off, or he could have troubles working with the pitching staff, making the contract he would garner a millstone around the organization’s neck for several years. Sticking with Damian Miller would be the safe choice, but that’s a little too much like folding for my taste. Sometimes you have to go all in and hope the cards fall your way.