Thursday, September 22, 2011

Minnesota Twins Season Wrap - Catcher

I've come full circle.  I am now embracing the new Twins.  I raged.  I cried.  I bitched.  I complained about Gardy until I was blue in the face.  I questioned why they went Nishioka over Hardy at the beginning of the year and I continued on that all season long.  I questioned Mauer's heart, Span's head, and Morneau's everything.  I wondering what was going on with management and the training staff, and I couldn't understand why they weren't more aggressive trading off pieces for prospects at the trade deadline.  But I'm done now.

Now it's time to accept the Twins are broken.  Blame at on injuries if you must, for it is convenient and soothing, but the fact of the matter is those who weren't hurt, and the times where the team was intact, were mediocre at best.  It times to move on.  Yes, I'm betting we'll have more Augusts and Septembers of meaningless ball, but if everything goes according to (my) plan, we'll at least be watching players who could be part of the future, rather than the lingering remnants of a disappointing and unfulfilled past.  With that spirit, I am going to do a review/preview of this team by position, starting with catcher. 

It is becoming apparent that Joe Mauer's future is no longer behind the plate, at least not full-time and I'm betting we'll see a full-time move in the next year or two, whether it is to the outfield or first base I don't know, but it's coming.  Mainly due to his inability to stay on the field, but also, in my opinion, because they need something to explain why the guy they just gave the biggest contract ever to put up a batting line more reminiscent of Danny Valencia than what we're used to seeing from him.  Next year is an absolute monster for Mauer, a huge crossroads year, and his chance to prove that he's worth that contract.

A huge chunk of Mauer's value always came from the fact that he was one of the best hitters in the league at a position where defense is considered the priority, and most team's don't have an issue with letting offense slide.  Catcher's average OPS+ (where 100 is an average batter, higher is better) has historically been around 90, all the way from the 1950s-2000s.  That's the worst of any position player, on par with shortstop.  So when Mauer has a run like he did from 2006-2010 when his aggregate OPS+ was 142, you are in a huge advantage versus most teams.  Even if he hits like that and plays outfield or 1b, you're still holding an advantage against most squads, even if it is diminished somewhat.

So the real question, more important than establishing what position he's going to play, is whether or not Mauer can get back to the hitter we all saw those five years, or if he's now become this slappy Luis Rodriguez type of hitter.  This year was so far removed from what we usually see out of Joe I'm ready to call it a fluke with one caveat that I'll get to later.  His power fell off a cliff, and I don't mean home run power because in that case the 28 HR season was the fluke, but he stopped hitting doubles.  His walk rate went down and his strikeout rate went up.  He hit an absolutely ridiculous amount of groundballs, even for him, and made contact and far fewer of his swings, despite not changing the pitches he was swinging at.  It was a truly bizarre year.

Which is why I'm mostly inclined to dismiss it as an anomaly and expect to see Mauer back hitting in the mid-.300s with his 10 homers, 30 doubles, and a nice OBP.  However, that one caveat I mentioned earlier is his health, and this year has truly been dizzying with the ailments.  From bilateral leg weakness at the start to pneumonia at the end, I don't know if he was ever truly healthy this year.  It's easy enough to question his toughness and his heart when he has to sit out four games with a sore neck, especially when Ezal was back out there within minutes hustling Smokey for money after he fell on that wet floor, but perhaps he wasn't ever healthy.  Perhaps there were some serious health issues more time off at the start of the year was what was needed.  I really don't know, and I don't think anybody else really does either.  Which is why I'm officially giving the $200 million dollar man a pass on this one.  Everybody deserves a second chance.  Let's just hope he's back to normal because the Twins are stuck with him - nobody's trading for that contract - at whatever position he may be.

And what if they do move him?  Who becomes the new catcher?  The only two prospects at the position who were major league ready were shipped off in short-sighted moves by the front office for a reliever who defines average stuff was looked attractive because he had a bunch of shiny saves and a low-A reliever whose strikeout rates dropped each of the last three seasons.  So it's going to be Drew Butera or Rene Rivera?  Gross.

Rivera is a career minor leaguer and Butera is a defensive specialist, and neither can hit.  Both OPS+ at a 13 this year.  13!  Thir-fucking-teen.  That means they don't get hits, they don't get walks, and on the rare occasion they do get a hit it's a single basically every time.

Butera had the worst OPS+ in the league out of any player with at least 230 plate appearances, twice as bad as the Rays' Reid Brignac who was second with a 27.  Rene Rivera had the worst OPS out of any player with at least 100 plate appearances.  Which means that the two worst hitters in all of major league baseball who were given 100 PAs or more were both Twins' catchers.  Of 82 pitchers in the NL with at least 30 plate appearances, 26 of them OPS+ed better than the 13 the two-headed little girl with a bat put-up, and the most astonishing thing of all is that I was astonished it was that few.

Wait, there's more.  Since 1920, Drew Butera put up the 3rd worst OPS+ by any batter with 230 PAs or more.  His .153 average is the fourth worst, and with a little luck he might even be able to get to second (worst is .135 by Ray Oyler in '68).  He also had the 3rd worst OBP.  The good news?  It was only the 20th worst slugging percentage.  He's a hell of a defender, has a great arm, and I think will probably be an excellent coach some day, but he. can. not. hit.  His numbers were only slightly better last year.  This is who he is.  He can't be a starter.

Rivera has hit, a little, in the minors with a career line of .252/.306/.390, which basically projects him as a serviceable triple-AAA catcher, and not, as we saw this year, a major league caliber player.  This means the Twins are stuck.  They need to move Mauer, or at least believe they do, but have hamstrung themselves with no available major league type players who can be an every day catcher.  Jose Morales was no titan for the Rockies this year, but he'd at least be a viable alternative, and I really don't even want to talk about Wilson Ramos.  It was a terribly short-sighted trade at the time and it's just continued to get worst as Ramos continues to hit, hit with power, show a good batting eye, and throw runners out.  Oh yeah, both Morales and Ramos have thrown out a higher percentage of would-be base stealers than Butera.

I don't want to dwell on Ramos, but Aaron Gleeman dug up a little factoid on Ramos's season.  He's currently at an OPS+ of 112 at the age of 23.  The list of catchers with at least 400 PAs in a season to OPS+ over 100 is Mauer, Buster Posey, Jason Kendall, Craig Biggio, Russell Martin, and Ramos.  That's it.  I don't think it's completely overstating it to say that the trade of Ramos, factoring in their return and what's happened with Mauer, may have set the franchise back a few years.  Yes, years.

Since they can't count on Mauer and Butera and Rivera are brutal then what?  Free agent?  The list of potential free agent catchers is underwhelming and mainly full of career back-up types.  The only names on that list I'm remotely interested in are Kelly Shoppach and Ryan Doumit, and they probably won't pay Shoppach, if Tampa even buys him out, and Doumit is oft-injured so who knows.  I don't.

The most realistic scenario has the team heading into next year expecting Mauer to catch half the time and Butera do catch half the time, something that is just incredibly depressing to me.  Remember what I said about being optimistic and heading into next year looking towards the future?  I give up.  Hopefully when I do this rundown on the other positions I'll feel better, but right now I don't even want to think about writing any more about the Twins.

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