The Meat Market: Catchers

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This year’s crop of free agent catchers is not a particularly strong one, especially compared to last year, when Ivan Rodriguez and Javy Lopez both hit the open market. The best of the bunch this time is Jason Varitek, who has been one of baseball’s best backstops for years now and is coming off a season in which he hit .296/.390/.482 for the Red Sox. The switch-hitting Varitek batted in the bottom half of Boston’s lineup for much of the past few years, but that was mostly due to their offensive depth. On most teams, he would be a legit #3-5 hitter, an all-around offensive threat who hits for solid batting averages with plenty of power, draws walks, and hits well from both sides of the plate.

Varitek is also extremely durable, playing 132, 142 and 137 games over the last three seasons, while catching over 1,000 innings per year. He’s a good defender and his arm, while not outstanding, is decent. In all, he’s likely one of the five best catchers in baseball. The only real negatives with Varitek are that he hasn’t been great away from hitter-friendly Fenway Park (.256/.332/.428 from 2002-04) and will be 33 years old in 2005, which is like 40 in catcher years. Last year, Lopez was also turning 33 and he got a three-year, $22.5-million contract from the Orioles. I think that’s probably a pretty good guess as to Varitek’s likely market, although Lopez had a much better “walk year” than Varitek had, hitting .328/.378/.687 with 43 homers and 109 RBIs in 129 games with the Braves in 2003.

Varitek is expected to re-sign with Boston, and even if doesn’t, he’s likely too pricey for most teams with catching needs. That would leave Damian Miller as the most attractive free agent catcher, almost by default. After a sub par season with the Cubs in 2003, Miller joined the A’s this year and did well, hitting .272/.339/.403 in 110 games. The concerns with Miller are his age (he turned 35 last month) and the fact that he slumped badly in the second half, hitting just .238/.320/.320. Still, he had a nice first half (.298/.354/.467), finished with good overall numbers, and was outstanding defensively, throwing out 43.2% of stolen base attempts while catching the pitching staff with the second-best ERA in the league.

For a team in need of a veteran stopgap at catcher for a year or two — and there are plenty of teams that fit that bill — Miller would be a solid choice. He’s durable, having played at least 100 games every year since 2000, he’ll likely give you above-average offense for the position, and he’ll control the running game. Last offseason, a 39-year-old Benito Santiago signed a two-year deal with the Royals worth $4.3 million, after hitting .279/.329/.424 with the Giants in 2003. Miller is younger than Santiago was and had every bit as good a season heading into free agency, so that type of contract seems attainable.

After Varitek and Miller, the pickings get extremely thin. The only other free agent catchers who played on an everyday basis in 2004 were Henry Blanco, who hit a measly .206/.260/.368 in 114 games filling in for an injured Joe Mauer in Minnesota, and Mike Matheny, who batted just .247/.292/.348 for the Cardinals in yet another season with over 100 games caught and an OPS under .700.

The Twins picked up Blanco’s $750,000 option for 2005 immediately after the season ended, but Blanco used a clause in his contract that allowed him to become a free agent as a result of getting so much playing time. So he’s now free to shop around, although I can’t imagine there being much of a market for him, particularly considering the Twins signed him to be their backup last year for just $500,000. Blanco calls a good game and does a marvelous job shutting down the running game (49.2% caught stealing in 2004), but he hasn’t had a batting average above .210 or gotten on base 30% of the time since 2000, and he’s never slugged even .400.

Matheny is essentially the same player as Blanco, give or take some batting average and a little power, except he’s been a starter for nearly his entire 11-year career. He’ll catch 110-120 games, do a nice job defensively, hit an empty .250 at the bottom of the lineup, and have announcers across the league gushing over him. There are worse guys to have, but considering his defensive reputation and the fact that he’ll be 34 years old next season, I’m guessing Matheny is about to be vastly overpaid by some misguided team.

A team looking to fill their catching void cheaply would be wise to take a look at Doug Mirabelli, who has been Varitek’s backup in Boston for the last four years. The .281/.368/.525 he hit in 59 games with the Red Sox this year is a little bit over his head offensively, but combined over the past three seasons Mirabelli hit .255/.330/.462 in 531 plate appearances. That is essentially one full-season’s worth of playing time, in which he hit 22 homers and 32 doubles, walked 47 times, and drove in 75 runs. It’s tough to get a feel for Mirabelli defensively because he’s been serving as the personal catcher for knuckleballer Tim Wakefield, but his stolen-base numbers, though very bad this year, have been okay in the past.

Another guy I like is Todd Pratt, who has quietly been one of the better backup catchers in baseball for about a decade. He’s never gotten more than 212 plate appearances in any of his dozen major-league seasons, but Pratt is a career .255/.352/.404 hitter in 540 games, including a very impressive .279/.399/.440 over the past three years. Pratt isn’t much of a defender and he’s also going to be 38 next year, but he’d make an excellent backup, particularly for a team with a left-handed-hitting starter.

The rest of the group of available catchers consists of a whole bunch of “either-or” guys. Greg Myers, Gregg Zaun, Kelly Stinnett and Todd Greene can hit a little bit, but they’re old, injured and/or sub par defensively. Dan Wilson, Sandy Alomar Jr., Einar Diaz, Brent Mayne and John Flaherty are veterans with good defensive reputations, but they can’t hit and they’ve definitely seen better days.

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