Sunday, February 20, 2005

2005 Ranger preview -- the catchers 

With spring training starting, I figured I'd do a position-by-position rundown of the Rangers, looking at where the team is and what to expect in 2005. I'm hoping to have capsules for each position up every couple of days, getting finished up by mid-March. We'll see how that goes.

Anyway...I'm starting off behind the plate, with the catchers.

Last season, Gerald Laird, who was supposed to be in AAA to start the season, impressed the coaching staff with a strong spring and his ability to work with the pitchers, and forced his way into the starting lineup, resulting in Einar Diaz being traded to Montreal. Laird played well for six weeks, sprained his thumb, and was replaced by Rod Barajas. Barajas hit for some power in the first half, then fell off the cliff...meanwhile, various and sundry backups were awful offensively, and Laird was rushed back prematurely, although he couldn't hit after his return, either.

The upshot of all this was that Rangers catchers were 12th in the A.L. in OPS, ahead of only Tampa Bay and Seattle. They were also 13th in the A.L. in fielding percentage, and 12th in assists...in a nutshell, the catching situation was a disaster last season.

Laird, according to John Hart, is being banished to AAA to start the season, so we have an unusual situation where the best catcher on the team won't even be on the 25 man roster come Opening Day. Instead, we are apparently going to have Rod Barajas starting, with Sandy Alomar, Jr., backing him up.

Rod Barajas is basically Todd Greene, just younger, and with a history with Buck. His track record coming into the season indicated that, like Greene, he could hit for some power, wouldn't get on base, and isn't a good defensive catcher, making him an adequate backup but a pretty bad starter. He got to play everyday when Gerald Laird went down, and had a "breakout" season that featured a .241 EQA and mediocre defense. He's a placeholder, albeit a highly-paid placeholder, as, for some inexplicable reason, the front office decided to pay him almost $2 million for the 2005 season.

When you look at Barajas's splits last year, you see a guy who hit for some power early in the season, but who collapsed in the second half. The "glass half empty" types have suggested that 2004 was Barajas establishing himself at a new, higher level...although, as I mentioned before, even that new, higher level isn't anything special. But when you look at what Barajas has done throughout his major league career -- he's a career .227/.265/.383 hitter -- and compare it to his 2004 second half -- .225/.261/.370 -- it suggests that Barajas had a hot streak for about 6 weeks early in 2004, and reverted to his normal level of performance the rest of the way. In other words, I'm betting his line for 2005 looks very similar to his career marks, and if that's the case, he'll be one of the worst starting catchers in baseball.

Sandy Alomar, Jr., was once an elite catching prospect, ended up playing for John Hart during the Indians' halcyon days as a wanna-be dynasty, and has hung around for a while due to a reputation that outstrips his performance. Alomar is incredibly fragile, even for a catcher, cracking 300 ABs in a season only 5 times. He hasn't had a good offensive season since 1999, and isn't really a good defensive catcher anymore, either.

Showalter has justified the Alomar signing by saying that teams must have three experienced, major league catchers, although that would seem to doom Laird, at one point the catcher of the future, to an Erasmo Ramirez role, bouncing up and down between the majors and minors as injuries and scheduling quirks necessitate. More realistically, Showalter simply isn't being honest...teams don't need three experienced major league catchers, at least not on the 40 man roster. If Laird had stayed healthy last season, Alomar wouldn't be here, and we wouldn't be hearing this nonsense about needing three experienced major league catchers. Instead, we'd see some Alomar-type signed as an NRI, a guy who'd go to Oklahoma as insurance in case someone gets hurt. That's the way most teams do it.

Alomar's presence has also been explained as the team needing a veteran influence, or leadership, or someone to help harness some of the Latin pitchers' ability. If that's the reason, he should have been hired as a coach, not a player. He's a sub-par backup catcher at this point, a guy who probably isn't even good enough to be in the majors anymore.

As currently situated, the Rangers' catching situation looks like it will be about the same as it was in 2004...one of the worst in the major leagues. The best-case scenario would probably be for Barajas to get hurt about a month into the season, necessitating Laird coming up and starting (since Alomar isn't physically capable of starting on a regular basis), and playing well enough to keep the job the rest of the season. Laird isn't a future star, but he just turned 25, he is very good defensively, and his offensive upside potential is probably along the lines of Mike Lieberthal. With Laird, at least we would have someone who has the potential of being a good player, instead of two guys who we know aren't.

I'd hope Laird forces his way into the lineup like he did last year. Otherwise, two straight years of defusing (possibly followed by an Erasmo-like yo-yo to and from the bigs) could wreck him. And if Mike Nickeas develops, there's your guy, but maybe three or four years out.
So basically, what you are saying is; the Rangers are fucked as far as the position of catcher is concerned.
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