15 May 2008

What to do about Orioles' Catchers

A growing conversation in the past few weeks has been about the Orioles' catching position. It was thought this year was going to be a lost year and that catcher wouldn't be a major consideration (or shortstop for that matter) even in light of a horrific offensive showing. The two Orioles on the major league squad manning the position are Ramon Hernandez and Guillermo Quiroz. The guy most talked about replacing these folks is last year's 1st round pick, Matt Weiters.

Ramon Hernandez
Ramon Hernandez is an injured and undependable catcher. His inability to block pitches and react to poorly located balls often gives spectators the idea that he is nonchalant in his work. That really is far from the truth, but it seems to make people feel better if they can turn physical limitations into mental ones. People can be blamed more for the latter. What I think we are observing is the physical decline of Hernandez. We signed him at age 30, which is old for a catcher. Particularly, for a catcher's defense. Age usually results in more injuries and four out of his past five years have been involved at least one major injury that sidelined him. Of course, we signed him less for being a better defensive option that the old and fading Javy Lopes (and Ramon was better defensively than Javy), but also because Ramon was an above average offensive catcher. His first season he was well above average (an OPS of 90 is average for a catcher), he second year was average, and this current one has been poor. I fear that this might be Ramon's last multiyear contract. I think it is likely that he does not rebound offensively or defensively . . . and a catcher with poor motor response who cannot hit is only worth so much. He does seem to be pulling the ball more than he has in years past. I wonder if he is cheating on fastballs.

Guillermo Quiroz
Quiroz was a highly touted prospect in the Blue Jays system. Well, not at first. He was signed as a 17yo international free agent. His defense was excellent and much of his minor league career he average about 0.12 PB/9. That is outstanding. His 4th season he was promoted to HiA and began to display some power as he jumped from 21 to 41 extra base hits. The following season at AA, he broke out with 890 OPS (he was 21yo). He tried to play through a collapsed lung, but had to be shut down as he could no longer run. As he progressed, he began to lose the plate discipline he showed in AA and his defense started to erode. Part of that was blamed on a broken hand. Baltimore is now his fourth organization and his future does not look much brighter than being a backup catcher. He still flashes power and could be something if his contact rate improves, but he has shown to be a target for opposing base stealers to take advantage of. He will probably turn out to be slightly better than Geronimo Gil (how did that guy ever get to start?). He is fine as a backup, but nothing more.

Matt Weiters
Weiters was the 5th overall pick in the 2007 MLB draft. He fell that far because of fears of Boras' demands. Weiters proved difficult to sign, but right before the deadline his father called Peter Angelos and was able to get the ball rolling. He didn't play short season last year, but was impressive in Hawaii*. This year he was slotted in to the lineup in Frederick where he has proceeded to deliver a 333/421/582 line, which is a 136 OPS+ for the Carolina League. His equivalent line in the majors would be 258/319/426, which is a 102 OPS+. Right now, Wieters is an above average offensive catcher. Right now, his defense is probably on par with Ramon and maybe on par with Quiroz. Right now, Weiters is the best catcher in the organization. That is a problem.

The Problem
There are a few reasons for keeping Weiters in the minors. First, he may have holes in his offensive game that will be easier to work on in the minors than in the majors where the quality and placement of pitchers is significantly better (remember Weiters is in HiA ball). Second, Weiters also will have to learn at the MLB level how to call a game, which probably takes some time. Third, this will be Weiters longest and most grueling season ever. To add the physical strain of being a catcher to the mental strain of adjusting to the MLB game . . . it is asking a lot.

Weiters probably develops just as well in HiA. In another month, promote him to Bowie and let him ride the year out there. His bat is looking good enough that I would start eyeing another position for him to play when he gets to be an amazing hitter and a poor catcher (around age 27 or 28). Ramon needs to go. If his value can rise high enough, send him off this summer. If not, try to package him this winter. The problem with this winter is that there are a few guys like Hernandez out there who will take 1 year deals for significant less money (Barajas, Estrada, Barrett, Irod, LoDuca). Last offseason would have been better. We may not be regretting the loss of Lastings Milledge, but I imagine we could have gotten something in exchange for salary relief and similar production from some other retread catcher.

Wieters' Future
I have thought of him as a catcher until about a month ago. His hitting is just unbelievable. He could be a truly special player at several positions. I would start him out in the majors as a catcher, but would give him some looks at other positions when he felt more comfortable. That being said, if Tim Beckham or Pedro Alvarez is not available . . . Posey would be a nice acquisition with the 4th pick in the draft. Posey would be MLB ready about the time it would be a good idea to shift Wieters to another position.


Nick J Faleris said...

Good write-up. Wieters played for the Sharks in Hawaii, though. Not the AFL.

Jon Shepherd said...

Ooops. I think I just tend to refer to everything in the fall as AFL. I'm not sure why.

Nick J Faleris said...

Yeah, I figured I'd take the high road and extend you the courtesy of calling you out in public rather than just editing the write-up myself. I'm waiting for you to call me out for not being able to embed my own video yet....