The Yankees' options for fifth starter are a solid group that combines a 31-year-old who won 18 games three years ago, a pair of rookies in their mid-20s who filled in capably last September, and perhaps the best pitching prospect in all of baseball, with another of the game's top prospects available as Plan E. At backup catcher, however, their choices are the old, the infirm, and the incapable. Here are the four candidates for the job:
ML career (AB)
mL career (AB)
Chavez, easily the worst hitter among this feeble foursome, was to be part of the discussion because of his defense, something Joe Torre has always valued highly from his catchers as evidenced by his conspiring to dump Mike Stanley for Joe Girardi upon arriving in the Bronx. Chavez, however, had his left hand broken by a pitch in winter ball. As he arrives in camp with his hand still in a cast, he's out of the running for the Opening Day roster.
Ben Davis was once a top catching prospect but, other than breaking up a Curt Schilling no-hitter with a bunt, has never done anything of value with the bat. Mix in a July 2005 Tommy John surgery which he spent last year rehabbing from, and he's fighting to keep his career afloat, never mind attempting to break camp with the team. He'll need to impress at triple-A and have the winner of this battle struggle to have any real shot at returning to the majors.
Thus, this battle rather quickly boils down to Wil Nieves, the youngest and least experienced of the group, and 40-year-old veteran Todd Pratt.
Nieves was acquired from the newly minted Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim just prior to the 2005 season for Brett Prinz, a Scott Proctor clone who had neither Proctor's latent curve ball nor any remaining options and quickly developed a major shoulder injury after the trade. Last year, Nieves made the Opening Day roster as a third catcher because he himself was out of options and the Yankees had no one better than Davis on hand to fill his third-string shin guards in the event he was claimed off waivers. In a convoluted scheme to demote Nieves to his rightful home in triple-A, the Yankees claimed Koyie Hill off waivers from the Diamondbacks as insurance before designating Nieves for assignment. Once Nieves cleared, they designated Hill. Nieves has made just ten trips to the plate for the Yankees in a pair of September call-ups over the last two years and has yet to reach base as a Yankee. Much like his Yankee batting average, Nieves is a total offensive zero. Lacking power or patience, he's perpetuated his minor league career by consistently hitting for modestly impressive averages (career .288), but last year he didn't even manage to do that, hitting .259.
Todd Pratt, on the other hand, was the best back-up catcher in baseball from 2002 to 2005. No one else was even close. With the Phillies from 2002 to 2005, Pratt hit .270/.378/.425 in 637 plate appearances while working on a series of one-year contracts in the $750,000 to $875,000 range. It should come as no surprise that I lobbied for the Yankees to sign Pratt as far back as the fall of 2003. It's ironic, then, that they finally signed Pratt this winter.
Catchers age both early and quickly, as Steve Goldman recently demonstrated. Pratt, who was highly productive through age 36 and continued to produce at an average level for his position through age 38, appeared to run out of age-defying magic beans last year with a terrible .207/.272/.341 season in 152 plate appearances at age 39. There are some reasons to be optimistic, however. Just 39 catchers in the history of the game made 100 or more plate appearances in their age-38 season. Pratt was among the most productive half of that group two years ago. One player not among the top half of that group was Carlton Fisk, who appeared to have run out of gas with a .221/.263/.337 season at age 38. Fisk then rebounded with a league-average season at age 39 and three extremely productive seasons from age 40 to 42. Of course, Fisk is not only a Hall of Famer, but, as Goldman's article points out, an extreme outlier. Then again, Pratt's strong production in his late-30s makes him something of an outlier as well.
Take another look at the 2006 seasons of the four catchers listed above. Even having seemingly bottomed out, Pratt out-hit Davis directly and didn't fall that far short of Nieves or Chavez while hitting at a level above Nieves and two levels above Chavez. To put things on an even plane, here are the 2006 equivalent averages (EqAs) for Pratt, Nieves, and Chavez (Baseball Prospectus didn't bother with Davis), EqA being a total offense stat that translates minor league performance to the major leagues and adjusts major league performance to a neutral environment:
For Nieves and Chavez (and Davis who's clearly no better than Nieves), that number likely represents the sum total of their ability to produce in the majors. For Pratt, however, there remains a small hope that he could experience a rebound of sorts, even as a 40-year-old catcher. Even if he doesn't, he's unlikely to be any worse than Nieves and the rest. The Yankees will have to hope Nieves is able to clear waivers again this year, or that Davis has recovered enough to replace him, because Pratt should be the major league backup catcher until and unless they can bring in someone better from outside the organization.
The real question is how did a 40-year-old Todd Pratt become the Yankees' best option at backup catcher. In a way, the Yankees' backup catcher situation has mirrored their utility infielder situation under Joe Torre. Here's a quick look at the Yankee catchers other than Jorge Posada to make more than 10 plate appearances during the Joe Torre era:
*because I don't have the means to calculate EqA over a subsection of a player's career I've used unadjusted GPA for Girardi and Flaherty. GPA, though far less scientific, tends to skew closely to EqA, so it's a fair substitute. I've done the same on the chart below for players who played with more than one team in 2006 as I don't have the means to combine those figures.
Despite his .219 EqA representing a near catastrophic collapse, Pratt's 2006 wouldn't look out of place on this chart, and his PECOTA-projected .238 EqA for 2007 would actually be the best by any of Posada's caddies this side of Chris Widger's tiny 2002 sample (Leyritz backed up Girardi before Posada's arrival). Again the question must be asked, is this an organizational blind spot, or is it just not that crucial to get meaningful production from your backup catcher because no one else is either?
Well, here's a look at the men expected to fill that role for the other 29 teams ranked by their their 2006 EqAs, with their projected 2007 PECOTA EqAs as well:
2007 Proj. EqA
Clearly the Yankees have been operating below average for most of Torre's tenure, though it's interesting to note that outside of Pittsburgh's Ryan Doumit, the best projection here is the .258 for Cleveland's Kelly Shoppach, while Pratt's projected .238 is the 15th best among the majors' 30 backup catchers. The latter is because 11 of the top 13 catchers above are projected to decline, significantly in the cases of chart-topper Chris Coste of Philadelphia and third-place Humberto Quintero of Houston. There's a common belief among statheads that every back-up catcher will at some point have a tremendously productive season due to the fluctuations resulting from their small samples of playing time. Those predicted declines are a reflection of the fact that Coste and Quintero especially just had theirs.
Looking at the four men predicted to cross the .250 EqA threshold in 2007, Doumit and Snyder are potential starters still under the control of the teams that drafted them, but trapped behind even better rivals in Ronnie Paulino and Miguel Montero respectively (though Snyder is supposed to platoon with Montero this year, being the righty in the pairing he'll get the short end of the playing time stick). Shoppach was dealt last year in the blockbuster deal that sent Andy Marte to Cleveland and Coco Crisp to Boston, otherwise he's still under team control as well. That just leaves Mike Lieberthal, who was the lone desirable backup catcher on the market this winter. Every other catcher worth fighting for landed a starting job, as did some who weren't worth it. After Lieberthal, the most productive catcher to change teams this winter was Jason LaRue, who went to Kansas City from the Reds for a player yet to be named later.
The Yankees would be well advised to keep tabs on the Pirates and Diamondbacks regarding Doumit and Snyder, as well as on the Braves, who have a young star in Brian McCann starting behind the plate, and another in Jarrod Saltalamacchia on his way up. Brayan Peña is unlikely to ever be more than yet another typical backup catcher, but he's young, a switch hitter, and would instantly improve the Yankees' catching depth at the major league level. The rub, of course, is that the Yankees just made a major deal with the Diamondbacks and failed to land Snyder or Montero. And, of course, the elephant in the room is the absence of Dioner Navarro, who was sent to Arizona in the first Randy Johnson trade and is now starting elsewhere in the AL East.
It's galling that the Diamondbacks swiped Navarro in that deal despite having Snyder and Montero on the way, then wasted him in a trade for the rapidly aging Shawn Green, who is now a Met. Of course, the Dodgers also frittered Navarro away, flipping him for the execrable Toby Hall once they had become flush with Russell Martin, only to watch Hall sign with the White Sox this winter. I suppose there's some comfort in knowing that the Yankees aren't the only organization that has nothing to show for Navarro (in fact, the Yankees got more from Johnson than the D'backs got from Green or the Dodgers got from Hall), but it that doesn't solve their current catching problem, nor is there comfort in the fact that the Dodgers at least had the sense to sign Lieberthal to replace him.
At any rate, the Yankees could have and should have done better than Todd Pratt this winter, but even if they had, it would have been an improvement by mere degrees rather than great bounds. Still, with the system now flush with pitching talent (former Baseball America and current Baseball Prospectus prospect hound Kevin Goldstein just ranked the Yankees' farm system first in baseball when it comes to pitching), Brian Cashman can turn his attention to stalking the Pirates, D'backs, Braves, and others in search of a deal for a young catcher who can fill what has been the organization's biggest void since Navarro was sent to wander the desert.