Now that the Yankees have inked Jorge Posada, I thought I'd take a quick look at their options for backup catcher. Right now Wil Nieves is the second man on the Yankees' catching depth chart, but earlier this offseason, Brian Cashman listed Jose Molina among the Yankee free agents he'd like to resign. Molina, a good receiver with a strong arm who fit in well in the clubhouse after coming over from the Angels in late July, is as good a choice as any to be Posada's caddy, but it's important to note that the .318/.333/.439 performance he put together as a Yankee down the stretch last season was a small-sample fluke.
Molina is a career .243/.279/.345 hitter and was struggling to maintain that level of production with the Angels for the first four months of the 2007 season. He'll also be 33 in June. He's certainly an improvement over Neives, and is a better choice than most of the free agent alternatives (including 2006 failures Kelly Stinnett and Sal Fasano, and the endless parade of Paul Bakos, Josh Pauls, Mike DiFelices, Chad Moellers, Alberto Castillos, and Wiki Gonzali), but he's just as capable of a dreadful offensive performance as any of those men.
Speaking of dreadful performances, two years ago I wrote a post called "Addition by Subtraction," in which I praised Brian Cashman for improving the team by the simple method of discarding players whose performances did more harm than good. In 2005, the Yankees had six players who cost the team more than eight runs each according to VORP (Value Over Replacement Player). In the two year's since, the Yankees have had just five others meet that description. In 2005 the cumulative VORP total of the Yankees' sub-replacement-level players was -114.1. In other words, the Yankees cost themselves roughly 114 runs, or more than 11 wins, simply by failing to maintain replacement level (which is, by definition, the performance level typical of readily available players such as borderline minor leaguers or players that could be claimed off waivers) throughout the roster. After Cashman's big purge that winter, the 2006 Yankees improved that figure to -92.2 VORP, with the two worst offenders (Shawn Chacon at -13.0 and Aaron Small at -10.7) both getting the boot mid-season. This past season, the Yankees cut that figure nearly in half to -50.4 VORP, the bulk of that coming from the many young pitchers the team was forced to use (Jeff Karstens at -11.2, Sean Henn at -8.0, and Edwar Ramirez at -5.3 led the team along with Wil Nieves's -6.4).
The point of all of this is that one of Brian Cashman's emerging, but under appreciated strengths is his understanding of negative performance and his increased efforts to eliminate it from the roster. One reason that cumulative negative VORP total has been decreasing has been the speed with which Cashman has moved to replace negative performance in the last two years. Last year Kei Igawa, Wil Nieves, Miguel Cairo, Josh Phelps, Kevin Thompson, Chris Basak, Sean Henn, Jim Brower, Colter Bean, Matt DeSalvo, Chase Wright, and Tyler Clippard--all of whom had negative VORP totals on the year--were either demoted or released during the year.
This is all relevant to the backup catcher discussion because it is one of the few positions in baseball at which most major league teams are forced to settle, if not outright hope for replacement-level performance. Consider again that list of free agents above, or the fact that after John Flaherty's abysmal -11.0 VORP in 2005*, the Yankees have twice switched backup catchers mid-season in an attempt to climb back up to replacement level. In 2006 they replaced Kelly Stinnett after he posted a -3.3 VORP in 34 games only to watch Sal Fasano cost the team -4.7 VORP over a mere 27 games. Last year, they punted Nieves's -6.4 VORP after 25 games played and finally succeeded with Molina's +3.9 VORP in 29 games over the remainder of the season. I can't blame the Yankees for attempting to go back to the well with Molina in an attempt to avoid the Stinnett's and Fasano's of the world, but it's important to remember that, if you factor in Molina's time with the Angels, his total 2007 VORP was actually a notch below Nieves' at -6.5 (of course, some of that is due to the fact that VORP is cumulative and Molina had 202 plate appearances in 2007 to Nieves' 76).
Having said that, the reason to be dubious about Molina's repeating his pinstriped performance from 2007 is the same reason not to overreact to the 2007 performances of other back up catchers. There are some tempting alternatives out there, particularly Ramon Castro, who hit .285/.331/.556 with 11 homers in 144 at-bats for the Mets in 2007, but it's important to remember how difficult it is for backup catchers to repeat those sort of small-sample performances. Last winter Mike Lieberthal, a former All-Star coming off a .273/.316/.469 season for the Phillies, seemed like the obvious choice for a team looking for a backup catcher with some pop, but he hit just .234/.280/.260 for the Dodgers in 2007. Castro himself is a career .234/.310/.413 hitter, which is almost exactly average for his position. Chasing these small-sample flukes is a fool's errand. As I mentioned in my post on Posada this morning, the average major league catcher hit .256/.318/.394 in 2007, a figure heavily skewed by the performance of the 30 starters. Expecting even that much production from a backup is unrealistic. Thus, Jose Molina is as good a choice as any, and he can be easily replaced mid-season if he fails to maintain a replacement-level performance.
*that figure doesn't correspond exactly to my post from December 2005 because Baseball Prospectus is forever adjusting their statistics and especially their statistical definition of replacement level