Thursday, March 5, 2015

The Offseason Market for Catchers has been Strange

I wrote, after the Conger trade, that his acquisition would best be evaluated at the end of the offseason.  This was in anticipation that Hank Conger and Max Stassi (prior to the Gattis acquisition) would most likely form some kind of catching platoon in 2015, and Jason Castro would be traded for Mookie Betts or Kris Bryant.  Or both.

But the second move never happened.  Which I thought was odd, given the speed at which the Astros reeled in Conger, and the apparent talent cost for the acquisition.  A number of other catching deals went down in the offseason - Miguel Montero went to the Cubbies, Russell Martin got 80-odd million to play in Canada, and the Padres sent some catchers (along with half of the rest of their roster) to all points of the compass, getting some other catchers back.  But interestingly, neither the Cubs or the Blue Jays - who acquired top-flight catchers - have been able to trade their now-presumed backups (Welington Castillo and Dioner Navarro respectively) despite both being identified as trade candidates, and both publicly welcoming being traded.

I have three ideas as to why this may be the case.

Firstly, catching is physically demanding, catchers get banged up, so why bother investing a lot of money or high draft picks in superstar catchers if there are cheap replacements.

Secondly, catching is kind of a black art in the sense that less easily-measurable skills - such as pitch-framing - are sometimes measured and prioritised by various bright individuals.  So perhaps teams are willing to carry a lesser bat in exchange for a guy who gets on well with the pitchers and is a good catch-and-throw guy.  But the public does not really see that, because the easiest way to evaluate a player is via the offensive triple-slash line.

Thirdly, perhaps no teams have a clear catching weakness, as this FanGraphs article suggests.  Note that it was written after the Montero trade (when the Diamondbacks had exactly no-one pencilled in to don the tools of ignorance) and still no catchers make the top-10 list.  Scroll down a little bit, and you will see that the only team that has catching as their biggest weakness is the D-Backs.  And their GM, Dave Stewart, has already publicly said that they are not interested in pursuing catching - but read into that what you want.  So Arizona doesn't seem to be a suitor, and no one else has an obvious, outstanding need.

The FanGraphs article, however, relies on projected WAR to assess where the weak spots are.  Some of that analysis becomes a little skewed because of the positional adjustments used to determine WAR.  All catchers get an automatic bonus of +12.5 runs per 162 games, so catchers as a population are already projected 5 runs more valuable than a shortshop, purely based on the position played.

It is also very possible that I (and other commentators) over-read the Conger trade, and erroneously jumped to the conclusion that Conger's arrival would mean Castro's exit.  I thought that the perceived gap in offensive talent is probably smaller than Astros fans may realise, so perhaps Conger was acquired as a younger and cheaper version of Castro.

But perhaps the plan is to hope Castro has a hot half-season, and look for a trade-deadline transaction.  Or perhaps Castro and Conger will job-share to stay fresh.  Or perhaps the Astros were very comfortable trading a young, unproven starter (one that is ranked as the number 9 prospect in an otherwise weak system) for a backup catcher that is a significant improvement over Carlos Corporan.

But I still think that the offseason market for catchers has been strange.  Feel free to share your thoughts.