Catch-22: What to do with Dioner Navarro?

In 2009, the catcher slot represented a hole in the Rays line up more glaring than the sun. Unlikely 2008 All-Star Dioner Navarro took a rather nasty statistical nose dive, leaving  the Front Office little choice but to use their Z-game in acquiring 38 year-old Gregg Zaun for minor league first-baseman Rhyne Hughes. Zaun provided exactly what R.J. expected when he called for the Rays to look into Zaunover a month before the trade occurred. Zaun and Navi afforded the Rays a pair of complementary switch-hitters. Zaun fares slightly better versus right-handed pitching while Navi has a much wider gap between his splits in favor of facing southpaws.

Catchers who can hit lefties are a-dime-a-dozen as all catchers field right-handed. One of the main reason catchers are routinely criticized as poor hitters is because in 2009 70.5% of American League plate appearances came against right-handed pitching. This places left-handed hitting or good switch-hitting catchers at a premium as they have favorable platoon splits far more often than their right-handed counterparts.

Heading into the off-season, many expected the Rays to try to keep Zaun aroundfor a year while replacing Navarro. The thinking was that both catchers would cost $2-3 million and perhaps a cheaper alternative could be found for Navarro since Zaun has a more favorable match-up 29.5% of the time. Two potential roadblocks to this plan were Zaun's increasing age, and a compensatory 2nd round pick awarded to the Rays if another team was to sign Zaun due to his Type B free agent status.

As often is the case, the Rays Front Office strikes hard, silently and when least expected. With all eyes patiently looking ahead to the Winter Meetings, Andrew Friedman sensed opportunity. The rebuilding Cleveland Indians had a surplus of catchers. The right-handed Kelly Shoppach made $1,950,000 andwas due for  a raise in arbitration. Behind Shoppach were 3 young catchers, prospects Lou Marson and Carlos Santana along with Wyatt Toregas. Shoppach would be too expensive for the Indians by the time they were to be competitive again, so he was a prime candidate to be non-tendered. Friedman sensed this and agreed to move a Player to Be Named Later for Shoppach. We now know through MLB.com that the player will either be AAA pitcher Mitch Talbot who is out of options or Joe Cruz who pitched in A- ball last year. Talbot, if healthy, should be able to handily crack the Cleveland rotation, whereas the Rays would probably been forced to pawn him off in a fire sale in Spring Training. It was a win-win as neither team had much leverage and succeeded in addressing a weakness from a position of excess strength.

Shoppach is a powerful right-hander who strikes out a lot but has decent on base-skills. His career splits trend much like Navi's, highly successful vs. LHP with a big drop-off vs. righties. However, Shoppach fares better than Navarro from both sides of the plate. Their career platoon splits can be found below:

 

vs RHP

vs LHP

OBP

SLG

OBP

SLG

Navi

0.302

0.339

0.336

0.434

Shoppach

0.308

0.396

0.386

0.614

 

We often discuss how the catching spot is one of a natural platoon. Teams are forced to take up two roster spots, so why not try to make some chemistry magic by playing off their strengths? The thought of signing Gregg Zaun began to look more attractive. Shoppach was adequate enough against RHP to reduce Zaun's workload. He could handle the 50 or so starts vs LHP and take on an additional 50-60 starts against RHP, while the elder Zaun would provide excellent ball-blocking skills and steady offense in the remaining 50-60 games vs. RHP. This option went out the door when the Brewers signed Zaun for $2.1 million giving the Rays the extra pick in next year's draft.

At this point it was widely assumed Navarro was a dead man walking in Tampa Bay. I penned a column looking at cheap in-house and external replacements in the minors who had wide splits in favor of facing RHP. We watched the days go by at the Winter Meetings waiting for a Navarro trade for the best available compensation. As the Saturday night deadline approached, there was a growing sense that Navarro would be non-tendered if he could not be moved.  In 2009, Dioner Navarro andthe Rays had a bloody arbitration battle over a mere $400,000 with the Rays emerging victorious. Those are the types of battles that needlessly occur when you are represented by an agent who would tweet the following:

@kendallalmerico Here’s a shocker. Navarro starts, Rays win again. Talk stats all you want, but team chemistry = wins. And wins are what matters.

@kendallalmerico Rays now 5-7 with Zaunstarting, 5-2 with Navi behind the plate. I guess Joe Maddon wants October off this year.

@kendallalmericoSince acquiring 143 year old Geoff Zaun…Rays 5-6 with Zaunstarting at catcher, 4-2 with Navi starting. Hmmmm…let’s do the math

Andrew Friedman moves against the grain. Navarro had little to no leverage in negotiations given his gnatty agent, his putrid 2009, and the fact that teams had been filling voids at catcher all week. He accepted a one-year deal at the same salary as the previous season, $2.1 million. Why would Friedman do this given the apparent lack of synergies between Shoppach and Navi?

There are a few schools of thought. Conventional wisdom dictates the team needs an "experienced" backstop on the pine in the event of injury. Navarro is already familiar with the pitching staff and certainly that carries some value. While Navarro is almost certainly not as good as his 2008 slash line of .295/.349/.407, he is also not as bad as 2009's .218/.261/.222. For a reference point his career line is .253/.312/.367. An avenue of thought is that Navarro will rebound, thereby increasing his value and becoming an attractively priced trade target down the road.

Given Shoppach and Navi's career splits and assuming Shoppach catches about 120 games, how is the playing time best broken up using their career splits? Let's assume there are 120 games vs RHP and 40 vs LHP.

Method A= Shoppach faces all RHP and Navarro faces all LHP

Method B= Shoppach faces 80 RHP and 40 LHP, Navi gaces 40 RHP

 

OBP

SLG

OPS

Method A

0.315

0.406

0.721

Method B

0.326

0.436

0.762

 

It seems as though overall team performance is best utilized when Navarro plays exclusively vs. RHP. Given Navi's deep career splits, I question whether this will allow him to raise his value at all. It would be akin to platooning Gabe Gross with a better hitting lefty who also struggled vs LHP. Gross would have to face lefties nearly all the time to maximize team value and his individual offensive numbers would be awful. If you don't do it in right field, why pay $2.1 million to do it at catcher?

 

I took a look at all catchers who had 150 PA in 2009 and looked at their career splits. I then broke the list into two, those with over 1000 career PA, and those with less. I also included each player's 2009 salary and his 2009 Defensive Runs Above Average as put together by devilfingers on drivelinemechanics.com:

 Catchers > 1000 Career PA

Name

TotalPA

RHPOPS

LHPOPS

DefRAA

09 salary

Joe Mauer

2994

0.948

0.781

4.3

$10,500,000

Brian McCann

2372

0.892

0.761

-3

$3,666,667

Jorge Posada

6312

0.852

0.877

-5.9

$13,100,000

Victor Martinez

3686

0.847

0.816

-0.6

$5,900,000

Mike Napoli

1294

0.832

0.909

-9.7

$2,000,000

Ivan Rodriguez

9712

0.794

0.846

0.5

$1,500,000

Geovany Soto

1039

0.794

0.841

0.7

$575,000

Ryan Doumit

1483

0.786

0.758

-2

$2,150,000

A.J. Pierzynski

4704

0.781

0.661

-4.8

$6,250,000

Chris Iannetta

1084

0.767

0.930

2

$415,000

Jason Varitek

5464

0.759

0.828

-4.1

$5,000,000

David Ross

1458

0.754

0.769

7

$1,400,000

Kurt Suzuki

1450

0.744

0.778

0.9

$410,000

Jason Kendall

8212

0.744

0.682

-4.5

$5,000,000

Russell Martin

2326

0.743

0.880

-3.3

$3,900,000

Gregg Zaun

3925

0.733

0.730

-0.2

$1,500,000

Ramon Hernandez

4770

0.729

0.780

3.3

$8,500,000

Kenji Johjima

1722

0.725

0.710

8.8

$8,000,000

Brian Schneider

3186

0.716

0.620

3.5

$4,900,000

Carlos Ruiz

1259

0.712

0.728

5.4

$475,000

Ramon Castro

1400

0.707

0.773

-1.6

$2,625,000

Kelly Shoppach

1043

0.704

1.000

-1.5

$1,950,000

Josh Bard

1769

0.695

0.771

-7.3

$600,000

Bengie Molina

4743

0.691

0.813

-3.4

$6,000,000

Chris Snyder

1682

0.689

0.822

-3

$3,000,000

John Buck

2116

0.687

0.749

-4.8

$2,900,000

Rod Barajas

2746

0.684

0.714

4.2

$2,500,000

Yorvit Torrealba

1987

0.680

0.777

-2.9

$3,750,000

Yadier Molina

2458

0.672

0.741

6.6

$3,312,500

Ronny Paulino

1376

0.652

0.877

2.5

$440,000

Miguel Olivo

2631

0.651

0.824

-8.8

$2,700,000

Dioner Navarro

1822

0.641

0.770

0.4

$2,100,000

Gerald Laird

1826

0.633

0.776

13.3

$2,800,000

Henry Blanco

2614

0.626

0.739

5.7

$750,000

Jose Molina

1587

0.571

0.690

-1.1

$2,150,000

 

Of the 35 catchers with >1000 career plate appearances, Navi has the 4th worst OPS vs RHP. You'll note 2 of the 3 names below him are worth a win and 1.3 wins more defensively. Navi has little value vs. RHP and is about average defensively. If the Rays are to settle for a below average hitter, a defensive stud would seem to make more sense, especially since most of the marketplace discounts defense at the catcher spot.  

For the catchers with less than 1000 PAs, we have to take their splits with a larger grain of salt, though RHP is the more reliable number. Park-Adjusted AAA OPS vs RHPis included for reference point for the minor league alternatives in my previous article, with a minimum 150 PA required in a AAA season.

Catches < 1000 Career PA

Name

TotalPA

RHPOPS

paAAA

LHPOPS

DefRAA

Landon Powell

155

0.829

0.735

0.458

2.4

John Baker

656

0.815

0.820

0.630

-3.2

Matt Wieters

385

0.804

1.017

0.695

2.5

Miguel Montero

938

0.773

1.020

0.792

-6.5

Jarrod Saltalamacchia

869

0.768

N/A

0.588

-0.3

Taylor Teagarden

271

0.721

0.770

0.841

2.4

Nick Hundley

505

0.719

0.824

0.593

-6.8

Chris Coste

885

0.713

0.494

0.821

-0.2

Ryan Hanigan

402

0.712

0.794

0.680

7

Jason Jaramillo

224

0.701

0.795

0.511

0.1

Omir Santos

316

0.700

0.625

0.616

2.4

Rob Johnson

325

0.636

0.878

0.490

-1.8

Brayan Pena

314

0.595

0.742

0.648

-2.9

Koyie Hill

543

0.580

0.812

0.627

6.1

Raul Chavez

725

0.576

0.563

0.555

4.4

Jeff Mathis

861

0.573

0.587

0.663

-2.1

Wil Nieves

597

0.569

0.629

0.589

-0.3

Humberto Quintero

589

0.555

0.942

0.732

1.7

 There is no guarantee AAA success vs RHP will translate to the major leagues. We don't know that a John Jaso or Jose Lobaton will be able to provide a Navarro-level of success against RHP. However with two birds in the bush, the chance of one of them landing in the hand is a bit better.  

Navi would almost be better suited to scrap the switch-hitting and work solely from the right side of the plate. Barring an unexpected offensive breakthrough, Navarro will be best utilized as a career backup to a catcher who hits well against RHP. Navarro can play predominantly against lefties and make fairly valuable contributions. For a team with that makeup, $2.1 million is a pretty attractive price in this marketplace. If Navarro had been traded prior to reaching the deal, the acquiring team would almost certainly be paying closer to the $3-3.5 million being earned by the likes of John Buck, Pudge, and Jason Kendall. As a counterpart to Shoppach, the return falls short even with the discounted contract.  My hope is that Friedman can find the right place for Navi to succeed andreceive something back of greater value back than he would have received witht he contract uncertainty associated with the arbitration process.

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