ST. PETERSBURG - APRIL 25: Catcher John Jaso #28 of the Tampa Bay Rays is congratulated by pitcher Lance Cormier #31 after the game against the Toronto Blue Jays at Tropicana Field on April 25, 2010 in St. Petersburg, Florida. (Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images)
After reading Tommy's article last week and watching John Jaso play this weekend, I'm going to make a bold (and possibly rash) move: I'm jumping fully on board the "Free Jaso" bandwagon. I know he's only had 20 plate appearances so far - a sample size so small, it's virtually useless - and I hate to fuel over-enthusiastic hype about a player, but screw it, I'm making the jump.
Once Shoppach returns from his knee injury and surgery, Dioner Navarro and John Jaso are going to be fighting for one roster spot. It would be easy for the Rays to justify sending Jaso back down to the minors; he has options remaining and Navarro doesn't, not to mention that Navarro is being paid $2M this season. This season, though, the Rays are going all in against the Yanks and Red Sox, meaning even small improvements in the team are important and the Rays shouldn't be worried about eating $2M if necessary. So if we're not worrying about contract status or options, who is the better player: Jaso or Navarro?
Tommy already answered this question and concluded that Jaso deserves a shot based upon his offense, but I want to try and quantify that difference. What's the break-even point? Is Jaso so much better than Navarro on offense to make any defensive difference moot? Let's see...
Offensively, the difference between Navarro and Jaso is pretty stark. Navarro is dead weight at the plate right now and Maddon has clearly lost hope, benching him more often and having him sacrifice bunt in any meaningful situation. Navarro has been unlucky to date (.162 BABIP) and so his numbers will most likely rebound some, but consider this: Navarro's most optimistic projection for this season (CHONE, for those interested) has him as a .310 wOBA batter; Jaso's most pessimistic projection (Marcels) has him as a .322 wOBA batter. That's a difference of 5 runs, or half a win.
If you look at what the players are most likely to produce, the difference becomes even wider. The ZiPS projection system is updating player projections after every game, incorporating recent data to make their projections even more accurate. According to their system, by the end of the season Navarro will raise his wOBA to .277 and Jaso will have his drop to .330. That's an 18 run difference, or nearly two wins.
We have no way of quantifying catcher defense, but could Jaso really be 18 runs worse on defense than Navarro? Last season, eighteen defensive runs was the difference between Evan Longoria and Jhonny Peralta. Carl Crawford and Alfonso Soriano. Elvis Andrus and Christian Guzman. Troy Tulowitzki and Yuniesky Betancourt. Heck, at second base, eighteen runs was nearly the difference between the best in the league (Chase Utley, 11.6 UZR) and the worst in the league (Luis Castillo, -11.2 UZR). It's a huge difference.
It would be one thing if Navarro had a reputation behind the plate like Joe Mauer, but I've only ever heard him talked about as an average to slightly-below-average defensive catcher. Jaso has flashed some good leather behind the plate so far, leading Joe Maddon to say he's a completely different player than he saw at spring training two years ago. He may still be worse defensively than Navarro, but not 18 runs worse.
There is still at least a month before Shoppach comes back from his surgery, so there is no rush for the Rays to make a decision anytime soon. If Jaso continues to show his plate discipline and performs passably behind the plate, though, I don't see how the Rays can justify sending him back down. Free John Jaso!