Born Unto Trouble: Looking at the AL Central Catchers

Punishment comes one way or another. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

With spring training coming to an end next Wednesday, it seems fitting that the AL Central position rankings are coming to an end today.  Over the past two months, I have covered the other eight hitting positions in ascending order up the defensive spectrum.  The final installment covers the men who don the tools of ignorance.  The AL Central is home to both two of the best catchers in baseball and one of the worst.  There will most definitely be turnover at the position over the next two seasons as the backstop is no country for old men, but let's not look that far ahead just yet.

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Juxtaposition!


Cleveland: The immediate future may seem quite dim for Indians fans, but at least they now have one of the best catchers in baseball to enjoy watching.  Carlos Santana is an absolute beast behind the plate.  Somehow Mark Shapiro tricked the Dodgers into giving up a young Santana for the esteemed and gritty veteran Casey Blake.  In the 46 games before Ryan Kalish demolished his left LCL, Carlos racked up 2.0 WAR.  For comparison's sake, that is 0.2 more WAR than A.J. Pierzynski in 82 fewer games.  Santana has 20+ HR potential with an average around .280-.290 and an OPS between .850-.900 as he reaches his prime.  The fact that he can throw in a random handful of stolen bases as well is just delicious icing on the cake.

Kansas City: Jason Kendall is the perfect player to compare Santana to.  While Indians fans get to enjoy a great young catcher coming into his own, Royals fans get to enjoy an old curmudgeon circling the drain.  Jason Kendall has been playing in the majors almost as long as I've had my permanent incisors.  Last season, 71% of attempted thieves succeeded against Kendall and the odds of that percentage climbing higher are good seeing as he had offseason surgery to repair his failing rotator cuff.  It's not just his defensive skills that have been in a sharp decline though.  Kendall has all but completely lost whatever power he once had and will most likely never have an ISO exceeding .060 again.  He can't get on base at anything close to a league average rate anymore, and while he somehow stole 12 bases last season, he managed to get caught 7 times.  Kendall could very well be the definition of a replacement player for the Royals this season.


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Sadness!

Detroit: The Tigers more or less platooned Alex Avila with Gerald Laird last season, and while Detroit did sign Victor Martinez this winter, expect Avila to be the full-time starting catcher in Motown this year.  Avila is young, cheap, and capable of producing 2.0 WAR seasons for the near future.  He won't be an All-Star, but he won't be a burden on the team or an offensive black hole (see: Kendall, Jason).  Avila has always shown a good eye for drawing walks in the minors and in his brief stints in the majors so far, so a league average OBP is reasonably attainable.  His high strikeout totals (25.1 K% so far) will probably keep him from ever batting over .275 though.  He's only ok defensively, but that still puts him ahead of Victor Martinez in that department.  He'll hit something like 10-15 homeruns with about 5-10 more doubles than that.  All in all, he's a pretty decent option for most teams.

Minnesota: The reigning champion of the American League catcher's circuit, Joe Mauer is back for another season batting in the middle of the order for the Twins.  Mauer fell back to Earth after his monster 2009 season, only managing to be worth 5.1 WAR and record a .373 wOBA (8.0 and .438 the year before!).  What a bum!  While it's unlikely we will ever see Mauer come close to his 28 homerun output again (thanks both to flukiness and the new and spacious Target Field), a total in the middle teens is far from out  of the question.  Expect on OBP around or above .400 with more walks than strikeouts.  Mauer is an annual contender for the batting crown and this year shouldn't be any different.  The only question with Joe is how much longer the Twins can get away with keeping him behind the plate.  Mauer's relatively gigantic size for the position (6'5"/230 lbs) has greatly increased the strain every catcher endures and he has already received a "lubricating" shot in his knee once this season.  Eventually he's going to need to shift to first base or DH, which will drop his stellar hitting numbers to simply great numbers.

Chicago: Because Tyler Flowers decided to take a year off developmentally, Kenny Williams went out and re-signed A.J. Pierzynski for another two seasons.  Loyalty is a beautiful thing, but to say Pierzynski isn't declining is to let the confetti from the best October 28th (sorry pops, your birth does not trump it) cloud your vision.  A.J. should be good for an OPS around .700 with maybe a dozen homeruns if we're lucky (10 is probably a more reasonable guess).  His inability (refusal?) to draw walks greatly hampers his OBP, keeping it below the league average.  A.J. is one of the more durable catchers in baseball though, and a good deal of his value comes from his ability to go out and play almost every day.  Hopefully he can stave off the eventual Wile E. Coyote plummet for another two seasons.

Conclusions: Catcher is actually one of the more impressive positions in the division, at least in my opinion.  You have two great players, two decent to good players, and only one piece of garbage.  Not too shabby.  Joe Mauer hangs onto his crown for at least one more year, though Carlos Santana is making a hard charge for his title.  Alex Avila nudges out A.J. Pierzynski for the middle spot due to the opposite current trajectories of their careers.  Jason Kendall finishes dead last by a mile.  Thanks for indulging me by reading (enjoying?) the series this spring.  Expect the usual entire team previews to begin when we play teams from outside the division.

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