Every starter needs a backup and none more than the catcher does. Ignoring extra innings and unnecessary bottom-of-the-9ths, there are 1,458 innings to be played a year at each position. In 2012, only 7 catchers caught more than 1,000 innings, no catchers caught more than 1200 innings, and not a single catcher caught more than 140 games in 2012 – and that makes sense, given the physical demands of the position. Catchers have to put tremendous strain on their knees, hips, and back from their constant squatting. They also take wear and tear to their hands simply from catching pitches, and take stray foul balls off the mask and thighs. This doesn’t even cover the potential for a devastating home plate collision. It can be very risky to overwork catchers – just ask Russell Martin.
Matt already explored the very real possibility that the White Sox will be using Tyler Flowers as their primary, starting catcher in 2013. It isn’t dispositive, but there seems to be growing buzz that A.J. Pierzynski will not be wearing a White Sox uniform next year either. However, even if we’re assuming that Tyler Flowers is the most likely candidate to do the bulk of the catching next year, the White Sox are still going to need somewhere between 400 and 700 innings at catcher from someone else.
The catcher position as a whole is also extremely weak. The composite line for catchers last year was .247/.319/.399, and the median numbers are likely lower. Coming into the offseason Cot’s had the following listed as free agent catchers for next year:
Rod Barajas, PIT *, Henry Blanco, ARI *, Koyie Hill, TEX, Gerald Laird, DET, Russell Martin, NYY, Brian McCann, ATL *, Jose Molina, TB *, Mike Napoli, TEX, Wil Nieves, ARI, Miguel Olivo, SEA *, Ronny Paulino, BAL, A.J. Pierzynski, CWS, Humberto Quintero, MIL, David Ross, ATL, Carlos Ruiz, PHI *, Brian Schneider, PHI, Kelly Shoppach, NYM, Chris Snyder, HOU *, Yorvit Torrealba, MIL, Matt Treanor, MIL *.
Not a handsome bunch. A closer look reveals that the list is even shorter than that. If there is an asterisk next to the name, there is an option of some sort for 2013 and they may never even hit the market at all. Then we have to remember that if the White Sox were willing or able to sign Napoli or Pierzynski I wouldn’t have a reason to write this article in the first place. Next you have to remove David Ross and Gerald Laird, who signed with the Red Sox and Braves respectively in the past few days. The Phillies had the no-brainer decision to exercise a $5.5 million option on Carlos Ruiz for 2013, and the Rays picked up Jose Molina’s option. As I wrote this, the Cubs signed the corpse of Dioner Navarro.
You can keep knocking off names in search of viable choices. Henry Blanco is 41, absolutely dreadful, and should probably retire. Humberto Quintero has a career line of .234/.267/.323 and turns 33 next year. Matt Treanor turns 37 in March and has a career OPS+ of 66. Those numbers will probably continue to approach each other if he doesn’t quit. A week after Thanksgiving Brian Schneider will turn 36. He is also bad at hitting. I went to look up Will Nieves thinking, “Surely he must be better than these other guys” but in fact he’s even worse. Chris Snyder has been pretty good from time-to-time – the problem is, he had an OPS of .602 last year. I managed to look at Koyie Hill’s Baseball-Reference page without vomiting, but it was a close call. Miguel Olivo is a familiar face, and he’s better than some of the guys I just listed, but he has walked 152 times in his almost 4,000 PA-long career. For reference, Joey Votto walked 204 times in the last 2 seasons. I am dubious of Rod Barajas’ Age 37 Season. Although I suppose his “All Dingers Nothing Else” profile matches the rest of the White Sox roster, a career OBP of .284 seems low even for the South Side.
Russell Martin is still pretty good, actually, but he’s going to want (and probably get) a starting job somewhere. If you do wind up signing Martin you’re probably better off trading Tyler Flowers, as he will also want a starting job – and then you’re back to scrounging for a backup. So, after going through the list, we’re left with…well…this:
And I have to say, I’m not exactly sure that Torrealba and Paulino are that much better than some of those other guys I’ve eliminated. I would be quite happy with Kelly Shoppach as Flowers’ caddy next year.
I suppose the corollary to all of this is that even with a really bad backup catcher you aren’t at much of a disadvantage, because most people have really bad backup catchers. Another way to look at it is that even some of the bad catchers I dismissed have been perfectly decent in isolated, recent seasons. The problem is that those years of productivity are erratic and unpredictable. But with Ross and Laird gone, if the White Sox don’t intend to spend the money to bring in someone like Napoli, Pierzynski, or Martin, you’re going to be left signing one of these guys, a minor league free agent, or trying to find someone in a trade.