Free Agent Catchers (Or, Ausmus Again?!?)
Ausmus' stats improved dramatically from the black hole he'd become in '03 and '04. While he still couldn't hit with any power whatsoever, his ability to draw walks and hit singles gave him an above-average year in terms of OBP. His 2005 numbers (.258 / .351 / .331) marked his best years since his 2000 campaign with the Tigers. Some significant splits in '05:
Against lefties: .293 / .409 / .424 (.833)
In the second half: .275 / .373 / .365 (.738)
At home: .280 / .363 / .355 (.717)
Of course, that just means he was terrible against righties, in the first half and on away games. The fact of the matter is, Ausmus exceeded expectations last year and he'll probably never match those numbers again. Already 36, we can't expect him to improve again in 2006.
Purpura has suggested that re-signing Ausmus is one of the team's top priorities. He should rephrase that statement, perhaps to: "Finding a solid catcher is paramount." We shouldn't feel like we owe him anything. Re-signing him out of loyalty, while perhaps a good P.R. move, will not improve the team in the short term. Better teams — teams we're contending against — will acquire better players and become better teams in doing so. We shouldn't be content simply standing still, much less becoming older and slower and, really, worse.
At this point, Ausmus should be considered a free agent, just like Ramon Hernandez or Bengie Molina (or the mystery man, Kenjie Jojima, from Japan — more on him later). Ausmus has said he'll only play again for the Padres, his hometown team, or the Astros next year. In my mind, this simply buys us more time to assess other free agent backstops or explore the possibility of acquiring one in a trade. That way, if Hernandez and Bengie prove too expensive (which they will) and Estrada and Zaun are too costly to trade for, then can look at the Ausmus option. So here are our catcher options, as I see them:
Why he's good: He brings power to a position where it is a rare commodity. Besides, a dozen home runs in Petco is still pretty good. Hernandez was the 10th-best offensive catcher in the league last year, playing half his games at the most pitchy of pitcher's parks. He'll pass Javy and Piazza next year, and possibly Posada, Molina, LaRue and Barrett. He actually had a reverse split in '05: a .684 OPS against lefties and a .797 OPS against righties. I guess this is a good thing. He'll be 30 in May, so whoever signs him to a short (i.e. three-year) deal will be getting the last half of his prime years.
Why he'd fit well with us: He'd provide us with marked improvement in an area where we haven't had a decent player in years. Decades even. He'd give us balance across the lineup. Pettitte and Clemens have raved about Ausmus' other skills: defense and game-calling, for years. Hernandez, according to ESPN, is also a pitcher's catcher, calling good games and earning the trust of his pitchers. He could help with the development of Wandy and Zeke, who communicate better with other Latinos.
Downsides: He isn't as patient as you'd like. His career .325 OBP and .743 OPS aren't what you want to get from a guy you're going to spend a lot of money on. Plus he spent a lot of time of the DL last year.
Let's talk money: In a down year for free agents, he is one of the top commodities. If he sells himself out to the highest bidder — and there will be many — he just might get $10 million a year. I'd go as high as $7 million a year for three years.But that won't get it done.
Why he's good: He peaked at the right time, setting career highs in most of his counting and averaging stats. He improved his walk rate, but 27 bases on balls in 410 at-bats is still disturbing. He slugged .446, well over his .397 career average. In short, his last year was phenomenal, and probably a big step above what you'd get from his next couple of years.
Why he'd fit well with us: Despite his misleading stats, he does have power. And his .273 career average is nothing to scoff at. Like Hernandez, he would provide us with a good hitter at catcher. Oh, and his defense and arm: fabulous.
Downsides: He's already 31 and has played six full seasons. Catchers age poorly, so he;d be a risky signing. He's clearly not in top shape, though he does tend to stay off the DL. He still wouldn't be an asset on the basepaths.
Let's talk money: He too will look to make the big bucks. We shouldn't offer more than $20 million over 3 years, and that also won't get it done.
Well, that's about it in terms of catchers. There is a guy named Mike Piazza, but something tells me you'll see him in the broadcaster's booth before you see him on the field again. This Jojima guy looks alright. But he doesn't know English, and would take a long time to adjust to America, not to mention Houston. Can you imagine Wandy trying to talk to Jojima?!
I'm tired, but tomorrow I promise more on Johnny Estrada. A preview: Braves message boards are all calling for him to be traded! (It's an embarassment of riches over there). And