A look at free agent catcher Bengie Molina who seemingly heads the Mets’ shopping list this December. The Mets have identified Molina as one of their top offseason targets. This makes no sense to me. Nevertheless, I will go ahead and identify his strengths and weaknesses.
Strengths: Good home run power for a catcher and the Mets believe he is a good handler of pitchers.
Weaknesses: Everything else.
You may think that is snark but really, there is very little reason to think that Molina is a full-time catcher, much less one deserving of a multi-year contract plus a vesting option, which is what is allegedly being offered to him by New York.
The two most important offensive numbers are OBP and SLG. Molina has a .285 OBP and a .442 SLG mark. Among catchers last year with at least 300 ABs, he placed 26th in OBP and ninth in SLG. Last year Molina hit 12 of his 20 HR at home, not an outlandish split. But if we look at the rest of his splits, we see some really ugly numbers.
H – .309/.324/.532
R – .225/.250/.360
Now, you cannot just assume that a player’s road numbers are his true talent level but how can you look at those road numbers and identify this player as one worthy of having on a roster, much less one to target as a starter, much less one to give a multi-year contract to?
Did I mention that Molina will be 35 next season?
Molina’s 20 HR last year is tied for the sixth-highest mark all time for 34-year-old catchers. Here is the Top 10 along with how many HR they hit as a 34 and 35-year old.
Player 34 35
Terry Steinbach 35 12
Elston Howard 28 15
Lance Parrish 24 19
Jorge Posada 23 20
Sherm Lollar 22 7
Bengie Molina 20 ??
Roy Campanella 20 13
Walker Cooper 20 14
Yogi Berra 19 15
Jeff Reed 17 9
Not one player on this list either exceeded or matched his HR total in the following year. Since most of Molina’s offensive value derives from his HR ability, what happens to him if like Steinbach or Lollar, he hits only one-third as many HR as a 35-year old? It would not be accurate to say his value would crater, as that would imply that it was currently at a worthwhile level. Instead, let’s say that it would cause his value to sink even lower beneath Ramon Castro, the catcher the Mets found so lacking last year they virtually gave him away.
The Mets believe that Molina is an asset behind the plate and would do a better job of handling a pitching staff than Omir Santos did last season. There has never been a study that has proven that catchers have an ability to influence a pitching staff to any great degree. Now, that is not the same thing as saying that no ability exists, but it is pretty close.
With things that we can quantify, we find that the 2009 version of Molina was an awful defensive catcher. Devil Fingers at Driveline Mechanics did a detailed post breaking down catchers and had Molina’s defense last year worth -3.4 runs (newly-signed Henry Blanco was worth 5.7 runs).
But let’s ignore the above evidence for a minute. Instead, let’s assume that Molina was a valuable catcher last year (which he was not), is likely to maintain that value going forward (catchers typically age in dog years) and is a lock to play 130 games next season (only 25 catchers in MLB history have caught 130 or more games at age 35 or above).
Instead, let’s look to see who the Mets’ competition for Molina is. Here are the other 29 teams and their options at catcher for 2010:
PHI – Carlos Ruiz/Brian Schneider
ATL – Brian McCann
WAS – Jesus Flores/I-Rod
FLA – John Baker
STL – Yadier Molina
CHC – Geovany Soto
MIL – Greg Zaun
CIN – Ramon Hernandez
HOU – Quintero/Towles
PIT – Ryan Doumit
LAD – Russell Martin
COL – Chris Iannetta
SF – ?/Buster Posey
SD – Nick Hundley
ARI – Miguel Montero/Chris Snyder
NYY – Jorge Posada/Jesus Montero
BOS – Victor Martinez
BAL – Matt Wieters
TAM – Kelly Shoppach
TOR – ??
MIN – Joe Mauer
CHW – AJ Pierzynski/Tyler Flowers
DET – Gerald Laird
CLV – Carlos Santana
KC – Jason Kendall
LAA – Jeff Mathis/Mike Napoli
TEX – Jarrod Saltalamacchia/Taylor Teagarden
OAK – Kurt Suzuki
SEA – Rob Johnson
Besides the Mets, we have San Francisco and Toronto as the only teams definitely looking for a starting catcher. The Indians and the Mariners might be in the market, perhaps even the Padres. Let’s take a look at each of those teams and see how Molina would fit there.
Giants – They might welcome Molina back on a one-year deal but it seems unlikely.
Blue Jays – They cut ties to Rod Barajas, making them the most likely Molina suitor
Indians – Santana is their future, might be interested in a one-year deal, but might not have money to afford Molina, either.
Mariners – Their GM is too smart to give Molina a contract
Padres – Unlikely to offer Molina anywhere near the dollars he is demanding
Basically, it comes down to Toronto. The Mets and Blue Jays are looking for a starting catcher. So far this offseason Kendall, Rodriguez and Schneider have all received two-year contracts, so conventional wisdom says that Molina will want at least a two and probably a three-year deal.
Wouldn’t a prudent strategy for the Mets in regards to Molina to tell him to get an offer and come back to them? Why should they bid against themselves? Toronto may be in the market for a starting catcher, but this is also the same team that decided to give away Alex Rios for free, just to be rid of his contract. This is not a team rolling around in money to give away to a 35-year-old catcher.
Let’s also forget that Josh Thole is likely to provide more value in 2010 than Molina at around 1/20 of the cost. Instead, let’s say that the Mets have to sign a free agent catcher. In addition to Molina and Barajas, John Buck is also on the market. I will list the stats for those three catchers. Tell me which one you would prefer
Player A — .226/.258/.403
Player B — .247/.299/.484
Player C — .265/.285/.442
Those players are listed in alphabetical order, meaning Molina is Player C. It’s easy to prefer him to Barajas (Player A) but would you really feel cheated if you wound up with Buck instead?
Now let’s take the defensive numbers from Devil Fingers. We already have seen Molina at a whopping -3.4 runs, which ranked 102 out of 114 catchers in the study. Barajas ranked 11th overall at 4.2 runs while Buck did even worse than Molina, finishing at 106 with a -4.8 score.
If we add (subtract) these run totals from the WAR listed at FanGraphs (which currently does not include any adjustment for catchers’ defense) we get the following numbers:
Now, we have to take into account that Molina will be 35 and wants a multi-year deal. Barajas will be 34 and Buck will be 29 and the latter two have made no multi-year demands, quite probably due to the fact they recognize they will be lucky to get any contract offer at all.
So, even if the Mets tell Molina to shop around and come back to them once he has an offer, and he is so put off by that he ends up signing with Toronto just out of spite, the Mets then sign Barajas to a one-year deal for less money and end up better off because of it.
The Molina fascination by the Mets may be the low point in the tenure of general manager Omar Minaya. But Minaya has been linked to many rumors that had him chasing old, overpriced veterans (remember how he was going to give a huge contract to Sammy Sosa?). So perhaps we need to see Molina actually sign a contract before getting too worked up about things.
But make no mistake – Molina is not very good, he has the real possibility of falling off significantly from what he did manage to produce in 2009 and there is no reason whatsoever to offer him a multi-year deal.