Should Dioner Navarro Be Handed a Job?

I’m somewhat hesitant to even write this post, because I think we all know that whomever ends up being the backup catcher is about 38th on the list of “will the Dodgers succeed this year?” – and either way, A.J. Ellis is hardly a top prospect that demands opportunity. I’m not ignorant to the fact that this choice probably doesn’t have a whole lot of impact on the season, and it seems more than likely that all three catchers are going to see big league time in 2011 anyway.

Still, the question must be asked: why does Dioner Navarro have a major-league deal and a seemingly guaranteed spot, while Ellis is ticketed for the minors?

I mean, I get the superficial reasons. The switch-hitting Navarro was once a highly sought-after prospect and even made an All-Star appearance in 2008, while Ellis is a soon-to-be 30-year-old veteran of eight minor-league seasons who hasn’t hit a homer since 2008. The idea, I assume, is to hope that Navarro regains his old form and can be the catcher of the future, especially since he’s only just turned 27.

That’s all well and good, and I hope it happens, especially since there’s not much help coming from the minors any time soon. But is he really likely to do that? If not, should he be handed a job as readily as he seemingly has been?

Let’s look a little more closely as Navarro’s Tampa Bay career, which included nearly 1700 PA over five seasons. That’s enough playing time that we can draw real conclusions from it. Here’s his five seasons in Tampa:


One of these things is not like the other, right? Navarro had two atrocious seasons in Tampa (the most recent two), two mediocre seasons (his first two)… and one quite good (for a catcher, anyway) year in 2008. Now let’s look at that chart again, but add BABIP to the equation.


Well, now we have something, don’t we? In three of Navarro’s last four seasons, his batting average on balls in play landed within roughly the same range, yet in 2008 a fluky amount of balls fell for him. I won’t say that his one good year was entirely due to luck, because 2008 was also the one year in Tampa that he’d managed to cut his whiff rate below 13.6%. He was getting the ball on the bat more often, and the balls were falling more often. But his K rate has increased in each year since 2008, and his ISO mark (an indicator of power) has fallen in each year since 2007. With his BABIP regressing to what seems to be his normal levels, it’s clearly not a good trend.

Put another way, he’s basically been on a downward trend ever since he got to Tampa, except for that one fluke year. There’s no better way to illustrate that than by doing so graphically, so here’s his BABIP and wOBA charts, courtesy of FanGraphs:

Well, look at that. Both metrics are on a pretty consistent downward path, with that one fluke year sticking out like a sore thumb. It makes me wonder what his career line, currently sitting at .249/.309/.356, would look like if his 2008 had followed the rest of his career path. His career batting average would likely be in the .230s, and his OBP would certainly be under .300. So basically, he’d be Rod Barajas (career BA/OBP of .239/.284), but without the power – i.e., the only thing which makes Barajas even slightly palatable. Obviously, you can’t ignore the fact that he did put up that 2008, but you also can’t ignore that he’s been underwhelming at best in every other year of his career and downright awful the last two seasons, which of course carry the most weight.

Remember, when he was signed back in December, I shared this quote from the guys at DRaysBay, who’d seen him play everyday for five seasons:

I think I speak for the entire Tampa Bay community when I say, “Thank goodness that’s over.” Dioner Navarro seemed like he had so much promise when the Rays acquired him from the Dodgers back in 2006, and four and a half seasons later, he hasn’t lived up to any of it. His plate discipline all but disappeared (he used to clock in around a 10% walk rate), his power never developed, his defense never improved, and his attitude got surly when the Rays demoted him to the minors this season. Especially with the unexpected emergence of John Jaso this season, I’m very, very glad to see Navarro head out the door.

That’s hardly encouraging, right? Getter back to Ellis, he does indeed have zero power; even playing in high-offense parks in Albuquerque and Las Vegas the last few years, he hasn’t homered in either of the last two seasons. But in this particular situation, that might be okay. The Dodgers have imported high-power, low-OBP guys like Barajas, Juan Uribe, and Jay Gibbons to try and shore up last year’s power-deprived attack. They’ll hit more homers than guys like Russell Martin and Ryan Theriot will, but they’re certainly not going to help the club’s on-base skills. A batter who can get on base, even if he has no power, is certainly a fit – particularly one who was the hottest Dodger hitter in the last month of 2010 (.417/.533/.500).

So tell me, why is it that Navarro has a $1m contract for 2011, while Ellis has bus rides around the PCL to look forward to? Because of that one good year? That fluke year also isn’t fooling the latest iteration of Baseball Prospectus‘ PECOTA projections, pegging Navarro for .243/.304/.336  and Ellis at .256/.364/.321. The numbers just don’t support it, and that’s without even questioning the off-field issues brought up by Navarro refusing to remain with the Rays in the playoffs last year after not making the roster. It’s also without bringing defense into the equation, as that’s notoriously hard to evaluate for catchers, though it should be noted that Ellis has a very good repuation, and the DRaysBay quote above wasn’t exactly glowing towards Navarro. (Update: after this went up, BP colleague and DockOfTheRays blogger Jason Collette added, “enjoy that hot mess behind the plate.” So there’s that.)

Now as I said upfront, I get that Navarro has the prospect history and does have the one good year, and it’s worth it to see if he can recapture that magic and be useful going forward. I’m fine with that; in fact, I love the idea. I’d just have preferred to see it on a minor-league deal, and I don’t understand why he seemingly doesn’t have to fight for the job.

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Totally unrelated: a few weeks ago, I answered five questions about the Dodgers over at Razzball. They were posted today, and spawned some good conversation. Take a look.

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  2. [...] this all sounds familiar, it’s because I raised a similar concern in February, asking if Navarro really should be guaranteed a job: So tell me, why is it that [...]

  3. [...] I said at the time (2/20/11): So tell me, why is it that Navarro has a $1m contract for 2011, while Ellis has bus rides around [...]

  4. [...] Navarro. Since this is something I’ve been looking for since, oh, the moment it became clear Navarro was making the team over Ellis last winter, you can imagine that I’m just a little excited about it. It says a lot about our [...]

  5. [...] not have a legitimate chance to beat him out – seemed very foolish at the time, as I asked on February 20: Put another way, he’s basically been on a downward trend ever since he got to Tampa, except for [...]

  6. [...] With the exception of the fact that Billingsley did end up getting signed, how much of what worried us before the season no longer seems accurate after it? Not a whole lot; we expected most of those moves to work poorly, and they largely did. Besides, that list doesn’t even include the fact that Colletti had actually picked up the team half of Scott Podsednik‘s 2011 option, which Podsednik miraculously declined, or that Dioner Navarro was handed a job that he in no way deserved. [...]

  7. [...] That OBP, by the way, was the 13th-best by a catcher in Dodger history, behind only seven seasons from two legends (Mike Piazza [3] & Roy Campanella [4]), two years by Russell Martin, and a season apiece from Mike Scioscia, Paul Lo Duca, & Babe Phelps. Hey, remember when we were bemoaning the fact that Dioner Navarro was going to get handed a job ahead of Ellis? Yeah, me neither. [...]