I hardly need to link you to all of the posts I wrote over the winter saying that a catching duo of Rod Barajas and Dioner Navarro wasn’t going to work, right? Shockingly… it hasn’t worked. Over the last few weeks, they’ve been largely sharing the role, and they’ve combined to put up remarkably similar lines.
Last 30 days
Barajas: 61 PA .172/.200/.259 (.459) 2 doubles 1 homer 14/2 K/BB
Navarro: 60 PA .161/.203/.196 (.400) 2 doubles 0 homer 11/3 K/BB
Eerie, isn’t it? The only thing that’s giving Barajas any sort of boost in the SLG department is that one dinger, but if I’d waited a few more days then even that would have been outside the 30-day window; it came way back on May 13. What should really stand out there is not that the two catchers have been putting up the same numbers, but that each set of numbers is atrocious. It’s hardly just over the last month, because the season stats tell the same tale. The 35-year-old Barajas is hitting just .213/.251/.372, unable to match even his modest career line of .237/.282/.410. Navarro has been even worse, at .176/.233/.250, continuing his total career flameout since a quality 2008 in Tampa. Neither one ranks within the top 30 catchers by OPS (min. 70 PA); Navarro slots at 42nd of 44. By just about every offensive statistic other than home runs, the Dodgers have the worst hitting catchers in the National League, and their combined OBP of .264 is worse than every team in the majors except for the Twins, who have been without the injured Joe Mauer for much of the season.
And we knew this wouldn’t work. We were aghast that Barajas got over $3m based on one good week after over a decade of mediocrity. I liked the idea of signing Navarro as a low-cost lottery ticket in hopes that the former top prospect could rebound – that’s just smart – but hated the idea that he was given a major league deal for $1m rather than the non-roster invite he deserved. (Let’s pause here for a moment and stop anyone who wants to start the “should have kept Russell Martin!” bandwagon; though he got off to a good start, he’s hitting .196 since April 27 and has missed most of the last week with a back injury.)
Neither one has worked out, and it’s time to make a move. The answer is clear: DFA Navarro and recall A.J. Ellis. Ellis is no more likely to add power than Dee Gordon is, but he’s an absolute on-base machine. In parts of nine minor league seasons, his career OBP is .402; it’s been .400 or better for four seasons in a row and it hasn’t been below .380 since 2005. In 119 AAA PA this year, it’s at .470, and that’s what happens when you have a 8/23 K/BB ratio. That’s a number which would be insane, if not for the fact that he’s on the plus side of that ledger over his entire career (268/309). He’s seen bits of bit-league time over the last two years with injuries to Martin, Brad Ausmus, and Navarro, and in small sample sizes he’s managed to retain that skill – .371 OBP, 20/18 K/BB, in 147 2010-11 PA. Don’t forget, he was also the hottest Dodger hitter in Sept/Oct last year, hitting .417/.533/.500. There’s no question at all that Ellis is the superior option right now.
If 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 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.)
Ellis would be an improvement over Navarro right now, but let’s be clear that this is more than about making an incremental change to win ballgames today. The 30-year-old Ellis is hardly a savior, and he alone isn’t going to make the difference between last place and the playoffs. However, since this is his last option year and the other two are here on one-year deals, he’s also the only one likely to be a part of the 2012 club.
So what are the reasons to not do it? Ellis is a righty while Navarro is a switch-hitter, and having a switch-hitting catcher can indeed be a valuable piece. Of course, since Navarro can’t hit, it hardly matters what side of the plate he’s standing on when he whiffs or weakly grounds out. There’s also the issue of depth, because if Barajas or Ellis were to then get hurt, you’re down to JD Closser. That’s a valid concern, but I’m not as worried about it as you’d think; Closser would hardly be worse than Navarro, and as we’ve seen with Jay Gibbons and Juan Castro lately, terrible players get DFA’d for a reason. It’s more than likely Navarro would just end up in ABQ anyway.
Ellis has earned the chance to play in the big leagues. Having him here would improve the team right now, even if it’s only ever so slightly, and it would help identify what kind of role he can play in years to come. Navarro has earned the right to lose his job. Let’s make a move.