Taking early stock of the Isotopes

While Mike is on vacation, he asked me to offer up some thoughts about the Albuquerque Isotopes and how what amounts to the Dodgers’ reserve team is shaping up as the season begins. The ‘Topes have only been home for a total of eight days so far this season — they begin their fourth road series of the year tonight at New Orleans (Marlins) — so this is all a very, very preliminary analysis of the 25 players I have observed.

Catchers Tim Federowicz and Josh Bard

FedEx is the man on the spot, the lone Isotope ranked by Baseball America in the Dodgers’ top 10 prospects. While plenty of fans are still smarting about last year’s trade that sent Trayvon Robinson packing and brought Fed and two pitchers to the organization, so far the young backstop is showing promise. “He’s been a lot better this year, he’s a lot more patient,” manager Lorenzo Bundy said of Fed’s hitting (.292/.365/.477). The swing-first, pull-everything mentality from last season is all but gone. Defensively he has looked sharp, making strong throws to second, blocking the plate well and doing a good job of working with the pitching staff. As for Bard, as the Isotopes’ oldest player (34, which makes him the only player on the team older than me … yikes), he has not played much, but he has played well, batting .385 (10-for-26). “Obviously, Josh with his experience … it’s like having an extra coach floating around here,” Bundy said. “He takes the leadership role. He knows his role on this club and he’s ready at any time.”

First baseman Jeff Baisley

Jeff Baisley has been a good presence in the lineup. (Photo courtesy of the Albuquerque Isotopes.)

The veteran slugger has played well so far, batting .313/.390/.531 with three homers and a team-leading 16 RBI. Though primarily a third baseman with Salt Lake (Angels) last season, he has handled first base well defensively and it clearly has not had an impact on his hitting. Personality-wise, he keeps it serious on the field and keeps it loose during batting practice and in the clubhouse. Though he is viewed as a leader, Baisley said he has not had to overly assert himself so far. He certainly continues the recent tradition of high-character veterans the Dodgers like to have in Albuquerque.

Second baseman Alex Castellanos

Though currently on the disabled list with a strained left hamstring (return date unknown), the converted outfielder has been solid so far at the plate (.366/.477/.746), while overcoming the defensive obstacles that come with returning to his old position. The big issue for Castellanos offensively lies with his ability to overcome his aggressive, swing-first mentality. In the field, throwing has been the biggest challenge, but after a week spent with Dodgers special instructors Juan Castro and Jody Reed (laugh about their hitting, but both were good in the field), Castellanos seems to be adapting quickly. Just calm down on the early promotion possibilities; Castellanos himself said he needs close to a full season playing every day at second base before he is ready for MLB.

Shortstop Luis Cruz

The wily veteran has been on “Cruz Control” since he arrived, smacking the ball around (.328/.343/.500) while making some sharp plays in the field. He is another veteran who keeps it loose; his imitation of teammate Trent Oeltjen‘s Australian accent is a sight to behold.

Third baseman Josh Fields

Nicknamed “QB” for obvious reasons, the former Oklahoma State football standout has gotten off to a quiet start (.289/.375/.526) when compared to his teammates. Nonetheless, he has been a solid contributor. This is no sign of the dreaded “jaded ex-big-leaguer stuck at Triple-A” disease that sometimes afflicts players. Much like Cruz, he seemed to be riding high off his strong spring that nearly saw him make the big-league roster. He has been a positive influence, playing good defense with (no surprise here) a very strong arm.

Utility man Elian Herrera

The versatile Elian Herrera has been a sparkplug atop the lineup. (Photo courtesy of the Albuquerque Isotopes)

Bundy said the Isotopes’ turnaround, from a 2-6 road trip to their current record of 11-9, has been thanks in part to the ultra-versatile Herrera. A pure contact hitter (.340/.357/.566), he is Albuquerque’s fastest player and has done well out of the leadoff spot. Defensively, he has looked especially sharp at second base and third base, while also seeing time at shortstop and the outfield. He would strictly be a bench player at the next level, but with Jerry Hairston and Adam Kennedy not getting any younger, the Dodgers could do worse.

Reserve infielders Joe Becker and Lance Zawadzki

Becker is a favorite of Bundy’s especially with his ability to deliver big hits in the clutch, often as a pinch hitter. He is also a capable defender at second, though he lacks the arm for third and has not played much shortstop. Zawadzki joined the team from extended spring on the last day of the homestand. While I have yet to see him play for the Isotopes, he was a solid defender and a streaky hitter last season with Omaha (Royals).

Outfielders Scott Van Slyke, Jerry Sands, Trent Oeltjen, Matt Angle

Van Slyke, the Dodgers’ No. 21 prospect, has been the hitting star out of this group (.364/.437/.610). He has fared well defensively in both outfield corners, with a strong arm and more mobility than you would expect from someone who is listed at 6-5, 250. He made one start at first base during the homestand, looking a little out of practice there, so hold off on the “he can replace Loney” talk. Oh, and I will sit him down to talk about his life growing up around baseball with his father. His stories are hilarious. Sands’ struggles at the plate (.192/.310/.315) have been well-documented so far. Oeltjen has played all three outfield spots, serving more as a fourth outfielder than anything else. As such, his hitting (.250/.328/.350) has yet to get into a groove with such sporadic playing time. Angle has been the lost one of the bunch, looking all out of sorts at the plate (.146/.255/.268) and now finding himself on the DL with a strained hamstring.

Starting pitchers Michael Antonini, John Ely, Stephen Fife, Fernando Nieve, Mike Parisi

John Ely has pitched well at home, not so well on the road. (Photo courtesy of the Albuquerque Isotopes)

Before his call-up to the big leagues, Antonini made one start in Albuquerque he would like to forget (3.1 IP, 7 H, 7 R, 6 ER, 2 BB, 3 HR allowed). Like many young pitchers, the 26-year-old lefty learned the hard way you have to keep the ball down in Albuquerque if you want to have a prayer of succeeding here. He certainly throws a lot of strikes, but he left too many up in that game. Despite being back for his third season with the Isotopes, Ely has remained upbeat and continues to work hard. He has been a completely different pitcher at home (13 IP, 4 ER) than on the road (7.1 IP, 11 ER). Fife has just plain struggled wherever he has pitched this year (1-2, 9.92 ERA). The big righty is a finesse pitcher and so far the PCL is chewing him up. Nieve went from horrible at Omaha (1.2 IP, 11 H, 9 ER) to solid at home (6 IP, 7 H, 3 ER) to then getting ejected in the third inning of his third start for hitting a batter. It has been a very bizarre season for the former Astro and Met, who throws hard but does not strike a lot of people out (8 total in 10.1 IP). Parisi has been the most consistent and effective starter to date. It should come as no surprise, since there always seems to be one veteran who puts together a solid campaign in ABQ (e.g. Dana Eveland last year).

Right-handed relievers Josh Wall, Ramon Troncoso, Will Savage, Francisco Felix

Wall has looked sharp while sharing closing duties. He throws in the mid-90s and looks like another potentially solid addition to LA’s young bullpen down the line. There is still some wildness (4 walks in 8.1 IP) that needs to be smoothed out. Troncoso has looked like a man determined to get back to the big leagues (1.08 ERA in 8.1 IP), while Savage has been lights out (4-0, 2.41) in the long relief/spot starter role, keeping the ball down and utilizing his cutter, fastball and curveball to their fullest extent. Felix, well, somebody has to take it on the chin, and so far he is doing just that (10.13 ERA in 13.1 IP). As the Dodger bullpen fluctuates, his head would seem to be the first on the chopping block down here.

Left-handed relievers Brent Leach, Wil Ledezma, Derrick Loop, Scott Rice, Cole St. Clair

Rice has been the star of the southpaw collective, sharing the team lead with four saves. He is at his most effective not when he is getting strikeouts, but rather when is able to get hitters to try and pounce on strikes, causing them to ground out and pop up early in the count. Leach (0-1, 6.57) has alternated between looking good and taking it on the chin; personality-wise he has not changed from his year in Japan, remaining the same funny, witty southerner who graced the clubhouse in 2009-10. St. Clair has been similar to Leach in terms of pitching, looking good one outing and struggling to throw strikes the next. Poor Ledezma was walloped in his first two home appearances (10 runs total), but has since settled down and regained his confidence. Loop has yet to appear in a game in Albuquerque.

Overall

This is a better team than it looked after losing six of eight on the opening road trip. The Isotopes pulled off their first four-game sweep since 2009 when they took Iowa apart. As long as the pitching stays at least somewhat consistent, the lineup is more than capable of scoring enough runs. What looked like a pack of spot starters, middle relievers and bench players actually has some players with enough talent (Van Slyke, Castellanos, Federowicz, in particular) to help the Dodgers out in the future. Rice and Wall can be both be part of a big-league bullpen, as well. This team may lack the star power when Gordon, Sands (the good version) and Robinson were here last year, but it is still a fun bunch to watch.

As always, you can find all the ‘Topes news and notes you can handle here and you can now follow me on Twitter as @TopesWriter for quick updates, anecdotes, breaking news and even some play-by-play during home games.

— Chris Jackson

Are the Dodgers Going To Have the Weakest Catching Situation in Baseball?

All of us love A.J. Ellis around here. How can you not? He’s the kind of guy you always root for, because after having been in the minors for nine seasons (including four in a row at Triple-A) and seeing small stints with the big club in every year since 2008, he’s finally positioned to be a big-league starter for the first time in 2012 at age 31. It’s the kind of story we can all relate to, and it helps that when he’s actually seen playing time late in the year over the last two seasons, he’s been excellent, putting up a .342/.444/.461 line over 92 September/October plate appearances since 2010. Even his style works, because on a team that has had far too many OBP black holes in recent years, getting on base is exactly his strength, along with positive reviews of his pitcher handling. And selfishly, I’ll admit that any ballplayer who not only has a Twitter account but is interesting with it and follows me, Jon Weisman, and Eric Stephen gets an additional one billion coolness points.

Few of us like Matt Treanor. He’s old. He can’t hit, at all, even a little. That’s usually fine from a backup backstop, because you’re rarely expecting much from the position other than to be a capable defender, but Treanor grades out poorly there as well, not even as good as Rod Barajas was. You don’t ever want to get too agitated over a one-year, small-money commitment to a player who really isn’t going to make much of a difference, but Treanor was never good, and when he turns 36 in two weeks he’s not going to start getting any better. He exists. I’m not sure why.

None of us are really sure what to make of Tim Federowicz. You try not to unfairly denigrate him simply because he was included in one of the most shocking and unpopular Dodger trades in years, because he had nothing to do with that, and his defense is supposedly excellent. However, I’ve yet to see anyone outside the Dodger front office who thinks he can hit enough to be a big-league starter, and if he isn’t more than a backup, then why did you trade Trayvon Robinson for him anyway? Well, there I go again, busting him for a trade he didn’t ask for. Kevin Goldstein ranked him as the 13th best Dodger prospect recently at Baseball Prospectus, and being one spot ahead of Ethan Martin and four below Alex Castellanos isn’t exactly high praise. Maybe he’ll improve his hitting skills, but we won’t find that out this year in Albuquerque; remember, playing in the PCL once made Terry Tiffee look like a stud.

Taken as a whole, the top three Dodger catchers are questionable at best. We like Ellis and are optimistic about him, but can his great-eye, zero-power ways stop pitchers from throwing nothing but strikes, and how many guys are really impact players when they don’t get their first real shots until 31? Is Treanor going to be really bad or just very bad? And is Federowicz really the catcher of the future, or just someone we say nice things about regarding his defense while we hope Gorman Erickson pans out? Or Pratt Maynard? Or someone we don’t even know about yet?

One scout asked BP‘s John Perrotto just that:

“I don’t understand what the Dodgers are doing here. These guys are both number-two catchers, and I can’t imagine either one of them starting 100 games. Maybe they think (rookie Tim) Fedorowicz [sic] will be the answer at some point in the season, but I wasn’t all that impressed with what I saw of him last September. This has to be the weakest catching situation in the major leagues.”

The weakest catching situation in the major leagues. Well, I thought, that seems kind of harsh, but to outsiders who don’t have as much of a soft spot for Ellis as we do, I suppose I can see where they’re coming from. On the other hand, outside of a few teams, catching is a black hole across the sport. But the weakest? Well, I couldn’t let that go by without trying to figure out if that’s true. Of course, there’s no black and white way to solidly identify that, because you can’t just go by 2011 stats; situations have changed, players have moved, players have aged.

Besides, we’re not interested in what happened in 2011, we’re trying to project what might happen in 2012, so for that, I went to BP‘s PECOTA spreadsheet, the most recent version of which was posted on Tuesday. In order to weed out minor leaguers and others who may skew the data, I referenced MLBDepthCharts.com to identify the likely top two catchers for each team in 2012, with some small changes to their guesses. By combining BP‘s WARP score (their variation of WAR) for each club’s top two backstops, we have a quick-and-dirty way of looking at the value of each team’s 2012 backstop duo.

So are the Dodgers the worst? Well, not exactly…

Team / Total WARP / Top Two
1. MIN 5.8 Joe Mauer, Ryan Doumit
2t. CLE 4.6 Carlos Santana, Lou Marson
2t. ATL 4.6 Brian McCann, David Ross
4. TEX 4.2 Mike Napoli, Yorvit Torrealba
5. STL 3.4 Yadier Molina, Bryan Anderson


25. LAN 1.2 A.J. Ellis, Matt Treanor
26. PIT 1.1 Rod Barajas, Michael McKenry
27. SEA 0.8 Miguel Olivo, John Jaso
28. KCA 0.7 Salvador Perez, Brayan Pena
29. HOU 0.6 Chris Snyder, Humberto Quintero
30. TBA -0.1 Jose Lobaton, Jose Molina

So according to PECOTA, the Dodgers might have merely the sixth-worst catching group in the game. Take that, nameless scout! Of course, this is loaded with caveats, because even if PECOTA was an exact science (which it’s not), a difference in 0.2 points of WARP is so insignificant that it’s hardly worth noting, so think of this more as being “in the bottom group”. Still, expect some fluctuation there. If the Mariners really do play Jesus Montero regularly behind the plate, his bat alone will vault Seattle out of this group, and I’m somewhat surprised to see the Royals ranking so low, considering that Perez was impressive as a 21-year-old in the bigs last season. Not the Astros, though. Good lord, are the Astros going to be bad.

Most importantly, all of this is tied up in Ellis. Unlike most of the other clubs where the two catchers combine their value to reach the total WARP, this represents Ellis at 1.2 and Treanor (and Federowicz, for that matter) at 0.0. I’m cautiously optimistic that Ellis can keep his OBP high enough that along with his plus defense his near-total lack of power won’t prevent him from being a solid starter, or at least solid enough to get the Dodgers through the season and guarantee him a big-league career that could last for several more years. But if he can’t, or if he gets injured, there’s nothing behind him to step in. And you remember what shortstop looked like when Rafael Furcal got hurt in 2008, right?

Checking Into the 2012 Albuquerque Isotopes

Last year at this time, I look a look at how the roster was shaping up for the Triple-A Albuquerque Isotopes. Considering how set the MLB roster seems to be at this point, it’s a whole lot more interesting to look at the minors, so let’s do it again. A year ago, we were excited at the prospect of seeing Dee Gordon, Trayvon Robinson, and Jerry Sands all playing together at the highest minor-league level. This year, there’s a different crop of interesting offensive prospects to keep tabs on, though not likely a whole lot of interest on the mound.

C: After parts of four seasons in Triple-A, dating back to 2008 with Las Vegas, A.J. Ellis is out of options and finally set to get a shot in the bigs. There’s little question here that Tim Federowicz will be the regular Isotopes backstop, since the 102 plate appearances he received with Albuquerque last season were his first above Double-A. Last year’s primary backup, Damaso Espino, is an unsigned free agent, so it’s likely that recently-signed veteran Josh Bard joins Federowicz in New Mexico, with a decent chance we’ll see either prospect Gorman Erickson or recently-signed and well-traveled Salomon Manriquez making appearances at points as well.

1B: Scott Van Slyke, 2011′s Dodger minor league hitter of the year, moves up from Double-A Chattanooga; he could still see some time in the outfield corners, but is mainly seen as a first baseman. Fun stories John Lindsey and Corey Smith are each unsigned and probably won’t be back; Jerry Sands could see some time here as well as in the outfield if he ends up not breaking camp with the big club.

2B: I’m still not convinced that he won’t be traded this winter, but the Mark Ellis signing eliminated any chance that Ivan DeJesus was going to make the Dodgers, so he’ll likely return to Triple-A for a third consecutive season. You have to wonder when Jaime Pedroza, owner of a .370 OBP in parts of two Double-A seasons, could get a shot; in addition, Justin Sellers might be the primary shortstop but should still see time at second and third as he attempts to keep his positional flexibility fresh for his future career as a utilityman.

3B: Russ Mitchell has no shot of making the Dodgers barring a string of injuries, and Pedro Baez & Travis Denker are hardly pushing him from behind, so he’ll return for his third Triple-A year at the age of 27. We’ll see him in the bigs again, as we always do, and he’ll be underwhelming as usual. Did you know the ‘Topes had thirteen third basemen last year? Okay, seven played in fewer than five games, but still.

SS: Sellers probably gets the initial look, though I’ll guess he won’t play the majority of games at shortstop since he’ll both be at second and third for Albquerque and probably spend a decent amount of time in the bigs once the elderly begin to break down. Recent minor-league invites Luis Cruz and Lance Zawadzki should collect plenty of time filling space until Jake Lemmerman is ready, perhaps in 2013.

LF: This largely depends on Sands, because if he’s in the minors, he’s playing every day. Primary 2011 left fielder Trayvon Robinson is of course gone, so there should be an opening for what could be a hilarious season out of Kyle Russell. Russell has been known for his massive power and nearly-as-impressive difficulties in making contact, so that package in ABQ should present some Triple-A fueled numbers that’ll have us all pretending like he’s the next big thing by June.

CF: Alfredo Silverio was added to the 40-man roster earlier this offseason after a solid season in Chattanooga, and with both regular center fielders gone from 2011 – Robinson to Seattle, and Jamie Hoffmann to Colorado – there’s a big hole here for Silverio to fill. Non-roster invite Cory Sullivan probably also fits into the mix here.

RF: Well, I don’t think Jay Gibbons is coming back. Alex Castellanos, impressive in a short look with Chattanooga after being acquired for Rafael Furcal, is likely to start the season as the primary Isotope right fielder; Russell and Sullivan could see time here as well.

Bench: Other than the guys I’ve already mentioned – Bard, Cruz, Zawadzki, & Sullivan – corner infielder Jeff Baisley will probably be an Isotope, plus perhaps 2B/3B Joe Becker, who got into 70 games with the club last season. In the outfield, expect to see Trent Oeltjen or someone else like him, and at some point, Albuquerque native Brian Cavazos-Galvez should make his hometown debut.

Starting Pitching

It helps, somewhat, that the Dodger starting rotation and bullpen are all but set, so there’s no worry about ten guys fighting for that fifth rotation spot. On the other hand, the Dodgers have shown a pattern of trying to keep their top pitching prospects away from the high-offense PCL, preferring to promote them directly from Double-A instead, so these are informed guesses and little more.

SP1: Being the #1 starter on this list doesn’t mean “ace” as it would in the bigs; rather, it’s just the order in which I consider them most likely. John Ely, owner of 25 starts for the Isotopes last year and a few stints with the Dodgers, is almost certainly headed back for another year of Triple-A. He’s roster depth at best – great to have around, never someone you want to count on.

SP2: Will Savage had a reasonably successful season for the Lookouts last year, striking out few but showing excellent control. Hardly a top prospect – 28 next year, and has been a minor-league free agent more than once – he’ll likely turn his invite to big-league camp into a season spent in New Mexico.

SP3: Like Savage, Michael Antonini is hardly a name to know – he was acquired for Chin-lung Hu for chrissake – but he’ll be 27 next year, was invited to the offseason developmental camp, and has a few games of Triple-A experience under his belt from his time with the Mets.  He’s been a bit homer-prone in the lower levels, which is somewhat terrifying to think about in Albuquerque.

SP4: I went back and forth on this one, which is why he’s SP4, but I’ll guess that Nathan Eovaldi does head to Triple-A rather than Double-A. That’s partly because the Chattanooga rotation looks like it could be getting full, but also because Eovaldi was decent in his time in the bigs, and sending him back down two levels could look like an insult. Besides, if you’re going to succeed in the NL West, you have to learn how to win in Colorado and Arizona.

Others: Alberto Bastardo and Randy Keisler combined to make 34 starts last year; each is currently a free agent and might not be back. Tim Sexton was awful last year, largely as an injury fill-in, and don’t forget that Carlos Monasterios should be back from elbow surgery at some point. There’s probably also going to be another Dana Eveland-like veteran that we don’t know about yet, and it’s possible that younger arms like Allen Webster, Chris Withrow, and Stephen Fife could push their way up if the organization doesn’t try to keep them away from Albuquerque.

Relief Pitching

Take your pick. It’s possible that none of the top three Isotope leaders in games pitched from 2011 – Jon Link (already signed with Baltimore), Travis Schlichting, Merkin Valdez – returns. The fourth was Ramon Troncoso, who might make the Dodgers but is far more likely to be DFA’d since he’s out of options. Josh Lindblom could appear if he doesn’t make the big team, but the entire collection of recently signed fungible veterans – Angel Guzman, Fernando Nieve, Jose Ascanio, Ryan Tucker, Shane Lindsay, Alberto Castillo, Matt Chico, Scott Rice, John Grabow, Wil Ledezma – are candidates to make up the bullpen, as again, the Dodgers try not to put their better prospects like Shawn Tolleson, Steve Ames, and Josh Wall here.

Remember, the Isotopes have used 49, 56, and 52 players going back to 2009, so this is an extremely high-level look; needs change as the big club makes their own moves.


MSTI’s 2011 in Review: Catcher

As promised yesterday, we’re kicking off the fifth year of MSTI Season Reviews today with the catchers. I’ll probably run 2-3 of these a week through October, working in looks at arbitration choices and other stories as events warrant.

The Dodgers used five catchers this year, the most since using six in 1976, and tied with many seasons for seventh-most in club history. (The team record, eight, was set by the 1938 Brooklyn club. And who doesn’t remember Greek George, Paul Chervinko, and Gilly Campbell from that ’38 crew?) Going from the lows of Rod Barajas and Dioner Navarro early in the season to the even further lows of Barajas and Navarro in the middle of the year, finally rebounding with solid finishes by Barajas and A.J. Ellis, the composite Dodger catching crew finished 17th in catcher OPS, .698. That says a whole lot more about the state of catching in the majors right now than it does about the Dodgers.

Rod Barajas (C+)
.230/.287/.430 .717 16hr 1.4 WAR

Remember how we felt when the Dodgers signed Barajas last winter, or as I called it at the time, “Rod Barajas Turned One Good Week Into $3.25m“? No? Bask in it with me again:

Barajas signed for $500k with the Mets last year, waiting until just before camp opened in February to even get that. He was then so bad that the woeful Mets, you know, let him go to the Dodgers on waivers for absolutely nothing. Granted, he had a great first week or so in Dodger blue – 4 homers, 1.458 OPS in his first 8 games. Yet in his remaining 17 games, he had just 1 homer and a .612 OPS, also known as “Rod Barajas being Rod Barajas“. On the season, he had a .284 OBP, which exactly matches his career mark, because he’s not very good.

Look at it this way – Barajas had never made more than $3.2m, which is what he got from Texas in 2006. He’s now five years older, coming off several lousy seasons bouncing from team to team – making less than $1m in two of them – yet somehow, coming off a year in which he was dumped on waivers and will be 35, he’s all of a sudden worth $3.8m 3.25m. Seriously? In my 2011 plan, when I said he could come back I said that I thought he could be had for $800k. Is this all because of his one good week as a Dodger? I’ve had to deal with a lot of casual fans who got taken in by that, but I never expected the front office to do so.

That have been just a bit harsh, for reasons we’ll get to in a second, and Barajas ended up doing exactly what Rod Barajas does. Batting average between .225-.255, just like it’s been every year since 2004? Check. Terrible OBP, close to his lousy career mark of .284? You better believe it. Solid amount of pop, resulting in 11-19 homers for the fifth time in six years? Natch. Missing about a month with a lower body injury (this time an ankle sprain) for the fourth time in five years? Mmm-hmm. One ridiculously red-hot stretch (1.153 August OPS) surrounded by a season of ineptitude (no other month above .664), just like last year? Damn straight.

He’s like clockwork. Mediocre, uninspiring clockwork.

Here’s the thing, though: the state of catching is so poor that even with all those warts, Barajas was able to provide some amount of value. Only two three NL catchers had more homers than Barajas’ 16, and they all had well 150 or more plate appearances than he did to get there; add that to roughly average defense, and he’s slightly above replacement level, 14th of 23 MLB catchers with at least 300 PA in rWAR. That said, the flaws in his game mean that even with the power, he was tied for 11th in wOBA of the 13 NL catchers who had at least 300 PA. Much like the potassium benzoate in the frogurt… that’s bad.

Barajas is a free agent, and he turned 36 in September. For his part, he wants to return, and if you’re not convinced that Tim Federowicz is ready to start the season in the bigs as Ellis’ partner, you could perhaps make an argument for it simply on the basis of his pop and the lack of viable alternatives. But if he really wants to be a Dodger that bad, toss him an $1m contract offer and say “take it or leave it”. Otherwise, it’s easy enough to move on.

On the other hand… he did do this, which is the greatest thing ever.

Dioner Navarro (F)
.193/.276/.324 .600 5hr -0.3 WAR

AKA, “the guy who always seemed to come up in the ninth inning with the game on the line, always.”

It’s not like we shouldn’t have seen this coming, of course. When the Dodgers signed Navarro on December 8 of last year, I shared this quote from respected Tampa blog DRaysBay:

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.

While I liked the idea of signing a former top prospect with one solid year under his belt to a “what the hell, let’s take a chance” contract, giving him a guaranteed major-league deal – all but assuring that A.J. Ellis would 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 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.

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.)

And, well, that’s exactly what happened, at least after he missed the first month of the season thanks to an oblique strain. Navarro’s batting average was south of .200 for basically the entire season, and that combined with indifferent defense had us calling for him to be gone by early June, when Navarro’s OPS had sunk to a lowly .483, with no indication he deserved a spot on the team. Even when he was good – two of his homers were the margin of victory in 1-0 wins – he was bad, as he had two throwing errors in the first three innings in the second of those games.

By August, the Dodgers agreed with what we’d all known for nearly a year and finally cut him loose, but even that wasn’t the end of it; as if lousy performance, a poor track record, and a previous clubhouse issue weren’t enough, the last straw was reportedly his lack of a sufficient work ethic, which is why the Dodgers took the highly unusual step of cutting him just a week before rosters expanded. Navarro still doesn’t turn 28 until next year, so he’s undoubtedly going to get another chance somewhere. This is now two strikes for him, however, without the on-field performance that can buy you a ‘get out of jail free’ card.

Good riddance, Dioner. I think it’s telling that no one bothered picking you up after you got cut. See you never.

A.J. Ellis (B)
.271/.392/.376 .769 2hr 0.5 WAR

I hate to say I told you so, but, well, just look at the February 20 quote from the Navarro section above. (Not that I was alone in such an assessment, of course.) Navarro ended up straining an oblique in March, so Ellis broke camp with the club, but got just four starts before being sent down when Navarro returned near the end of April – though don’t forget that we nearly saw him make his season debut as a pitcher when he began to warm in the bullpen as the Dodgers were getting smashed 10-0 by the Giants on April 2.

We were able to put up with the ensuing Barajas / Navarro pairing for about six weeks, until I could finally take no more on June 11:

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.

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.

Eight days later, Ellis did return, but only because Barajas sprained his ankle; he received another 37 scattered plate appearances before sent down again upon Barajas’ recovery. As Navarro continued to struggle, we wondered yet again why Ellis was being kept down in August:

I’ve tried to stay away from the “why is guy X playing over guy Y”, since the day-to-day machinations in a lost season don’t really matter too much, particularly when there’s not a ton of great alternatives. But seriously, Dioner Navarro, after another 0-4 today (along with a throwing error), is now at .193/.276/.324. He’s had his chance to prove that his terrible last few years were the fluke, as opposed to his solid 2008. It hasn’t happened. Why exactly are we not seeing A.J. Ellis play every day for the last six weeks?

Two days later, Navarro was DFA’d, a cause for celebration, and Ellis joined the club for his third stint of the season, which paid off immediately when Ellis hit his first big-league home run (and first professional homer anywhere since 2008) as the Dodgers swept the Cardinals. (He would add his second on September 4.)

Sharing time with Barajas and Tim Federowicz over the last six weeks, Ellis hit .325/.426/.550 with roundly praised defense and pitch handling. That’s in addition to a .467 OBP in AAA this year, and since he’s now out of options, he’s all but cemented his place on the 2012 roster… until Ned Colletti signs Jason Varitek, that is.

Hector Gimenez (inc.)
(.143/.143/.143 .286 0hr -0.1 WAR)

“That picture of Hector seems odd,” you might be saying. “He’s wearing #79, not the #9 he had with the Dodgers, and they’re wearing their home whites, yet that photo was clearly not taken in Dodger Stadium.”

All true: this is a shot of Gimenez hitting during spring training in Arizona, i.e., the only time anyone ever gave a crap about Hector Gimenez. Or as I said during our midseason recap:

I would like to say something witty or insightful about Hector Gimenez, but that infers that I have absolutely any recollection of him as a Dodger whatsoever. Pass.

So pretend you have any memory of Gimenez’ seven glorious plate appearances as a Dodger (including one start!) before hurting his knee in April, and know that you are lying, because you do not. Shockingly, the camp darling who spent 2010 as a 27-year-old in AA didn’t work out, and while he had a decently okay season with Chattanooga after returning from injury, you’ll never hear of him again, because if you can’t make it in an organization that has as little catching depth as the Dodgers, well, you can’t make it period. Mark it.

Tim Federowicz (inc.)
(.154/.313/.154 .466 0hr 0.0 WAR)

You hated the Trayvon Robinson deal that brought Federowicz and two minor league pitchers to Los Angeles at the trading deadline, and so did I. That sentence, right there, is the burden that Tim Federowicz has to deal with. It’s not enough for him to be a quality major leaguer, as though that isn’t difficult enough. He also has to outshine what Robinson does in Seattle, and with Trayvon filling up highlight reels with diving catches in his short time in the bigs, Federowicz starts at a disadvantage. It might not be fair, but it is the truth.

He received only 16 plate appearances in a September cameo, so we learned little about him there, but I’ve seen a lot of people making a big deal of the fact that after he hit .277/.338/.407 for Boston’s AA club, he kicked that up to .325/.431/.627 for the Dodgers in AAA, and the fact that I apparently still need to issue the standard disclaimer is disappointing. But since I do: five of his six AAA homers and a .409/.519/.841 line came in 13 home games, and one homer and a .231/.333/.385 line came in 12 road games. Neither of those are particularly large sample sizes, but again, he’s hardly the first to show ridiculous splits in New Mexico, so take the overall AAA line with a grain of salt approximately the size of Juan Uribe.

So despite the glowing reports about his defense, we’ll expect to see Federowicz starting 2012 back in AAA, with Ellis and [insert Rod Barajas or vaguely-Rod-Barajas-esque-veteran-catcher #X82 here] manning the dish for the big club. Federowicz will hit something like .320/.430/.500 for the Isotopes, because that’s practically league-average in the PCL, and everyone will get excited. Once again, the disclaimer will come out.

******

Next! James Loney‘s wild ride! It’s first base!

Dodgers Recall Three to Not Face Stephen Strasburg and Nationals


With the AAA season at an end, the Dodgers have recalled three Isotopes to bolster the roster, according to Dylan Hernandez: Jerry Sands, John Ely, and Tim Federowicz. Not a single one counts as a surprise, and if anything that seems to say that we should not be expecting Ivan DeJesus or Jamie Hoffmann to be making cameos, since there’s no reason to delay their recalls. If anything, I’m more intrigued to see what happens when AA Chattanooga’s playoff run comes to an end, since there’s been a lot of fun names tossed around as possible callups from that club, names like Shawn Tolleson, Allen Webster, Scott Van Slyke and Cole St. Clair.

Of the three newcomers, only Federowicz is seeing the bigs for the first time, and it will be interesting to see how they’re used. Ely is simply depth, of course, who may or may not get a start down the stretch depending on schedules, health, and Dana Eveland. Ideally, Sands will see a healthy amount of playing time as the club attempts to see if he can be counted on in 2012. Considering that Juan Rivera has been awful for the last two weeks (and remember, he was already DFA’d once this season) and that James Loney has only his recent hot streak to fall back on, you’d think it wouldn’t be too difficult to get him time, but things have a way of getting complicated. (He is not in tonight’s lineup.) (Update: Hernandez later added this, which, yay: “Mattingly wants to see Sands. Could result in more days off for Ethier and Rivera.”)

Then there’s Federowicz, who I had given little chance of being recalled in September until the Dodgers cut Dioner Navarro, this making Federowicz the third catcher on the depth chart. My guess is that he’s here mostly to get acclimated to the bigs and serve as depth rather than see any real playing time since he’s still so raw (just 115 games above A-ball). (Update: Hernandez, killing it today, confirms this as well; Federowicz is unlikely to play before the last week or two.) With Rod Barajas telling Steve Dilbeck of the LA Times that he would very much like to return in 2012, the catching situation is certainly in flux. I absolutely wouldn’t give Barajas another $3.2m, but if he wants to stay a Dodger so badly that he’s willing to do so for $1.5m or less, I’d be okay with that, since even though he’s generally terrible, his power is rare among catchers and a Barajas/A.J. Ellis combo would allow Federowicz more time to mature in AAA. Federowicz will wear #31, and while that may invite Mike Piazza comparisons, I’ll settle for at least being better than Jay Gibbons.

Of course, none of the three callups need to worry too much about getting to the ballpark on time, since it’s been raining all day in the east and the much-hyped return of Stephen Strasburg looks unlikely to happen tonight, setting up a likely doubleheader for tomorrow. Beyond tonight, the weather looks terrible in the DC area all week, and the Dodgers don’t have a day off before flying to San Francisco to start a weekend series on Friday, which raises the fun-but-ultimately-meaningless question, what happens if all three games get washed out? It’s not likely, but remains possible; other than a three-game set to end the season in Arizona, the Dodgers don’t leave California for the rest of the year.

With both teams hopelessly out of the chase, the league could choose to just not make up the dates, leaving the Dodgers and Nationals with a 159-game season. It’s not at all rare for teams to miss one game and finish with 161 games, which has happened dozens of times. Even a 160-game season isn’t unheard of, which has happened 17 times, though not since the 1991 Cubs. But 159 games? Since MLB went to a 162-game schedule in 1961, and excluding the strike years of 1972, 1981, and 1994-95, it’s happened just ten times, and even then it’s been over three decades since the 1979 White Sox did it. Of course, even they can’t top the 1971 Orioles, who played only 158 games thanks to 13 home rainouts. (Hat tip to Bob Timmermann for that info.)