Who Will Catch On?
I’m standing by my theory that Johnny Estrada is the Mets’ starting catching worst-case scenario for 2008, and that Omar Minaya is working to upgrade the position in the coming weeks.
And if there is any truth to the “buzz”, then my suspicions are correct — according to Ken Rosenthal:
“The Mets inquired about the Giants’ Molina at the general managers’ meetings, and they could attempt to revive the talks by offering newly acquired Johnny Estrada and perhaps another player. It is unclear whether the Giants want to trade Molina, however, and their trade leverage would be compromised by the $6 million that Molina is owed in each of the next two seasons.”
Interesting, isn’t it, that two years after offering both Bengie Molina and Ramon Hernandez identical deals, both backstops are once again rumored to be targets by Minaya?
If Tracy Ringolsby is a source we can trust, then it’s true that the Giants are looking to move Molina and the Orioles are doing the same with Hernandez.
Personally, I’d be quite happy with either of these options over Estrada, but not at the cost of a Mets top prospect — i.e., Mike Pelfrey, Lastings Milledge, Phil Humber, Kevin Mulvey, Carlos Gomez, Fernando Martinez, Deolis Guerra. And I sincerely believe that — despite buzz to the contrary — either Hernandez or Molina could be had quite easily without giving up one of those valuable chips. The key is in how desperate the Giants and/or the Orioles are to shed salary.
The Orioles signed Hernandez to a backloaded deal, and owe him $7.5M in 2008, $8M in ’09, and have a club option for $8M in 2010, or a $1M buyout. So at minimum, Hernandez gets $16.5M over the next two years — that’s a lot of dough, particularly with hot prospect Matt Wieters possibly only a year (or less) away. If the O’s believe Wieters is that close, they’d be silly not to deal Hernandez now, while he still has some value. It’s rare for a starting catcher to be coveted at the trading deadline (though both Paul LoDuca and Mike Piazza were traded during mid-season at different points in their careers), so it’s not as though Baltimore can wait until then for a better package. They’d have to bet on a playoff contender’s starter going down with injury, and even then most teams are more comfortable letting the understudy take over, since he has better knowledge of the pitching staff and the team. Further, if Hernandez’s offense continues to slip, his value becomes almost nonexistent — though he’s a good defensive catcher he’s no Johnny Bench back there. Right now, Baltimore is playing the role of upper hand — as they should be — and demanding top prospects in return for Hernandez. But as the winter grows colder, so will the offers, because the other teams looking for a starting catcher are the Rockies, Marlins, Cubs, and possibly the Reds (did I miss anyone?). Neither the Rockies nor the Marlins would be interested in taking on all that salary, and you might put the Reds in that category — though their big splash for Francisco Cordero could be a sign of loosening the purse strings. So if the Orioles can’t interest the Cubs or Mets in taking Hernandez and his hefty contract off their hands, they’ll have a heckuva time dealing him elsewhere. I’m not in tune with the players the Cubs might have to offer in a deal, and don’t have a good measure on their desperation for catching, but I’d be surprised if they were willing to deal prospects the caliber of, say Gomez, Pelfrey or Humber in return for Hernandez.
What the Cubs can’t offer, and the Mets can, is an adequate stopgap backstop to keep home plate warm for Wieters — Johnny Estrada. In addition, moving Hernandez and replacing him with Estrada — knowing full well that Wieters is on the way — is a good public relations move by Baltimore. Realistically, we all know that the O’s are not going to be in the ’08 postseason, but they can’t simply go into rebuilding mode, dump all their veterans, and expect the fans to show up. By dumping Hernandez to clear the way for Wieters, however, the Orioles look good to their fans, who likely are anticipating the young catcher’s arrival and see Hernandez as a roadblock.
Meanwhile, the Giants owe $12M, through 2009, to Molina. That doesn’t seem like a whole lot of money for a guy who is still a decent all-around catcher and a team leader. Unlike the Orioles, the Giants don’t have a stud receiver waiting in the wings — but they do have Eliezer Alfonzo (Edgardo’s cousin), a cheap, 29-year-old backup who hit 12 homers in a half season as the regular in 2006. Consider him the Giants’ version of Ramon Castro. Alfonzo spent most of 2007 on the DL with a knee injury, but appears to be healthy again and ready to play full throttle in ’08. Behind him is another 29-year-old Venezuelan named Guillermo Rodriguez, who is equally cheap and has shown some pop. So if the Giants are sold on Alfonzo as a starter, and are looking to shed salary and get younger at the same time, then the buzz around Molina does have some merit. What it would take to get him, though, is not clear. They might also be interested in Estrada as a fallback plan in the event Alfonzo doesn’t pan out, but with Molina goes 19 HRs and 81 RBI that may not be replaced from a team already desperate for hitting. The Mets aren’t likely to deal, say, Lastings Milledge in return for Molina — unless, of course, one of those young arms is also part of the deal.
The Deal of the Winter?
The Orioles supposedly want top prospects for Ramon Hernandez. The Giants need a young bat, particularly with the exit of Lastings Milledge. Both Baltimore and San Francisco have excess arms the Mets would like to have. So if a deal for either Hernandez or Molina happens, there is a possibility that the Mets will send a Milledge-type prospect in the trade — but also get a good young arm as part of the deal.
For example, I believe it would be worth sending Milledge West if it brought back both Molina and, say, young lefty Jonathan Sanchez. I’m not so high on Noah Lowry, and don’t believe any of their other young hurlers would be part of such a deal (i.e., Matt Cain, Brad Hennessey, Tim Lincecum). Sanchez appears to be on the cusp of establishing himself, and looks more ready to help an MLB team — either in the bullpen or rotation — than Pelfrey or Humber. I realize Milledge has a high ceiling, but if you can turn him around for a solid starting catcher who can bat 6th or 7th and a young lefty who’s almost certain to make a contribution in ’08, you have to do it. Of course, the Giants would probably want a bit more in the deal — though it might not require much more (in other words, not another top trading chip).
Likewise, if the Orioles are insistent on fetching top young talent in a trade involving Hernandez, they’ll need to add Eric Bedard, Jeremy Guthrie, or Daniel Cabrera to the deal. Heck, maybe even throw in Chad Bradford — I’d be happy to see him back in Shea slinging from down under. Better yet, it could be time for them to give up on Hayden Penn and make him a “throw-in” — similar to what they did with John Maine a few winters back.
The more I think about it, the more I get the feeling that the Johnny Estrada acquisition was a key precursor to a larger deal down the line. The winter meetings begin shortly, and I have a funny feeling Christmas will come early for Mets fans.