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.

Ramon Hernandez

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.

Bengie Molina

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.

Joe Janish began MetsToday in 2005 to provide the unique perspective of a high-level player and coach -- he earned NCAA D-1 All-American honors as a catcher and coached several players who went on to play pro ball. As a result his posts often include mechanical evaluations, scout-like analysis, and opinions that go beyond the numbers. Follow Joe's baseball tips on Twitter at @onbaseball and at the On Baseball Google Plus page.
  1. skibolton November 26, 2007 at 3:16 pm
    I also wonder if Omar may be looking at Miguel Olivo. If florida non-tenders him, he seems like a decent option to me. If they don’t non-tender him, Omar can always offer estrada arbitration. It kind of let’s the team wait until the last minute. I just don’t see a good match for Molina, his contract is pretty reasonable and san francisco can afford it. They may want to rebuild, but they really have no reason not to hold out for a top prospect. Hernandez is a bigger contract on a team with less chance of competing and something decent behind him. I have to think the price would drop, or include a pitcher if they manage to get a top prospect.
  2. joe November 26, 2007 at 3:32 pm
    Before the Estrada deal, I’d originally thought picking up a non-tendered Olivo was a decent, and cheap, “worst-case” scenario … but if the Marlins don’t deal for / sign a backstop, will they definitely non-tender him? I still don’t think he’s a bad option, and might outperform Estrada next year — offensively and defensively — for significantly less money.

    What are the chances that the Molina “buzz” was planted by the Minaya team and intended solely to get Baltimore nervous about losing one of the only teams willing to take on Hernandez’s full salary?

  3. whatdatmean November 26, 2007 at 3:58 pm
    didnt he punch Jose in the face? or atleast try to? Im not sure thats going work
    Im fine with Estrada, plus he is one of the few guys that Castro can see significant time platooning with, and i have a feeling that the more we see castro, the better off we will be, no matter who is back there.
  4. skibolton November 26, 2007 at 4:05 pm
    Given the choice between Olivo and Estrada, I’d take Olivo any day of the week. He has a good arm, and he’s not going to ground into as many double plays since he runs faster than a waddle. I don’t think the fight last season will have much bearing on that decision, both of those guys are professionals, and neither has the reputation of Kent or Bonds. Besides, these guys are supposed to have been friends aside from that incident. I’m sure we’d still see plenty of Castro that way.
  5. isuzudude November 26, 2007 at 4:25 pm
    I’m more of whatdatmean’s mentality – I don’t see Olivo as a great match, either on the field or in the clubhouse, with the Mets. If we were searching for a backup, I could possibly see interest in Olivo. But, judging by the contract Castro signed, the Mets still envision him as a backup, so we’re in the market for a starter. And I think Olivo was the starter in Florida more by default than anything else. I know Olivo’s got an absolute cannon for an arm and, thanks to the Fish, he’s gotten quality starting time under his belt. But this is also a guy who is a career .239 hitter, with perhaps the worst BB/K ratio in baseball, and also commited 12 errors last season in 122 games (compare that to 6 made by Estrada in 113 games). So essentially, if looking at Estrada and Olivo, the decision to pick Olivo would simply be because he has a better arm, because Estrada is equal or better than Olivo in every other aspect of the game. If the Mets do anything more with their catcher position, I have to believe it’s going to upgrade with either Hernandez or Molina. Otherwise, trading for Laird, Schneider, or Shoppach, or picking up Kendall, Barrett, or Olivo is not an upgrade from keeping Estrada.
  6. joe November 26, 2007 at 5:24 pm
    I’m torn on Olivo, but don’t think it matters too much. On the one hand, I disagree slightly with isuzu — Olivo is far better than Estrada defensively, and his speed cannot be discounted. He made more errors because he’s aggressive with his strong arm. Offensively, Estrada will probably perform better, but because Estrada walks about as infrequently as Olivo, their overall numbers may be much closer than we realize. The biggest difference is that Estrada makes more contact — but as someone pointed out, that leads to a lot of DPs.

    But, I think we’re all in agreement that Olivo is, as isuzu stated, a starter “by default”. Further, the LH-hitting Estrada fits more nicely with Castro than the RH Olivo. Either way, the Mets can do better and I think they will.

  7. Micalpalyn November 28, 2007 at 1:55 pm
    I was leaving in the Seattle area (2004-2006) and actually saw Olivo catch. He was BAD. And largely panned in the Seattle press.

    Ditto to isu: The Mets need a younger force going forward behind the plate. Jeff Clement, and Kelly Shoppach are both blocked with their respective teams.

  8. joe November 28, 2007 at 2:09 pm
    But are Clement / Shoppach worth the cost of Milledge or Pelfrey?

    BTW Shoppach will be 28 at beginning of ’08 season (Clement is only 23).

  9. isuzudude November 28, 2007 at 3:00 pm
    Clement is a beast. I can see him becoming an I-Rod from the late 90s type hitter in a relative short amount of time, which is perfect for Seattle as Johjima is a free agent after 2008. I don’t think Seattle will deal Clement unless completely bowled over…I mean, how often to monster-hitting catchers come along? Since it looks like Johjima will no longer be needed in Seattle, maybe he can be the Mets solution when Estrada is a free agent next offseason, and if a Ramon Hernandez/Bengie Molina is not finalized. Johjima will “only” be 32 by that point, so is it a horrible idea to offer him a 3 year deal? Of course, I’m thinking way ahead of ourselves.

    I also don’t envision Shoppach being made available until next offseason at earliest, since he is a reliable backup to Victor in Cleveland and is making league minimum through 2008. Still, I’m not too thrilled of the idea of a Shoppach/Castro split behind the plate in 2009.

  10. Micalpalyn November 28, 2007 at 11:30 pm

    I disagree. I think Seattle may keep the Pacific flavor and resign Johjima. as such they may deal Clement if the match is right.

    I disagree on Shoppach/Castro. Yes it is high risk but potentially high reward. Ditto a Clement/Castro/ (DiFelice) tandem.

  11. joe November 29, 2007 at 12:11 am
    Ed, I’m not familiar at all with Seattle’s needs. Is there any match for what the Mets have to offer?
  12. isuzudude November 29, 2007 at 8:08 am
    Mic: time will tell. But, if you were a GM, and on one hand you had a soon-to-be free agent catcher who will demand $6-10-mil per year once on the open market, and on the other hand a catcher coming up thru your system who will put up similar or better production than the soon-to-be free agent catcher while making hardly any money and will not be getting a pay raise for 3 or 4 seasons down the road, what seems like the better option?
  13. Micalpalyn November 29, 2007 at 5:18 pm
    Isuzu: Best answer I have is Seattle has now had Jojima, Ichiro and Sasaki all succeed in a heavily pro-Pacific (Japanese, Korean, South pacific) market. Jojima generates alot of popularity and merchandising revenue for the Mariners.