This mini-series for the week continues with the next big question that the Texas Rangers will have to answer this offseason. If you missed the first installment about Josh Hamilton, you can read it here, and if you missed part two on how to fix the Michael Young conundrum, you can find that here.
The topic at hand today is who is going to be the backstop for the Rangers in 2013. To put it bluntly, 2012 was not a banner year for the Rangers at the catcher position. The Rangers catchers combined to post a .708 OPS, which was the second-lowest OPS by position on the club and only good for a 97 OPS+. This was one of just two positions in which the Rangers posted a below-average OPS+ (the other being first base, which was largely due to the Michael Young problem previously discussed).
The Rangers catchers being below average offensively would be forgivable if they had been a defensive asset, but instead they were a liability. Opposing baserunners stole bases to the tune of an 80% success rate, which was off of the MLB average of 74%, and was the fourth-worst percentage in baseball. While some of that lack of success should be attributed to pitchers like Yu Darvish and Scott Feldman having slow deliveries to the plate, the catchers were clearly sub-par.
Heading into next season, the Rangers have no catchers under contract. Geovany Soto is arbitration-eligible and under team control, and will likely return, but Mike Napoli is a free agent. As far as the Rangers farm system is concerned, it is pretty bare behind the plate. Jorge Alfaro would be the Rangers top catching prospect, but his MLB timetable is likely 2015 or beyond.
The Rangers could make a trade with the Toronto Blue Jays, who find themselves with one too many catchers. Their top prospect is Travis D’Arnaud, a top-10 prospect in all of baseball, and also a catcher, who should be MLB ready next season. Having Jeff Mathis under contract for two more season leaves J.P. Arencibia as the odd man out. His new home could be in Texas. Arencibia would be an improvement defensively, but his career OPS of .708 wouldn’t do much for the catcher position at the plate. Arencibia would be a cost-effective solution, as he isn’t arbitration-eligible until 2014, and is still just 26 years old. The main cost of an Arencibia option is the players and/or prospects that would need to be traded away to acquire him.
The Rangers may also be interested in signing Fort Worth native Kelly Shoppach, who is a free agent this winter. Like Arencibia, Shoppach would be a defensive improvement, but would provide a negligible upside offensively. The 32-year old was a thorn in the side of the Rangers in the 2011 playoffs, but he is not an everyday player at this point of his career. He would be nothing more than a serviceable back-up, and an improvement over Soto at that position.
In my opinion, the Rangers should and will re-sign Mike Napoli this offseason. The team and the player were engaging in contract extension talks before the 2012 season began, but were unable to reach an agreement. After Napoli’s incredible 2011 campaign, it is understandable why. The Rangers were certainly not anxious to commit to a long-term deal solely based on one half of an incredible season, and Napoli had an opportunity to cash in when his value was the highest.
After Napoli returned to earth in 2012, perhaps the two sides can more easily find a middle ground. There were rumored reports that Napoli was not asking for a deal as high as four years, $52 million in Spring Training. Instead, he signed a one-year, $9.4 million deal for 2012. It would seem the two parties did not differ much in terms of the average annual value of the contract, but instead in how long the contract should extend. One element that may change the discussion is that since talks broke off, two other catchers have signed long-term extensions: Yadier Molina (5 years, $75 million) and Miguel Montero (5 years, $60 million). In order to maximize his earning potential, Napoli may even take just a one-year deal for 2013 before signing a long-term extension next winter.
Of all the free agents the Rangers are possibly going to lose this offseason, I think Napoli’s skills are the least replaceable. The catcher market is sparse, both inside and outside of the Rangers organization. While Napoli has still never caught a full season, will require a solid back-up option, will play a lot of first base, and had a down year in 2012, he is the Rangers best option. He continued to display a good approach at the plate this season, despite setting a career higher strikeout rate. His BABIP fell to .273, his walk rate stayed the same, and he still posted a .812 OPS. There is reason to believe that his luck with BABIP and with injuries can improve, and he could deliver even more both behind and at the plate.
Napoli is a very valuable asset to the Rangers, and with a good back-up option like Soto and/or Shoppach, the Rangers should find their catchers rebounding to a better year in 2013 than 2012.
Stay tuned this week to the answers for further important questions for the Rangers:
How Will The Rangers Rebuild the Bullpen?
Who Will Be the Shortstop, and Who Will Be the Second Baseman?
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