Season in preview: Catchers

In 2010, Mets catchers combined for a .665 OPS. In 2009, it was .685. The team’s backstops have not bettered the paltry league average for catchers since 2007, and that was mostly thanks to Ramon Castro’s outstanding production in 153 plate appearances.

Under Omar Minaya, we heard many times, the Mets viewed catcher as a defensive position. Too often this excused catchers who couldn’t hit at all, some of whom weren’t even particularly good defenders. In 2011, one of the fruits of Minaya’s first draft (combined with a fellow perpetually rumored to be on Minaya’s radar) will look to exonerate the former GM of his inability to find catchers that could hit.

The catchers in April: Josh Thole, Mike Nickeas.

Overview: I think David Wright and Jose Reyes spoiled us. We forget that it took Reyes two and a half seasons to reach his All-Star form, and we expect every player that comes through the system to quickly achieve the type of success that Reyes and Wright enjoyed early in their careers. It’s almost unbelievable that the Mets were able to develop two legitimate All-Stars in such a short time, yet now we hope every prospect can immediately reach that level.

But no team entirely consists of All-Stars, and good teams need guys, too. A frequent point of contention with Minaya’s administration was that the Mets too often complemented their great players with terrible ones, casting misplaced blame on the Wrights and Carlos Beltrans of the world when meanwhile Jeff Conine was still getting important at-bats. Great teams need dudes: Low-cost, generally homegrown contributors that can benefit a roster without vacuuming up the payroll that should be dedicated toward the All-Stars.

And I think Josh Thole might be a dude. In his first 286 Major League plate appearances, Thole has a solid .286/.357/.373 line. It’s a small sample and his power numbers won’t make anyone forget Mike Piazza, but Thole has nonetheless hit like a better than average catcher whenever he has been in the big leagues. Moreover, the numbers aren’t terribly out of line with his Minor League stats; Thole has always been a patient hitter with doubles power.

The knock on Thole is his inexperience behind the plate — he caught in high school but mostly played first base in the Minors from 2005 to 2007. But Thole now has three full seasons of catching at the professional level. By Beyond the Boxscore’s catcher defense rating, he was well better than average in 2010, thanks in part to his throwing out 44% of would-be basestealers. Plus, Mike Pelfrey and R.A. Dickey both praise Thole’s game-calling ability.

Thole is still young and reasonably new to Major League play, so he could endure an adjustment period at the plate in 2011. But we should be patient. He has hit in the Minors and worked to become a solid defender behind the plate. Cost-controlled catchers with an above-average ability to get on base don’t come around every day, and even if Thole needs some time to develop at the big-league level, he is likely good enough and young enough to contribute to the Mets’ next contender.

Nickeas starts the season on the roster while Ronny Paulino finishes his PED suspension. Nickeas has not hit much in the Minors, though he enjoyed a very Thole-esque .276/.389/.382 line in 2010, mostly due to the strength of his performance at Double-A Binghamton. At 28, he’s unlikely to ever become a Major League regular, but he has a reputation as a good defensive catcher and seems like a pretty sharp guy. Perhaps if he proves he can get on-base a little at the Major League level, Nickeas can join baseball’s fraternity of itinerant backup catchers.

Paulino is currently shut down due to something that came up in his blood work, which is a bit scary. I don’t know what that means or how long he’ll be out. When he comes back, he’ll mash left-handers. He has a career .881 OPS against southpaws, meaning he can spell Thole against tougher lefties and give the Mets an offensive boost. He, too, scored well on Beyond the Boxscore’s catcher defense rating.

The catchers in September: Thole and Paulino.

How they stack up: Bryan McCann is one of the best catchers in the Majors and the class of the NL East. The Marlins gave John Buck a three-year, $18 million deal coming off the best season of his career, but Buck has a career .301 OBP. The Nats will use a combination of Ivan Rodriguez and Wilson Ramos behind the plate. Ramos is a well-regarded prospect and is still quite young, but he very rarely walks and hasn’t hit much above Double-A. Pudge can’t hit at all anymore. Carlos Ruiz enjoyed a great year for the Phillies in 2010 with a OPS about 100 points higher than his career line.

I’ll take Thole over Buck and the combo in Washington. And I’ll hold out hope that Ruiz, at 32, regresses to something closer to his lifetime .260/.353/.396 line and that he and Thole are more or less equals.

Next up: First base.

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