Overlooked Catching Options

If you’re tired of being regaled with the tales of baseball’s worst team, then the following anecdote may not be for your eyes. I found it hard to stomach myself, and it led to a near existential crisis for me the other night as I watched the Mets and Phillies battle through 14 innings.

It was the top of the 14th with Kyle Kendrick on the mound as Ronny Paulino, New York’s backup catcher, came to the plate. I’d forgone the earlier portions of the game for sushi and happy hour with the ladyfriend (a drink sounded pretty good after this weekend’s Twins debacles), and so I was surprised to hear that Paulino, who was making his first start of 2011, was a whopping 4-6 on the day already. He’d totaled just one plate appearance prior to that game (that makes him 4-7 for those who, like me, are mathematically challenged – don’t worry, I used a calculator to be sure). Paulino cracked a double down the left field line to drive in what would be the winning run, his fifth hit of the day in just six plate appearances.

It took me nearly five minutes to snap out of the delirium that resulted from checking Drew Butera’s stats to learn that Ronny Paulino – RONNY. PAULINO. – had just amassed as many hits in his first start of the season as Ron Gardenhire’s beloved Son of Sal has collected in fifty plate appearances this year.

I’ve been upset ever since, and found myself wondering the usual, "How could we trade Wilson Ramos for a reliever?!" and "Why did we trade Jose Morales for a Class-A reliever!?" Beyond that though, I’ve also found myself wondering how the Twins saw fit to pass up on some catching options that could have been had for nothing over the past few months, all of whom would be superior options to Butera and STEVE HOLM! (hope I got the grammar right this time around). None of these guys are guaranteed to set the world on fire, but they’re all pretty much locks to be tougher outs than the current dynamic duo that’s accounted for the same number of hits (7) over 21 games that Ben Zobrist collected in last Thursday’s double header. More after the jump.

Lucas May, 26, Royals

May came to the Royals from the Dodgers in the Scott Podsednik trade last season and didn’t produce in his first taste of big league action. The right-handed backstop posted just a .189/.205/.216 line in 12 games (39 PAs) and caught two of nine potential burglars on the basepaths.

May though, owns a .259/.321/.432 career minor league line (compared to Butera’s .214/.296/.317), including a very strong .283/.349/.483 line across Double-A and Triple-A in 2010 (he actually performed significantly better at Triple-A). He clubbed 16 homers in 417 PAs and has caught 28% of career base stealers in his minor league tenure.

May was designated for assignment on March 30 and cleared waivers, likely because he was out of options and the Twins wanted to keep Butera on the 25-man roster. Butera has gone 4-47 this season and boasts an OPS+ of (-13). May has struggled tremendously in the minors this season, going just 6-36 (he did have a 3-hit game last night), but his track record suggests that he’s leaps and bounds ahead of Butera offensively.

Last July, Baseball America wrote: "In his fourth year as a catcher, May has quick feet, plus arm strength and quick pop times behind the plate—he gunned down 20 percent of basestealers in Triple-A this year and 35 percent last year in Double-A. His receiving ability is regarded as average to a tick below. While he isn't a huge offensive threat, May makes contact and can line the ball into the gap on occasion. He runs well for a catcher. Most view him as a future major league backup."

Max Ramirez, 26, Cubs

Ramirez cracked Baseball America’s Top 100 prospect list just two years ago, but has struggled since. He was designated for assignment by the Rangers this offseason, claimed by the Red Sox, and then claimed by the Cubs from Boston. He cleared waivers and reported to Chicago’s Triple-A affiliate in late March.

Ramirez is an offensive-minded catcher, but managed to catch 27% of base stealers in the minors. He owns a .297/.394/.474 career minor league line, and while those numbers have been headed the wrong direction since his monster 2008 season (.347/.439/.628), his bat figures to be a worthwhile upgrade over the likes of Butera and Holm. Like May, he's out of options and currently struggling in Triple-A, but has hit .286/.333/.619 over his last ten contests.

Josh Bard, 33, Mariners

Bard’s name is likely a familiar one to most, as he’s spent parts of nine seasons at the Major League level. Since posting a strong .304/.380/.450 line from 2006-2007 between the Red Sox and Padres, Bard’s numbers have slid downhill. Still, in his worst season, the .279 OBP he posted is more than 100 points higher than either of Minnesota’s current catchers.

The 33-year-old signed with the Mariners as a minor league free agent this offseason and has performed well in Triple-A, hitting .316/.349/.443 through 84 PAs. Bard is no longer capable of posting an OPS of .800 or above as he did in his brief prime, but in hindsight, he stood out as one of the more reasonable options at adding catching depth to the Twins this offseason due to his previous success in the big leagues.

As the season drew near, it wasn’t hard to see that leaving no depth behind Mauer was a problem; many fans cringed at the thought of a longterm Mauer injury. That problem would be catastrophic no matter who the backup was, but the fact that Butera, who currently is the worst offensive player in all of MLB, was the primary backup made it exponentially worse. Butera’s shockingly low .147 wOBA is 31 points lower than TampaBay’s Kelly Shoppach, the next in line (among players with 50 or more PAs).

Even if Mauer were to return tomorrow – and we know that’s not happening, folks – it’s inexcusable for a Major League team to roster a hitter that's performed as poorly as Butera has. The Twins should be exploring all three of these options as well as plenty of others (I’ve long been an advocate of trading for Washington’s Jesus Flores) in order to remedy what’s proved to be a staggering lack of foresight on the front office’s behalf. None will step in and thrive with production close to Mauer's level, but all stand a better shot at exhibiting competence with the bat. That, unfortunately, would be a big addition for this team.

Steve Adams also writes for MLBTradeRumors.com and 612sports.net. You can follow him on Twitter: @Adams_Steve

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