The Texas Rangers’ 2014 Catcher Mistake

JPA
This isn’t a good idea. This whole article just isn’t a good idea. Sometime in six months to a year, I’ll end up regretting it. I feel like a four-year old arguing with his dad. I don’t have the same amount of information or experience, and yet here I am, virtually screaming my side of the argument that I am oh-so-sure is the correct one. 
But I think the Rangers are making a mistake. Having Geovany Soto as the primary backstop and J.P. Arencibia as his backup for next season is insufficient to what the team needs from the catcher position.

Making this argument, in some ways, is like watching a movie multiple times and expecting a different outcome. I’ve seen the Rangers’ front office make solid move after solid move. There’s a lot of evidence that suggests that their decision-making should be trusted and will turn out to be incredibly accurate on the other side.

I also am seemingly one of the few in the arena of baseball writing, and in particular writing about the Rangers, who thinks that the Rangers catching situation in 2014 is not a good one. There was this piece by Jamey Newberg about Arencibia, and his upside and possible change-of-scenery renewal. Our own Bob Bland chimed in with his approval of signing Arencibia, specifically citing the track record of the front office. And Dan Szymborski (ESPN) tweeted this: “I can’t believe I’m describing J.P. Arencibia as a steal, but ZiPS has him at 227/270/428, 83 OPS, 1.5 WAR in TEX.”

These writers, and many others, have made great points about the Rangers catching tandem. To be sure, Texas has found a very economical solution to the catcher position in 2014, having signed Soto and Arencibia to one-year deals worth just over $3 million, and $1.8 million, respectively.

The Rangers will get surplus value from their catchers next year. They will be worth more than the $4.8 million they will be paid, which is less than half of what Texas paid for AJ Pierzynski and Soto last year.

They just won’t be as good as what the Rangers’ need from the catching position on the field and spot in the lineup.

Take a look at the below chart, which compares the fWAR of the Rangers in 2013 to its current 2014 projection from Fangraphs (found here). 

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You can see that last year, Texas as a team posted just over 45 fWAR. Next year, the current projection for Texas is just under 41 fWAR. But let’s just focus on the hitters for a moment. Last year, they accumulated almost 22 fWAR. In 2014, the current group of hitters is expected to produce less than 21 fWAR.

Coming into the offseason, the Rangers’ were in need of offensive upgrades after Texas finished seventh in the American League in runs scored, their lowest finish since 2009. Getting equal production to 2013 would be an incomplete effort.

The most glaring holes in the lineup were at first base, left field, and designated hitter. Acquiring Prince Fielder has filled the holes at first base and designated hitter.

Looking around the rest of the infield, sliding Jurickson Profar in at second base is expected to be no drop-off from Ian Kinsler. Elvis Andrus is expected to be better, which makes sense as he gets closer to his prime years. Adrian Beltre is expected to be worse, which makes sense as he ages further from his prime years.

But the 2014 projected production from the Rangers’ outfield is concerning. Trading Craig Gentry for Michael Choice is likely a short-term downgrade, despite the long-term potential of the deal.

In total, this projects the Rangers’ hitters to be in a worse position in 2014 than they were last season, and they weren’t very good last season. This is why Texas missed an opportunity to upgrade at catcher.

Texas has survived with this kind of production at catcher before. Look at this chart from the last four years, since Texas became a playoff contender again in 2010:

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In three out of the four years, the Rangers got little to nothing from catcher. In 2011, Mike Napoli was a game-changer for the club. But look at the non-catcher batter positions. In 2010, non-catchers were worth 25 fWAR. In 2011, non-catchers were worth 29 fWAR. In 2012, non-catchers were worth 24 fWAR. In 2013, non-catchers were worth 19 fWAR. In 2010-2012, the deficiencies at the catcher position were atoned for by the rest of the field.

Looking again at the 2014 projections, they have next year’s non-catchers being worth 18 fWAR. That’s not enough to make up for just 2.2 fWAR from the catchers.

Both Soto (age 31 next year) and Arencibia (28) do have upside, which is not reflected in these projections. These projections show a “most likely” scenario, and will almost certainly not be exactly true. But Soto and Arencibia are two players who have combined to play 647 games in the last three years, and have been worth 4.5 fWAR over that time. That is a rate of 1.1 fWAR per 162 games. This projected 2.2 fWAR from the duo in 2014 would be even better than their recent performance.

There is still time remaining in the offseason for Texas to upgrade the non-catchers in the lineup. If they are able to use the savings that they have found at the catcher position to do so, then forget everything I’ve said. The point of having a cheap catching solution is to leverage that savings to pay, or even overpay, for production elsewhere on the diamond.

However, last week Jon Daniels was on the Ben & Skin show (listen to the full interview here), and in that discussion he had this to say on the team’s current budget position and outlook on the rest of the offseason: “We’ve got some room to still do some things. I think we’re looking more at the right fits and incremental upgrades in a variety of different spots more than big, splashy moves at this point. We like the foundation of the team […] I don’t expect that we’re going to make any more big moves.”

“Incremental upgrades” and no “big, splashy moves” are important, and the club still needs those. Those are the types of moves that help build depth on the club, create contingency plans, buy insurance against injuries, etc. But I don’t think those types of moves will be enough to make this catcher problem go away.

Like I said at the beginning, I know that it is very likely I will be proven wrong on this point. For one thing, the Rangers’ front office may have a better handle on the value that these two catchers could provide which aren’t in their statistics. I’m willing to accept that, if it is true. But I am unaware of either possessing a reputation of making significant “outside the numbers” contributions.

Entering 2013, the mistake that the Rangers made was trusting Mitch Moreland and David Murphy could handle everyday roles on the team, and that Lance Berkman was healthy enough to be the team’s DH throughout the season. I don’t want their mistake entering 2014 to be that they thought Soto and Arencibia would be good enough at the catcher position, but right now, it looks that way to me.

Peter Ellwood

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