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2005 Brewers Preview Part 8: Catcher

As per a reader request, before I launch into my sure-to-be long-winded catcher notes, here are links to the first seven installments of my 2005 preview:

Part 1: Right Field
Part 2: Center Field
Part 3: Left Field
Part 4: Shortstop
Part 5: Third Base
Part 6: Second Base
Part 7: First Base

With that out of the way, let's discuss all of the catchers in MLB named M*ller who don't answer to "Corky."

Whatever else you want to say about Damian Miller, I don't think you can argue that he's underpaid.  The Brewers somehow got themselves in a bidding war with the Red Sox...and won.  As negative as I can be about some big contracts, I'm not sure the Brewers were misguided in this case. Consider the options:

  1. Stick with Moeller/Bennett
  2. Sign Jason Varitek
  3. Sign A.J. Pierzynski
  4. Sign Mike Matheny
  5. Turn some other backup catcher, Bennett-style, into a "starter."

Obviously 2004's plan wasn't worth a second chance, eliminating #1.  Varitek--even if Miller signed with Boston--was going to be too expensive.  Pierzynski is thought to be a clubhouse cancer, and isn't worth the risk.  Matheny may be a wizard behind the dish, but he'd be lucky to get his OPS up to his SB-allowed percentage--and anyway, he's already sucked in Milwaukee.  And after last year's approach of trusting in good backstop defense and thanking our lucky stars for every batting average point above .200 (24 for Bennett, 8--yes, only eight--for Moeller, if you're counting), trying some other team's backup (again) didn't seem like a good option.

Interesting fact: Moeller's 2004 OPS+ was only marginally better than Victor Santos's.  Wow.

I wouldn't have given Miller more than a two-year deal, but the Brewers did, and it may well be worth it.  Damian is headed into what are typically serious decline years for a major league catcher: he's 35.  Johnny Bench didn't even play past his age 35 season and Gary Carter didn't play a full season after his age 34 campaign.  Cite the counterexamples if you wish, but Miller's history doesn't set him up to be the next Carlton Fisk.

On the other hand--and I was surprised to learn this--you can make a reasonable argument that Damian is a "young" 35.  He may not look the part, but in terms of games played among his peers, he's a spring chicken.  Brad Ausmus, about 8 months older, has played about 600 more Major League games, and about 450 more total pro games.  The real surprise comes when you compare Miller to a couple of guys who are a bit younger: I-Rod and Jorge Posada.  Posada, despite his youth, has played 200 more career pro games than Miller has, and I-Rod has racked up over 2,000 pro games, 600 more than the Milwaukee Brewers 2007 Opening Day starting catcher.

I didn't separate out DH and PH appearances, which might inflate Posada's and Rodriguez's totals somewhat, but that doesn't affect the point much: Miller hasn't squatted behind the plate quite as much as those other guys have.  His 35 might be more like Ausmus's 32.  Not that I want to see Brad Ausmus's 2003 season in Milwaukee this year, but Damian may not be primed for quite the decline that his age would suggest is almost guaranteed.

Long story short: maybe not a bad deal for the Crew.

Miller had a depressing 2003 season: .233/.310/.369 for an OPS+ of 78, but that's an outlier among otherwise solid seasons for a middle-of-the-road catcher.  Aside from '03, in Miller's four other full seasons he's put up an OBP between .337 and .347 and a SLG of .403 to .441.  The difference between Damian Miller and Ivan Rodriguez is much bigger than the gap that separates Gary Bennett from Damian Miller.

And for that, if for no other reason, we should be thankful.

By all accounts, Miller is solid behind the plate.  I've been reading some grumblings that he deviated from the game plan from time to time in Oakland last year, but that isn't something I can imagine Yost and Maddux tolerating, especially with so many young pitchers at an early point in their learning curve.  

Backing up Miller will be Chad Moeller, which is only a little less confusing than Luis Vizcaino facing Jose Vizcaino, or Danny Kolb and Dan Kolb being systematically purged from the Brewers organization.

Moeller could give us just about anything this year.  (Punch line: And it would be better than what he did last year!)  In 2002, the last time he backed up Damian Miller, he made like Jason Kendall and racked up an OPS of 852.  I don't expect that to happen ever again, as it almost looks like a misprint among the rest of his career stats.  But then again, his pathetic line last year is an outlier, as well.  In 30-50 games behind the plate and a very occasional pinch-hitting appearance, I doubt Moeller will have much of an impact on Milwaukee's fortunes in 2005.  But as backups go, Moeller's upside makes me glad we're relying on him instead of, say, Corky "Yet Another" Miller.  Even though he would fit in here.

Should disaster befall us and Miller goes down for a while, Pat "Catchers Without" Borders (weak, man, I know) becomes the backup.  After that, we traded our depth for Travis Ezi (insert another half-hearted joke here) and the next man in line becomes Kade Johnson or...Vinny Rottino?

I'd imagine not many Brewers fans are thinking that far down on the depth chart, but since Moeller and Borders were both seriously injured in my Diamond Mind simulation, I ended up pondering the possibilities.  There's always (you knew it was coming, you just didn't know when) Brooks Kieschnick, as well.  He's still waiting for your call, Doug Melvin, you can admit you were wrong.  It wasn't him--it was you.

It's been great to see a few more Brewers fans join the fray in the comments sections--feel free to jump in anytime just to argue, or to suggest more stuff for the site.