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2007 Post Mortem: Johnny Estrada

A few weeks ago, I think it was the Sporting News that had a quote from a scout saying that Estrada keeps getting fatter and slower.

Man, am I glad he's on our team.

TheJay has done a nice job chronicling the oddity that is our starting catcher: he has a historically high batting average for a guy who doesn't get on base 30% of the time, and he seems to be under the mistaken impression that you only get one strike.

Doug Melvin has made a couple comments lately that he recognizes catcher is an area for improvement, which is fortunate for us. It may not be for the right reasons: If Estrada had hit 300/315/415, he'd still suck, but he'd be a 300 hitter!!! and that would be good enough to make up for the fact that he hasn't thrown out a runner since the Carter administration.

In fairness to Johnny, he has never been very good at the things he wasn't good at in 2007. OBP? Career .320. Throwing out runners? Umm, yeah. Working the count? You must be thinking of Erik Estrada.

But, he was worse at all of these things in a Brewers uniform. He was 25th among catchers in all of baseball in VORP, right behind John Buck and just ahead of Kurt Suzuki. Suzuki had half as many at-bats, and Buck can field the position.

The typical objection to the "our catcher can't hit" criticism is that, well no catcher can hit. And this side of the Metrodome, that's pretty much true. But most catchers can throw, and a good fielding backstop can more than make up for his lack of batsmanship by throwing out runners.

For instance, if Damian Miller had gotten as many ABs as Estrada, he would've been worth about seven fewer runs with the bat. But, of course, there's a trade-off. Each caught stealing is worth about a half a run, so if Damian had thrown out 14 or 15 more runners than Estrada did--not a tall order, given what we're starting with--we're even.

But that leaves another question. Damian's old, and probably couldn't have played 120 games. Is there anybody out there who could've given us slightly above replacement production behind the plate? I don't know. Judging from his batting in Triple-A, Mike Rivera couldn't have. Maybe there was a waiver claim out there, but I don't know who it is. Catching is hard, and catchers who can do the job for most of a season are very rare.

Setting aside what has happened, let look at what will happen. Here are my projections for Estrada--again, the "Perc" column is percentile, so the middle, "50" row is the median projection:

Perc       AB      R     H     2B    3B  HR    RBI   BB     K    AVG     OBP     SLG
20      173     12    44    7     0   3     15    7      20   0.254   0.294   0.347
50      376     33    103   21    0   7     42    16     43   0.274   0.308   0.386
80      409     40    117   25    0   8     52    19     47   0.286   0.324   0.406

Well, at least that OBP is likely to get back over .300. For those of you who are interested, my projection system starts drastically cutting playing time for guys who are well below replacement level at their position...that's why the 20th percentile projection gives him so few at-bats. Basically, if that's all the better he plays, the Brewers will be forced to find a stopgap.

But this is not pretty. You're basically looking at backup-catcher numbers in a guy who can't field like a backup catcher.

Here is a list of potential free agents this offseason. There's the good--Posada, maybe Ramon Castro--the bad--Jose Molina, Lo Duca, Torrealba, Ausmus--and the Cubs--Barrett and Kendall. I think it's unlikely Posada won't be in pinstripes next year, but I'd be very, very tempted to see if I could coax him to Milwaukee on a $20MM/2 year contract, or something like that. It's a lot of money, but it might be the only offensive position where we could make an acquisition and see an immediate, big improvement.

(Then again, Posada is old. My projection system doesn't like old catchers, and gives him a median line of 259/345/406. It would be better in the NL, but not by a lot.)

Otherwise, I think I'd like to part ways with Estrada, save the four million bucks or so we'd pay him in arbitration, and pick up a top-tier backup to split time with Damian. If we're going to have an easy-out number seven hitter every day, might as well get good defense out of the guy. Here are my projections for some of the free agents:

  • Jose Molina: 236/274/315
  • Torrealba: 255/311/395
  • Castro: 240/310/392
The last two would obviously be improvements on Johnny (since they can field), and it's possible that Molina's glove would be good up to make up the difference, too. Certainly we could save a couple of million bucks if we went with him.

Most likely, though, if the Brewers are going to improve at catcher, it'll take a trade. The cupboard is bare: Posada will probably go back to the Yankees, Castro will return to the Mets, somebody will overpay for Lo Duca, and that'll mean even a guy like Torrealba will get too much money from somebody desperate.

Good luck, Doug. You'll need it.