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Sorting through the backup catcher candidates

One of the (few) battles happening around Brewer camp this spring is the fight for backup catcher. The team has clearly committed to Jonathon Lucroy as the starting catcher, and assuming he recovers in time to start the season from a broken pinkie, he will probably start somewhere between 120 and 140 games this year. That leaves roughly 30 starts for someone else. Let’s take a look at the candidates.

Will George Kottaras keep his job?

George Kottaras may have the upper hand in this battle simply because he is the incumbent. Kottaras served as Gregg Zaun’s backup at the beginning of last season, became the starter briefly, and was then usurped by Lucroy due to pretty abysmal defense. Last season Kottaras was worth -0.6 dWAR, according to baseball reference. According to fangraphs, he scored a -5 in stolen base runs saved, and -4 in total runs saved. He caught only 8 of 52 base stealers last year, or 15 percent. No matter where you look, it isn’t a particularly pretty sight.

What Kottaras does have going for him is some pop in his bat. Last season he hit only .203, and his OBP was only .305, but he slugged .396 and had 9 home runs in 212 at bats. Kottaras could end up being a nice home run threat that opposing pitchers would have to worry about at the bottom of the order.

The next candidate is Wil Nieves. Wil Nieves also hit .203 last year, but his OBP was only .244 and he slugged only .310. Over seven major league seasons Nieves has a line of .227/.273/.297. Yikes. Last season he set a new career high in home runs… with three. That more than doubled his career total. Simply said, if Wil Nieves is in the batting order, he will probably be less of a threat than whatever pitcher the Brewers have on the mound.

Defensively, Nieves isn’t outstanding but he is better than Kottaras. He was worth 0.1 dWAR last season – at least we’re in the positives now, right? He lost only one run to stolen bases, and broke even in total runs saved. He threw out 10 out of a possible 41 base stealers last year, or 24 percent. That is right in line with his career total. Nieves isn’t as good of a defensive catcher as Jonathon Lucroy, but he is clearly a step up from Kottaras.

Also in Arizona as a non-roster invitee is a blast from the past: former Milwaukee backup Mike Rivera. Rivera struggled last season, appearing in only seven major league games with Florida, but in four seasons as Milwaukee’s backup he hit .260/.333/.423 with 11 home runs and 55 RBIs in 331 at bats. In those same four seasons he was worth -0.3, 0, -0.1, and 0 dWAR and threw out 17, 33, 20, and 22 percent of baserunners. His run saving numbers aren’t good, but they aren’t quite as bad as Kottaras’s. He actually had a positive total runs saved number in 2009 – one. The three seasons before that were -2, 0, and -5.

Martin Maldonado is also on the 40 man roster, but he is a career .225/.300/.303 hitter – in the minor leagues. He does have a sky-high minor league caught-stealing percentage, at 43 percent for his career. I would be amazed if he made the roster, however. They also have the hero of today’s spring training game, Anderson De La Rosa, but he has been barely better than Maldonado as a hitter and is slightly worse as a fielder.

What it seems to come down to is whether or not Milwaukee is okay with having an enormous hole in their lineup (Nieves) and mediocre defense, a marginal batting threat and terrible defense (Kottaras), or someone who kind of splits the difference (Rivera). This is actually a position that I’ll be watching over the coming weeks. If Mike Rivera can prove that he can get the job done, I wouldn’t mind seeing him return. He made some pretty pointed statements earlier this spring about how he feels he should get another shot. Otherwise, perhaps Nieves would be the better choice than Kottaras considering how awful the rest of the Milwaukee defense projects. For now, we’ll see who can impress in game situations.


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