The case for Pudge

added 2/17/2009 by Scott Barzilla

I opened up the Chronicle today and saw Richard Justice make his case against signing Pudge. What's hilarious is that as if he made his case against it, he ended up lining up the case for it. "Well, he only hit .276 last year, but that's more than any Astros catcher since Craig Biggio." Um, well, yeah. Before I get to the obligatory stats, let me address the 20,000 pound gorilla in the room.

Anyone that played for Texas in the 1990s and early 2000s will be linked to steroid use. Whether you are a punch and judy hitter or a Pedro Cerrano wannabe, you were obviously on the juice because every Ranger was on the juice. Pudge in particular went from all-defense and no offense to the second best offensive catcher of the era. Naturally, we know of no positive test at this point and his "God only knows" comment surrounding the 2003 testing makes some wonder.

Unfortunately, the Astros (like most teams) are morally and ethically bankrupt when it comes to the steroid issue. Like most teams, most of their players are clean. Fortunately for us, our stars are beyond reproach. What it must feel like to be a Cardinal fan. If you love the Red Birds you must be holding your breath hoping that Albert Pujols doesn't wind up on a list. Barring a complete breakdown of expectations, we know that Lance Berkman and Roy Oswalt will not wind up on that list.

Yet, when the Astros acquired Miguel Tejada the day before the Mitchell Report came out, you had to know they knew something. Like the jackass that buys the $3000 stereo for $100, they can claim they didn't know, but they aren't fooling anyone. Let's not mention the HGH brothers and their run in Houston. You can't ethically pick and choose which users are okay to have and which ones aren't. At least, you can't unless you want to be called a hypocrit.

Of course, those in the press can claim they weren't a party to Clemens, Pettitte, or Tejada, but many of those same folks were clamoring for the Astros to sign Pettitte this off-season. So, an admitted user is somehow better than someone that might wind up on a confidential list? The logic of it all really boggles the mind. The real price for these guys will come when they become eligible for the Hall of Fame. Mark McGwire is still the only member of the 500 home run club to be out, but that hasn't stirred more than 25 percent of the Hall of Fame voting public.

So, this leaves us the baseball argument for Pudge. It's a harder argument nowadays than it was even a few years ago. Pudge has always's had his warts, but in the past they looked more like a Cindy Crawford mole. Now, he looks like one of those cartoon witches. If Pudge draws 10 walks in 2009 it will be a miracle. This isn't good for a guy with diminishing power and bat speed. A guy that hits .330 can get by with no walks. A guy that hits .270 looks a little weak. Couple with that single digit home runs and 20-30 doubles and it isn't a pretty sight.

The opinions on Pudge's defense range anywhere from best all-time to vastly overrated. Those that put a lot of stock in how catcher's work with pitchers aren't impressed. If you put stock in everything else a catcher does then Pudge is all-world. As usual, the truth is probably somewhere in between. No, the case for Pudge is not predicated on Pudge. It's predicated on everyone else at the position.

                     OBP   Rank    SLG  Rank   OPS   Rank
Catchers            .281    29    .289   30   .570    29
Third Basemen       .305    28    .409   21   .714    23
Centerfielders      .293    30    .312   30   .605    30

So, what does Pudge have to do with the third base situation and centerfield situation? Well, as we know, the third base situation has gotten worse and no better. If we take Aaron Boone and Geoff Blum's combined 2008 numbers, we find that they sported a .283 OBP (would have been good enough for 30th in OBP), a .404 SLG (middle of the pack), and a .687 OPS. That is considerably worse than last season and would have been among the bottom five teams.

Hope is certainly on the horizon. J.R. Towles did perform well in AAA despite his meager big league resume. There is no reason to believe that he can't do the job. However, last season proved that handing a young player the job is no guarantee. When you look at the current crop of catchers there are two guarantees. Toby Hall and Humberto Quintero are not ML hitters at this point. Since both are over 30 we have to believe they never will be.

This leaves Towles and Lou Palmisano. If you are wondering who the heck Lou Palmisano is then you are not alone. Bobby Heck came from the Brewers and he knows him, but if the Brewers didn't feel the need to keep him with their catching situation then it leaves us with very little faith. He has had some promising numbers, but he is 26 and has played very little above the AA level. That should tell you all you need to know.

The last Justice argument came down the playing the kids. Amen to that. However, if you refuse to trade your aging assets for young kids then you are signaling to them that you are competing. What message are you giving guys like Berkman and Oswalt when you say we don't want to trade you, but we are going to cast our lot with Lou Palmisano at catcher. Are you really serious? Are you going to count on the Padres to keep you from having the worst catching in baseball?

When you find yourself missing Brad Ausmus' bat you find yourself in a desperate situation. Signing Pudge to a one year deal for two or three million affords you time to develop J.R. Towles at his own pace. If you sign Pudge to a two million price then you can sit him on the bench when Towles finds himself at the plate. Heck, Pudge sat behind Jose Molina in New York and Molina might be the worst of the catching Molinas. If you lose Quintero and Palmisano in the process then what have you really lost? If either was Yogi Berra or Mickey Cochrane they wouldn't be hoping to catch on with the Houston Astros.