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Tuesday, July 26, 2005

BACKSTOP
Rob points out an OC Register story about the dilemma to be faced by the Angels this off-season regarding the catcher situation (the article itself is registration-only).

Without reading the article, I can only assume that the dilemma boils down to the fact that Jeff Mathis may not be ready for primetime in 2006, meaning the Angels will have to sign Bengie to an extension (possibly blocking Mathis when he's ready) or let Jose Molina glove his way through a full season.

The big question is to Mathis' readiness. Though Rob posits that Mathis had an early-season slump, he's actually demonstrated a tendency to start hot and cool down. Here are Mathis' AVG/OBP/SLG lines this season from each time I've down a Watch List Update and today:
Date   AVG  OBP  SLG
4/19 407 500 926
5/04 373 421 667
5/24 274 342 566
6/16 270 340 500
7/11 284 351 510
7/26 287 355 508
So, no matter how you define "early-season," Mathis slumped after a torrid start, and has bounced back and stabilized since mid-June.

The PCL is a notorious hitters' league, so while not quite as impressive as it looks, that's still pretty solid for a 22-year-old in his first exposure to AAA. Mathis does strike out about twice as often as he walks (65:32), but he does walk a fair amount of the time (32 BB in 303 AB), so it doesn't seem as though bat control has been a major problem for him.

Complicating matters is the fact that Bengie's having such an excellent offensive season. His 311/343/462 line adds up to a splendid .275 Equivalent Average (.260 is league-average), a very nice mark for a catcher. And though his defense has slipped in the last couple of years, it's not as though Bengie has become a disaster behind the plate.

With this kind of season, and a Gold Glove on his resume, Bengie may command a pretty penny on the free agent market this winter. Should the Angels be willing to pay up? That depends in part on how this season turns out. Bengie has been injury-prone for much of his career, and just turned 31 this past week. Catchers over thirty years old, who are already injury magnets, often turn out to be bad investments. We must also consider the fact that Bengie has never hit this well before. Sure, that might be to some extent because he's rarely avoided injury for so long, but that just underlines the risk of keeping him for more than a few years.

Of course, there is little chance that, coming off of such a good year, Bengie would sign a one-year deal to give the Angels insurance in case Mathis fails. So if Bengie were let go, and Mathis failed, the job would fall upon Jose Molina. Jose is a marvelous defensive player, as you know, but not so marvelous offensively. But, if any position on the field is a defense-first position, it's catcher. Bengie's worst offensive season just happened to be 2002; it didn't seem to hurt the Angels too much, because his defense was legitimately top-notch that season.

Bengie had a .206 EqA that year and a lowly OPS+ of 60; Jose had a .231 EqA last year and a .213 this year. It may seem like a low standard, but in the worst-case scenario, the catcher position will be at the same level as the 2002 team.

Of course, Jeff Mathis can render the whole conversation moot by either raking or tanking the rest of the way. If he slumps from here on out, he may need another year of AAA seasoning. But if he gets hot ... who knows.

If I had to make the choice today, I would let Bengie go, bring up Mathis, and try to find an okay-hitting lefty-swinging catcher to complement Jose as a backup to Mathis, someone like a Greg Myers, though of course Greg Myers is done, and there aren't many like him (or how he used to be).

But, thankfully, no one has to make the decision today, and we have a few more months to see what Mathis and Bengie can do to help everyone figure it out.

Comments:
I don't like the idea of handing the starting job to a 23 year-old with only one year of experience at AAA. If we’re no comfortable with Jose Molina, let’s bring in some competition - Jason LaRue will be a free agent this coming offseason, as will Ramon Hernandez (though I imagine that he'll be looking for something long-term) and possibly even Greg Zaun.

The aim should be to give Mathis at least another half season of polish. He needs it.
 
We let Bengie walk, and we get a decent draft pick, remove the obstacle to a possible future star, and save money that could be spent on pitching. I'll take a season's worth of awkward offense (and a likely *upgrade* on defense) for that any day.
 
The problem, of course, with signing LaRue, Hernandez (or Molina) is that they're not going anywhere for just a one- or two-year contract. Frankly, Hernandez may be worth it, but I wouldn't want to see Molina back with a long-term contract.

I'll take my chances with Jose Molina and Josh Paul, and bring Mathis up next August.
 
i'll take my chances with mathis too...but, stone-man should offer arbitration to bengie. if he accepts it buys us a year, if not, it's mathis's time
 
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