While recently running some projections for the catcher position, I paused at the name Ivan Rodriguez. First, I couldn’t believe he was still in the league. He’s turning 39 next week, he’s survived allegation and decline, and yet he’s employed as a major-league catcher next year and he’s averaged 433 plate appearances over his last three years. His offense hasn’t been great (around a 72 wRC+ the last two years), but it’s a tough position, and his .266 batting average last year was 13th among catchers with more than 300 plate appearances. He’s been owned and will be owned again.
But it wasn’t just Rodriguez that gave me pause. After just returning from the Arizona Fall League, where young Derek Norris played well (.278/.403/.667 in 65 plate appearances), I wondered how soon the Nationals would make a change and look to the future. In that future, it’s Norris that piques the interest. He’s put up a 267/304 BB/K ratio in 1392 plate appearances, or a 19.2% walk rate and a 28% strikeout rate. The first is nice, the second is very worrisome. In the AFL he struck out 33% of the time, so that part of his game has continued.
In this case, the good news is that Norris hasn’t played in Double-A yet and has a full year to work on his strikeout rate. He has patience and power – a .201 ISO so far, and a nice showing at the AFL with four homers, two triples and five at-bats in those 54 PAs – so two thirds of the triumvirate are there. His range of possibilities still includes Geovany Soto (16% walk rate, 25.8% strikeout rate, .217 ISO last year), but it also includes Chris Snyder (13.8% walk rate, 29.5% strikeout rate, .169 ISO last year). The risk of the latter is large, but the promise of the former means that Norris needs to stay on radars as he progresses through Double-A in 2011.
In the short term, Rodriguez may have more to worry about from Jesus Flores. Flores has been battling shoulder woes which took all of 2010 from him – but he’s been catching in the Venezuelan Winter League until a calf injury recently sidelined him. Taken in the Rule V draft from the Mets, Flores has been injured so often that he’s only managed 627 plate appearances since the beginning of the 2007 season. In those plate appearances, he hasn’t shown much patience (6.4%), power (.146 ISO) or ability to make contact (26.5%), but short stints have produced small samples in which he’s walked at double-digit rates and shown above-average power. Flores gets an incomplete but interesting, which seems about par for the course.
Last but not least is the newcomer, Wilson Ramos. Famously blocked in Minnesota, Ramos came over in the Matt Capps trade and found some previously lacking mojo. In 2008 and 2009, Ramos was a young catcher in High-A and Double-A showing the ability to avoid the strikeout (18.6% over the two years, 11.2% in Double-A) and pair that with average power (.146 and .137 ISOs respectively). Then 2010 came, and he lost the power (.104 ISO), hit some poor batted-ball luck (.277 BABIP), and put forth a .241/.280/.345 line that may have contributed to his trade. The change of scenery did the trick, as he put up a .177 ISO with the Nationals, and the batted ball luck returned to normal (.344 BABIP), considering that BABIPs are normally high in the minor leagues.
Through it all, Ramos has shown the ability to avoid the strikeout (17.7% career, and lower at the higher levels). That might serve him to put up an okay batting average despite the lack of walks. Paired with average-ish power, he might look like… Ivan Rodriguez. Without some – cough – help, Ramos’ power peak won’t ever look like Rodriguez’ best years, but look at the Tigers’ version of Rodriguez for an idea of what a nice Ramos year could look like. And, in fact, that makes him the safest bet for the future at the position for the Nationals.