All Mets fans have been focusing on upgrading the team in the off-season.  We’ve talked about SP, RP, 2B and the OF.  But the dirty little secret that no one is mentioning is the black hole behind the plate.  And it’s on both sides of the ball.

Through most of the off-season, the focus for the Mets has been on pitching.  First Omar Minaya moved to address the bullpen and common consensus seems to be that he hit a home run bringing in Francisco Rodriguez and J.J. Putz.  Now he’s moving on to the starting rotation, having added Tim Redding and Freddy Garcia and likely to add either Oliver Perez or Ben Sheets.

The Mets have shown no inclination to do so, but most people have concentrated on adding a power bat to the outfield to conclude the team’s off-season makeover.  Dreams of Manny Ramirez or Adam Dunn have replaced sugar plums as items dancing in our head since Christmas.

But it seems unlikely that the Wilpon’s pocketbook will open up wide enough to add one of the free agent bats currently available.  It’s always easy for us to spend a millionaire’s money.  Sure, I’d like to see the club add a power bat, but I’m not going to moan too much, as the Mets have a reasonably high payroll for their market status.  It’s not like they’re the Marlins or anything.

The Mets have two positions that they can upgrade with very little money.  The easiest thing to do would be to move Daniel Murphy to second base.  It costs the team nothing and it would save the fans getting on Luis Castillo’s case each time he meekly grounded out or watched a ball roll beyond his reach and into the outfield.

The other position is catcher.  A hot surge in September made Brian Schneider’s overall numbers look almost respectable, as he finished with a .257/.339/367 line.  But Schneider was brought over for his defense, with the idea that anything he gave the Mets offensively would be a bonus.

That sounds great on the surface, but the only problem is that it doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.

I’m going to use some numbers pointed out by Mike Emeigh.  He did an analysis of how the Mets pitchers performed with both Schneider and Ramon Castro behind the plate.  Here’s what he found:

“You’d need to control for quality differences between the pitchers caught to measure this properly. If Castro caught a lower percentage of [Johan] Santana’s innings, for example, and a greater percentage of, say, the fifth starter innings, the raw difference might understate the range of performance.

Craig Wright wrote about a way to do this in the THT annual – matched plate appearances. For example, Schneider was behind the plate for 562 batters with Santana pitching, while Castro was there for 367 batters. So you take 367/562 of Schneider’s numbers with Santana pitching. Repeat this for every pitcher that both catchers caught (there were 22 all told) and add up the numbers.

When I do that for these two pitchers, I get 1471 matched PA ([Tony] Armas is the only pitcher that Castro caught more often than Schneider) with weighted lines (BA/OBP/SLG/OPS/ISO) that look like this:

Castro:       .237/.307/.363/.670/.126
Schneider: .254/.327/.417/.744/.163

Castro’s adjusted HR total is 30 in 1308 AB, Schneider’s is 48 in 1306 AB.”

That is just staggering.  With Schneider behind the plate, the average hitter (and this includes pitchers, mind you) adds 74 points of OPS to his batting line as compared to Castro.  Just imagine what these numbers would be like if we removed the automatic-out pitchers totals from the line?

Ideally, the Mets could just make Castro their full-time catcher and relegate Schneider to backup.  But Castro can’t stay healthy.  Jerry Manuel tried to play him more and his body just couldn’t handle it.  Instead, the Mets need to bring in a catcher from outside.

There were rumors earlier in the off-season that the Mets were interested in Jason Varitek but fortunately those did not come to pass.  But there is a team that the Mets should target to solve their catching woes.

The Texas Rangers.

Texas is blessed with three top catching prospect – Max Ramirez, Jarrod Saltalamcchia and Taylor Teagarden.  Ramirez is an outstanding hitter but probably won’t cut it defensively as a major league catcher.  Salty has the reputation as an outstanding hitter but has yet to show it at the major league level.  Which brings us to Teagarden.

Yes, I know, his name sounds like someone who should be wearing a fancy hat at the Kentucky Derby and drinking Mint Juleps.  But Teagarden is a future two-way star at catcher and the Rangers apparently think that Salty is the better prospect.  Between Hi-A and Double-A in 2007, Teagarden posted the following line:

310/.426/.586

Last year’s number were down due to an injured wrist, but when he got to the majors he hit .319 with six homers and five doubles in 47 at-bats.  When Teagarden was drafted, he was viewed as a defense-first guy.  Here’s what Baseball America said about him prior to the 2005 draft:

“The best defensive catcher in the draft, Teagarden has exceptional skills behind the plate… The consensus is that he could handle defensive responsibilities in the Majors right now… The question with Teagarden always has been how much he’ll produce at the plate, and he picked up the tag of a light-hitting catcher in high school.”

Obviously, the Rangers aren’t going to give him away.  But with three young catchers with potential, obviously they would be willing to move one of them.  It would be in the Mets best interest to find out what the going rate for Teagarden is.

But the whole idea is that catcher is the position the Mets should be targeting right now.  Replacing Schneider is one area where the team could see a significant boost without having to pay a significant cost.  Who knows, maybe this is the year that Castro can catch 130 games.  Or maybe they can acquire an up-and-comer like Teagarden.

But at the very least, we need to lose the notion that Schneider is a good defensive catcher.

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