The Tampa Bay Rays acquired catcher Kelly Shoppach from the Cleveland Indians Tuesday for a player to be named later.
Shoppach, who will turn 30 next April, got a late start in being a backstop, only seeing his first major league action in 2005 as a 25-year old for Boston. He headed to Cleveland in the Coco Crisp trade following that season and served as Victor Martinez’s backup. He busted out in 2008 when he fell into more playing time, cranking 21 home runs in just 352 at-bats, posting a .261/.348/.517 line. That’s all sorts of silly value from catcher. Indeed, Fangraphs valued him at $16.3 million that year.
An injury-marred 2009 sank Shoppach to .214/.335/.399. Obviously, he’s established his plate discipline at this point and just needs to bounce back to an average around .250 to have great value. Given that Shoppach’s OPS is .999 against left-handers and .704 against right-handers over his career, he’s likely more of a platoon player than a starter.
Given that incumbent Rays catcher Dioner Navarro has a .641 career OPS against right-handers (.770 against lefties) it would stand to reason that Navarro finds himself on the outs in Tampa, especially with Navarro due to make around $2.5-$3 million in arbitration and Shoppach expected to earn around the same, if not less than Navarro.
Remember, this is a team that turned down catcher Gregg Zaun’s $2 million option (platoon splits: .732 v. RHP, .730 v. LHP) so they’re certainly not going to invest about $6 million into both Shoppach and Navarro, especially when both are weak facing right-handers.
While it’s possible Navarro, about to turn 26 and still very young, could be non-tendered, he still holds some trade value. Here’s a list of teams I can see Navarro landing on, whether via trade or free agency…
NEW YORK METS: The Mets have been pushing to improve their bench and have signed Chris Coste to a contract that guarantees him a 40-man spot, but not a 25-man spot. Additionally, the club is pursuing Henry Blanco to be their backup and is thought to be the lead bidder on Bengie Molina. Could they turn their attention to Navarro? I say that there’s a great chance the Mets are interested. Navarro would represent a young, cost-controllable alternative towards sinking money into Molina, who is only getting older and older and eventually will implode thanks to the rigors of the position and his bad body. I wouldn’t even rule out 2010 as that implosion year.
CLEVELAND INDIANS: The Mets might be willing to take on Navarro’s arbitration salary, but the Indians would only be interested if Navarro was a free agent. You may be wondering why, exactly, the Indians would trade Shoppach only to essentially swap catchers. The answer lies in this: Navarro is younger, he would be cost-controllable, and as a free agent would almost certainly command less than he would via arbitration. With the Indians having a mixture of Wyatt Toregas, Lou Marson and Carlos Santana, it might make sense to stick Navarro into that competition. Assuming Navarro can control where he goes, he’s not going to sign somewhere where he would be the backup. He’s going to want to be handed the starting job or at the very least compete for it. (This would rule out clubs that might consider him in such a position, such as the Los Angeles Angels.)
DETROIT TIGERS: A year after acquiring Gerald Laird from the Texas Rangers, the Tigers have Laird on the block. Laird is due about $3 million, if not more, and — unsurprisingly to me — couldn’t replicate his 2008 season. Navarro would make some sense here on a free agent contract if the club can jettison Laird. Heck, if they can, Navarro might appeal to them as a trade candidate as Navarro would replace Laird’s salary allocation.
HOUSTON ASTROS: The club is trying to go young. Well, Navarro’s young! The team seems to not be willing to hand J.R. Towles the job — at least, not outright. And I’m sorry, but Humberto Quintero is not a starting catcher. The opportunity for Navarro to get 400 at-bats is here.
KANSAS CITY ROYALS: The Royals are done with Miguel Olivo and John Buck. They have both a starting and backup job available. If Navarro wants playing time, Kansas City is one of the few clubs in a position to hand Navarro the starting job, no questions asked. Of all the teams listed so far, this is Navarro’s best shot at a full-time position.
MILWAUKEE BREWERS: Another logical fit. The Brewers don’t have much salary to play with and currently have zero solutions behind the plate unless you rush Angel Salome. Probably not a good idea, right? What Milwaukee has going for it over the Royals is the consideration that Milwaukee will be a contender for a playoff spot. That could be the deciding factor for Navarro if it came down to it via free agency. While Kansas City would likely be open to a swap, I can’t see Milwaukee acquiring Navarro via trade. They need to hang onto all their chips and will exercise more restraint than Dayton Moore when it comes to salary allocation. Milwaukee would want Navarro, but not on an arbitration pay scale.
SAN DIEGO PADRES: The Padres probably don’t want to give up just yet on catcher Nick Hundley, but they definitely can offer Navarro a competition for the job.
SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS: Hmm… could the Giants be a player to acquire Navarro via trade? It would tie Navarro to the club and give the team a young option to Buster Posey. Navarro could start the first half of the season for the team, then San Francisco could evaluate their situation with Navarro and Posey. Worst-case, he ends up as a backup for the team and then gets nontendered after the season. Best case, Navarro allows the Giants to bring Posey to the majors on their schedule, and could even be flipped for value down the road.
TORONTO BLUE JAYS: The Jays have no catcher. In a rebuilding phase, doesn’t it make sense to give playing time to Navarro?
WASHINGTON NATIONALS: The Nationals want to give Jesus Flores the starting gig, but they aren’t interested in relying on Flores after his struggles to stay on the field. For the remainder of the Nationals/Navarro outlook, see the Toronto Blue Jays.
Don’t rule out a return to Tampa Bay, especially if the Rays want to hedge their bets. However, it seems as if the club may be eyeing Shoppach as a left-handed platoon with Gregg Zaun. While Zaun would see some significant time against right-handers, the Rays would have no problem playing Shoppach against right-handers at the expense of Zaun and seeing if Shoppach can produce.
That leaves Navarro out in the cold, and if he isn’t on one of the above teams to open 2010, I’ll be very surprised.