The Tigers are in the hunt for a catcher. Brandon Inge has been moved to third base and Dusty Ryan may be ready to contribute at the big league level, but I don’t think anybody is comfortable with him being handed the full load at this point. With this need has come speculation about where the Tigers may turn. Two names that have been floated out repeatedly are Jason Varitek and Gerald Laird. I’m not particularly a fan of either. So I turn my attention West to the discarded Josh Bard.
Despite claims made by Scott Boras that Jason Varitek is deserving of Posada money, the only way he gets that is if some GM decides veteran leadership and game calling ability is worth about $8 million per year. The rest of Varitek’s stats sure don’t support it. At 37 he appeared to get very old in 2008. His BABIP was a low .278, but his line drive rate was a very low 13.6% so it’s not like he was extremely unlucky. If the Tigers wanted a .220/313/359 hitter they could just put Inge behind the plate. Even if Varitek bounces back somewhat offensively, he’s not likely to approach his career .785 OPS. And his 22% caught stealing rate is nothing to get excited about either. Plus Varitek is a Type A free agent meaning the Tigers would send the Red Sox a second round pick if Varitek were offered arbitration.
Gerald Laird‘s name gets mentioned quite a bit, and I can’t figure out why. I understand why he’s available, the Rangers horde catchers and have Max Ramirez, Taylor Teagarden, and Jarrod Saltalamacchia waiting in the wings. But I can’t figure out why he is desirable.
He’s relatively young-ish at age 29 next year, but I don’t see anything offensively that is remarkable. In 2008 he posted a 92 OPS+ which is certainly acceptable for a catcher. But that was coming off a 2007 season in which he hit a meager 224/278/349 which was the only season in which he caught more than 95 games. What Laird does do is slow the running game where he cut down better than 37% of runners over the last 3 years.
So Laird isn’t as awful as Varitek appears to be, but he hardly seems worth giving up much of substance. The Rangers want starting pitching, which the Tigers don’t exactly have in spades at the big league or minor league levels. Plus Laird is right handed which doesn’t particularly lend itself to a platoon with Dusty Ryan.
That brings us to Josh Bard. What makes Bard attractive is the likely price – which should be depressed due to a pretty poor injury plagued season in 2008. Bard managed only a .549 OPS in 178 at-bats last year. Prolific Padres blogger Geoff Young shared Bard’s injury troubles with me from last year:
Bard had wrist problem in ’07 that seemed to carry over into ’08, sapping power; later sprained ankle on play at plate with Pujols.
In addition to the injuries Bard also suffered from an abysmally low .230 BABIP last year. But unlike Varitek, Bard had a line drive percentage of 21.6% that indicates Bard’s numbers may have been suppressed by some bad luck. (on the flip side he had a very high infield fly rate of 12.5%). The bigger reason for concern is that he swung at 29% of pitches outside the strike zone versus the 24% he had in his career. I’m not sure if this was the result of pressing due to his struggles, or partly the cause of it.
I also asked Young about Bard’s game calling and defense:
Bard is a good game caller but has poor footwork on throws, possibly in part because he needed to rush them with Padres pitchers.
That footwork is manifested in a 16% CS rate last year and a horrific 121 stolen bases allowed in 2007.
But despite the defensive issues, the fact that Bard is a switch hitter, has a history of decent OBPs, and can likely be had for an affordable 1 year contract would make him my choice to split catching duties with Dusty Ryan (and/or James Skelton) in 2009. There isn’t an ideal candidate out there, but Bard would seem to be a safe-ish bet for cheap.