MLB Free Agency: Yanks, Red Sox Fight for Miguel Montero? 7 Factors to Consider

Frank LennonCorrespondent IMarch 16, 2012

MLB Free Agency: Yanks, Red Sox Fight for Miguel Montero? 7 Factors to Consider

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    The Arizona Diamondbacks and their 28-year-old All-Star catcher, Miguel Montero, were unable to reach an agreement on a multi-year extension, so there will be no more negotiations until the end of the season.

    By then he will be a free agent, and given the shortage of quality backstops in MLB, he will be very much in demand.

    Two out of his past three seasons (2009 and 2011) have landed Montero among the top 10 at his position, according to ESPN. He did suffer a bit of a down year in 2010—partly caused by a sophomore slump, partly by knee problems.

    For 2012, the parties agreed to a one-year, $5.9 million deal minutes before his arbitration hearing was supposed to begin.

    GM Kevin Towers told ESPN.com, "There's certainly still a desire to have Miguel Montero here beyond the 2012 season. We just didn't want it to be a distraction."

    For his part, Montero said he is not disappointed and has no "hard feelings."

    This brave front is reminiscent of the similar stance taken last year by the Cardinals and Albert Pujols, who tabled contract discussions during the season "to avoid distraction." I guess that worked, seeing as how St. Louis won the World Series, but Pujols is now with the Los Angeles Angels.

    In the interim, Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports reported that the Cards have agreed to a five-year extension with their catcher, Yadier Molina, who is also scheduled to become a free agent after the season. The deal is reportedly worth $75 million.

    Towers denied the Molina deal affected the Montero negotiations, saying, "We can't be affected by what goes on with other ballclubs."

    That assertion sounds ridiculous. As Mike Axisa writes on RiverAveBlues.com,

    "Assuming Yadi’s deal is finalized at the reported terms, the happiest people in baseball will be [Russell] Martin, Mike Napoli, Miguel Montero, and their agents. The catcher salary bar has just been raised substantially, to the point where these guys could ask for $10-12M annually before they even hit the open market after the season. Given the dearth of quality catching around the league, the bidding could get to be outrageous in free agency."

    Entering this season, there are several big-market teams—including the Red Sox and Yankees—who have serious question marks at the catching position.

    Will they lock horns next offseason over Miguel Montero?

    Here are seven factors to consider.

1. Montero's Relationship with Arizona

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    The Diamondbacks signed Venezuelan-born Montero to an international free-agent contract in 2001. He was a late-season call-up in 2006, and played in about half the team's games over the next two years. He took over regular catching duties in 2009, batting .294 with an OPS of .832.

    After a bit of a regression in 2010, he hit .282 with 18 home runs, 86 RBIs and an .820 OPS in 2011. He was a late addition to the All-Star team after another player withdrew.

    Arizona avoided arbitration with Montero by signing him to a one-year, $5.9 million contract, but the sides were unable to agree on a long-term deal.

    "I would rather not get into details," GM Kevin Towers said. "All I'll say is we worked long and hard at it. There was good dialogue, good conversation. We just weren't able to find any common ground."

    In response, Montero said, "Ultimately I've got a decision to make. Like I say to them, they're going to be my priority in the offseason regardless. Right now I don't even want to talk about anything else, just prepare for the season.

    "This is a business," Montero added. "If this is my last year, I've got to move on and it's just part of the game."

    Manager Kirk Gibson told ESPN that "everybody knows" the Diamondbacks want Montero to stay and that he's earned the right to be a free agent.

    Most sources believe it is unlikely that Montero will return to the Diamondbacks, primarily because the free agent market even for mediocre catchers has blown up beyond what the relatively small-market Arizona team can afford.

2. Yankees Catching Situation

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    With the switch to DH (and eventual retirement of) Jorge Posada, the Yankees signed Russell Martin to be their regular catcher.

    The Dodgers drafted Canadian-born Martin in the 17th round of the 2002 draft. He made his major league debut in June of 2006 and became their starting catcher from that day forward. He continued in that role for nearly five years, earning rave reviews for both his offensive and defensive performance through 2008.  His production dropped off in 2009, and in 2010 he suffered a torn labrum in his right hip when he was trying to avoid a tag at home plate. He ended the year on the DL, and the Dodgers, concerned about his recovery and declining production, let him go to free agency.

    He signed with the Yankees for $4 million and succeeded Jorge Posada as the Yankees' regular catcher in 2011.

    The Yankees avoided arbitration by signing Martin to a one-year, $7.5 million deal for 2012; he is a free agent at the end of the 2012 season.

    As Andrew Marchand of ESPN New York wrote recently, the Yankees now face a dilemma moving forward. The Molina deal causes Martin to "move up a notch with Arizona's Miguel Montero and Texas' Mike Napoli as the top catchers on the market."

    However, the Yankees also have to consider an alarming and consistent drop-off in Martin's offensive production. After a .293 start last April, he hit .200 in May and .185 in June, and if it had not been for a spurt in August, his numbers would have been far worse than they actually ended up (.237/.324/.408).

    Martin hit .293 in 2007, but his average has dropped every year since. He still hit a respectable .280 in 2008, but fell off to .250 in 2009, .248 in 2010 and .237 last year for the Yankees. That's an alarming trend.

    "The Yankees have the self-imposed pressure of the $189 million 2014 luxury tax limbo," continued Marchand, "which combined with Nick Swisher, Robinson Cano and Curtis Granderson due big contracts soon could make for some tough decisions."

    Mike Axisa of RiverAvenueBlues adds, "I’ve been suggesting a three-year, $25-30 million contract for Martin over the last few weeks, but that may have gone from 'reasonable' to 'best-case scenario' for the Yankees thanks to Molina’s deal."

    Here's a look at New York's current catching depth. 

    Francisco Cervelli, 25, is Martin's backup. He will earn $513,700 this year, and becomes arbitration eligible in 2013.

    So far in his career he hasn't really been viewed as an everyday guy; part of that assessment has been due to his susceptibility to getting hurt. He broke his foot last spring, then had his 2011 season cut short by concussion issues.

    Cervelli is not exceptionally fast, nor does he possess a lot of pop. More alarmingly, his batting average, like Martin's, has been trending downward. In 2009 he hit .298; in 2010 it was .271; and in 2011, he fell off again, to .266. His defense has also suffered; after throwing out 43 percent of potential base stealers in 2009, that rate dropped to 14 percent in the past two years.

    Third catcher 22-year-old Austin Romine, is not ready yet to play regularly yet.  His 2012 salary of $482,000—$2,000 more than MLB minimum—is only $31,000 less than Cervelli's.

    While his defense is considered major league ready, his offense leaves much to be desired. He played briefly in the big leagues in 2011, and according to pinstripealley.com, "he looked totally lost against MLB pitching, managing only three singles in twenty plate appearances."

    Gustavo Molina provides organizational depth at a cost of $455,000, although he has hit an unbelievably low .128 in 26 major league games over four major league seasons (including four games with the Red Sox in 2010). He went 1-for-6 in three games for the Yankees last year.

    In the wings is Gary Sanchez, who signed for a $3 million bonus in 2009 and has compiled a stat line of .283/.356/.506/.863 over two minor league seasons. According to the New York Post, Sanchez "has the same hitting potential as [Jesus] Montero, and likely will catch at Single-A Tampa this season at age 19."

3. Yankees Payroll Situation

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    Andrew Marchand of ESPN New York writes,

    "The fact that Yadier Molina is about to sign a five-year deal for $70-$75 million deal is not good news for the Yankees. With the Yankees and Russell Martin having tabled talks until the offseason, the Yankees now know where the bar is and an alternative is off the board." 

    And as I wrote in December,

    "The conditions which have caused both the Yankees and the Red Sox to avoid big-dollar deals this offseason will still apply next fall. The new collective bargaining agreement calls for escalating penalties for teams that exceed the luxury tax threshold in successive years. That threshold for 2012 (and 2013) is the same as 2011: $178 million. It goes up to $189 million in 2014."

    Teams that have gone over the limit in 2010 and 2011 will be assessed a 40 percent tax on every dollar spent beyond $178 million this year.

    According to Joel Sherman of the New York Post, the Yankees' average luxury tax penalty has been $25.75 million per year since their penalty rate went to 40 percent in 2005.

    For luxury tax purposes, the Yankees were at $216 million for 2011.

    "I'm just not convinced we need to be as high as we've been in the past to field a championship-caliber team," Managing General Partner Hal Steinbrenner told AP.

    Steinbrenner says the 2012 Yankees payroll is around $210 million. "Is it a requirement with baseball that we hit 189? No, it's not a requirement, but that is going to be the luxury tax threshold and that's where I want to be," Steinbrenner continued. "I don't think it's an unrealistic goal. My goals are normally considered a requirement."

    Complicating the Yankees situation (and making it even more difficult for them to aggressively pursue Montero) is the fact that both Curtis Granderson and Robinson Cano are eligible for free agency after the 2013 season.

    According to the New York Daily News, the Yankees are also committed to $78.5 million in 2014 for Alex Rodriguez, CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira and Derek Jeter ($8 million player option).

4. Red Sox Catching Situation

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    For many years, the Red Sox had the luxury of perennial All-Star Jason Varitek behind the plate.

    Over the past four years, however, his hitting and his ability to throw out base runners deteriorated to the point that he became a liability in the lineup. Varitek retired this offseason, passing the catching mantle to 26-year-old Jarrod Saltalamacchia.

    His backup is former Red Sox prospect Kelly Shoppach, seeking to rejuvenate his career after two bad seasons at the plate in Tampa.

    Next in line is Ryan Lavarnway, the Red Sox version of the much-ballyhooed Yankee prospect Jesus Montero, traded to Seattle for Michael Pineda. Both can hit, and both show questionable defensive skills.

    The other catcher on the 40-man roster is 25-year-old Luis Exposito, who survived his first Triple-A season in 2011.

    In some ways, the Red Sox are in a slightly better position catching-wise than the Yankees. While New York faces the loss of its top catcher, Russell Martin, at the end of the season, Saltalamacchia is not eligible for free agency until 2014.

    And, the Yankees have a higher percentage of their payroll invested in the catching position. Martin is earning $7.5 million on a one-year deal, and the Yankee catching corps as a group is making a little more than $9 million in 2012. Saltalamacchia is earning $2.5 million for 2012; Shoppach will earn $1.135 million, and the others are at or near the minimum, making the Red Sox catching investment about $4.5 million.

    While Martin is the better catcher, he is not three times better, as the relative salaries would suggest. He is a superior backstop defensively, and is a more experienced game manager, but his offensive production of .237/.324/.408/.732 with 18 homers and 65 RBIs is not $5 million better than Saltalamacchia's .235/.288/.450/.737 with 16 homers and 56 RBI.

    With respect to depth, the Yankees traded their top prospect, Jesus Montero, while the Red Sox still have Lavarnway.

5. Red Sox Payroll Situation

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    The Red Sox went over the luxury tax limit the past two years. Their 2011 assessment was $3.4 million, up from 2010's $1.5 million.

    Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports obtained figures from another organization that show the Red Sox are currently up against the luxury-tax threshold of $178 million. (Nick Carfardo also wrote about this in the Boston Globe.)

    Looking at their current payroll, there's no way they stay under that number and still field a competitive team in 2012. Principal owner John Henry confirmed as much when he told Maureen Mullen of CSSNE.com, "Our payroll is going to be in the $190 million-plus range [for 2012]."

    It gets worse: the maximum tax increases to 50 percent starting in 2014. Both the Red Sox and the Yankees are trying to avoid such a hefty penalty, and the only way to do that is to get back under the threshold for one year. If that happens, the penalty goes back to zero, and the first year hit is reduced to 17.5 percent.

    There are several good reads out there detailing how the the luxury tax will affect free agency and trading deadline decisions for both the Red Sox and the Yankees. Matt Kory’s piece for Over the Monster is a good starting point for the Red Sox situation; Chip Beck expanded on the subject for Firebrand of the American League.

    Interestingly enough, however, (and unlike Hal Steinbrenner), Henry has not given a directive that the Red Sox payroll number hit a specific target for 2014.

    “[The luxury tax is] going to be a bigger issue every year as we move forward because of the structure,” Henry told Mullen.
     
    “It’s something we’re mindful of,” team President Larry Lucchino said. “But we paid the tax before and we’re paying the tax this year. We’re aware that it can be part of the cost of doing business and Ben [Cherington, GM] is aware of that.”

6. Other Teams in the Mix for a Catcher

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    At least five teams in addition to the Yankees and Red Sox can be expected to be interested in Montero at the end of the year: the Rays, Rangers, Reds, Mets and Dodgers.

     

    Tampa Bay

    Somehow, the Rays have ended up with 36-year-old perennial backup Jose Molina as their starting catcher. Jose, the least accomplished of three Molina brothers catching in the majors, averaged only 55 games per year since 2009, and has never in his career started more than half his team’s games. 

    He is, however, an excellent defensive catcher, who led the AL twice in caught-stealing percentage. And, Rays catchers combined hit only .194 last year, so Molina doesn't have to do much to improve on that mark.

    "No disrespect at all to Jose Molina, but he is not durable, reliable, [or] offensively productive," wrote B/R colleague Matthew Stucko. He may also be the slowest player in baseball.

    According to the AP's Fred Goodall, Molina signed a $1.8 million, one-year deal last November.

    The problem is, Molina is 36, and an old 36 at that, given his injury history. Competition for the backup job is between Jose Lobaton and Robinson Chirinos, who combined have only 42 games of major league experience.

    The Rays may get by in 2012, they will need catching help for 2013.

     

    Texas

    Mike Napoli and Yorvit Torrealba will share the catching duties for the Rangers in 2012. However, both are free agents, and can expect to test the waters; Napoli, even though he probably will not catch full time, might be looking at Montero-level dollars.

    According to T.R. Sullivan of MLB.com, "The two catchers at the Major League level are free agents after this season and the best catching prospects in the organization are still in the lower levels of the farm system."

    Out-of-options backup Taylor Teagarden was traded to Baltimore for two minor leaguers, and Kevin Cash retired to became a scout for the Blue Jays, leaving the Rangers with a catching void at the upper level of the farm system.

    The Rangers will definitely be active in the catching market for 2013.

     

    Cincinnatti

    The Reds let veteran Ramon Hernandez go in free agency, and included prospect Yasmani Grandal in the Latos trade. They are putting all their eggs in the Devin Mesoraco basket, hoping that the highly touted 23-year-old prospect is ready.

    "If Mesoraco struggles, veteran Ryan Hanigan remains a valuable hitter and strong defender." writes Travis Gettys of TV station WLWT. "But Hanigan is older than you might think (31) and struggles with durability issues, so the Reds need a strong rookie season from Mesoraco."

    If instead they get something more resembling Mesoraco's .180/.226/.360 stats from 53 major league plate appearances in 2011, the Reds could be in the market for a veteran backstop as well.

     

    New York Mets

    The Mets are another team that struggled at catcher in 2011, and will probably struggle again in 2012. Starter Josh Thole never did get into a groove, hitting only three home runs for the year while appearing to be overmatched defensively. He platooned with Ronny Paulino, who was equally unimpressive and is no longer with the team.

    The 2012 options behind Thole are 29-year-old Mike Nickeas, a solid defender, and Rob Johnson, 28, who played for the San Diego Padres in 2011. Nickeas, however, hit only .189 in 53 at-bats last season.

    Expect the Mets to be taking a long, hard look at available catchers if Thole does not blossom this year.

     

    LA Dodgers

    A.J. Ellis, 30, will be the starting catcher for the Dodgers in 2012 after bouncing back and forth from the minors since 2008. Last season he hit .271 in 31 games (103 at bats).

    The Dodgers signed 35-year-old Matt Treanor to a one-year deal as backup. Treanor can’t hit a lick, as he demonstrated in stints with the Marlins, Tigers, Rangers and Royals. In fact, it took him seven years to get out of Single-A ball. He, too, is a decent defender.

    The Dodgers' third catcher is Tim Federowicz, acquired from the Red Sox in the three-way deal with the Mariners that brought Erik Bedard to Boston.

    Needless to say, this is not exactly a Murderers Row of backstops, so expect the Dodgers to be catcher shopping as well.

7. Other Free Agent And/or Trade Options

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    Before getting worked up over a potential Red Sox/Yankees showdown over Montero, consider the fact that there are other catchers out there who may be obtainable via trade or free agency after the 2012 season.

    By "other catchers" I also mean "catchers that won't cost as much".

    That does not include Brian McCann, the Braves 29-year-old catcher, who has a $12 million club option that I'm certain Atlanta will pick up, especially in view of the Yadier Molina contract.

    MLBTRadeRumors.com lists 26 catchers that will be potentially available next fall, including Montero, McCann, Martin and Shoppach.

    Remember, the Red Sox had an interest in Martin before he signed with the Yankees; if Montero is too rich for their blood, Martin would be an interesting alternative.

    Chris Iannetta, pictured above, is another potential Red Sox target. He hails from Rhode Island, an integral part of Red Sox Nation, and I could see him coming to Boston. He has a $5 million club option for 2013, which he can void if he is traded.

    Rod Barajas, who signed a one-year, $4 million contract with the Pittsburgh Pirates that includes a $3.5 million club option for 2013, is another possibility, although he will be 37 next year.

    A more likely option might be Carlos Ruiz, although it's likely the Phillies will pick up his $5 million club option for 2013.

    The Yankees have greater depth at catcher with Cervelli, Romine, Molina and Sanchez. Even so, they might feel better about going with a more seasoned pro if they lose Martin and do not sign Montero.

    One option might be Ryan Doumit, a good hitter who signed a one year deal with the Twins. Another possibility is Miguel Olivo, Seattle's starting catcher, who is entering the final year of his deal with the Mariners.

    Kansas City catcher Salvador Perez is a potential trade target for both the Yankees and the Red Sox, although it is would cost them an arm and a leg for certain. Kansas City just signed the 21-year-old to an eight-year contract (including team options for three years), even though he has only 39 major league games under his belt.

    The point is, Montero is not the only option—despite the relative dearth of quality catchers. 

8. Conclusion

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    Underscoring the shortage of quality major league catchers, Kansas City signed 21-year-old Venezuelan catcher Salvador Perez to a a five-year contract extension worth a potential $19.75 million last month, even though he had appeared in only 39 major league games. 

    Within a month he tore a meniscus in his left knee and underwent surgery, and Kansas City is scrambling.

    The 2012-13 offseason should be a very interesting one for catchers, Miguel Montero included.

    If Saltalamacchia falters this year, I think the Red Sox may be a slightly better fit for Montero than the Yankees. If Montero has a weakness, it's that he doesn't hit lefties all that well--.248 with a .671 OPS, compared to .277/.818 against righties.

    The Diamondbacks used right-handed backup Henry Blanco well, and the Red Sox would have a similar capability with Kelly Shoppach, who also hits southpaws very well. As ESPN suggests, "any platoon arrangement might actually be a boon to Montero".

    However, I do not believe the Yankees and Red Sox will end up in a serious fight over his services. In fact, I believe that Montero will not sign with either team next year.

    For the Red Sox, the Saltalamacchia/Shoppach platoon is a very inexpensive alternative.

    In January, I predicted that the Saltalamacchia/Shoppach catching tandem would exceed all expectations 

    According to an excellent analysis done by fellow B/R writer Matt Trueblood, the switch-hitting Saltalamacchia had a .786 OPS against righties in 2011, but only .635 hitting right-handed against southpaws. Trueblood pegs the newly-acquired Kelly Shoppach as 44 percent better than the average batter against left-handed pitchers, and 26 percent worse than average against right-handers.

    "A perfect platoon division of the 657 plate appearances the Sox got from their No. 8 hitters in 2011 would give Saltalamacchia 379 PA and Shoppach 278," concludes Trueblood. Factoring in injuries and other factors, Trueblood projects about 130 plate appearnces for Ryan Lavarnway.

    The bottom line? It's a projected 3.6 wins above replacement. Montero managed a 4.0 last year, while Russell Martin's WAR was 3.1.

    That's a good enough reason for the Red Sox to stand pat.

    I also tend to believe Hal Steinbrenner's commitment to bring the Yankees payroll under $189 million by 2014, and that won't happen if he competes for Montero. For a while, the Yankees appeared serious in talks with Martin and his agent about an extension. However, once the Yadier Molina deal hit the table, those talks ceased. Martin may have priced himself out of the Yankees' plans, and if he's too pricey, then Montero certainly is.

    I would expect the Yankees are probably looking past Cervelli and Romine and towards Gary Sanchez.

    So, where will Miguel Montero end up? Can any of the other five teams mentioned previously pony up the money?

    Tampa has the biggest catching problem, with only inexperienced kids behind the fragile Jose Molina.

    I would guess that if the Rays are in contention in July—a pretty safe assumption—they will look to upgrade their catching situation, and they won't wait until the end of the season. I predict the Rays and the Diamondbacks will enter into a major trade, with Tampa giving up one of its young stud pitchers to acquire Montero for the balance of the year, subject to signing him to an extension.