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Buying or Selling NL MVP Buster Posey's Long-Term Future as an Elite Catcher

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Buying or Selling NL MVP Buster Posey's Long-Term Future as an Elite Catcher
Andrew Weber-US PRESSWIRE

Some wonder whether San Francisco Giants catcher Buster Posey is off to the greatest start to a career in major league history. 

That this notion can even be considered with a straight face says a lot about how valid it is. We are, after all, talking about a guy whose first three seasons in the big leagues have seen him win the National League Rookie of the Year, NL Comeback Player of the Year, an NL batting title, two World Series championships and, most recently, the 2012 NL MVP award.

The last catcher to win the NL MVP award? None other than Johnny Bench, who many are right to consider the greatest catcher who ever lived. The fact that he and Posey can now be mentioned in the same sentence is all too appropriate.

The scary part is that Posey is still only 25 years old. He's already an elite catcher, and he could remain an elite catcher for a long time.

But we have to ask: Is it fair to expect Posey to remain one of the game's elite catchers for the foreseeable future, or does the future have something else in store for him?

It's a fair question to ask if for no other reason than the fact that baseball, by its nature, is not kind to the very notion of an "elite catcher." It's the hardest position to master on both offense and defense, and catchers tend to get injured easier than players at other positions. Posey, of course, can vouch.

So which way should we lean here? Will he or won't he be an elite catcher for years to come?

This calls for an immediate discussion.

 

Why To Buy

Elite catchers are rare, but they certainly happen. Every now and then, catchers emerge who are able to stay in the crouch and remain productive for a long time.

Look no further than the catcher who tops the charts in several all-important categories, Ivan Rodriguez. He's the all-time leader in games caught with 2,377, and he collected a record 2,749 hits as a catcher. He ultimately retired with a career OPS of .798, not to mention 14 All-Star appearances, an MVP and 13 Gold Gloves.

Pudge was the catcher in baseball in the 1990s and for much of the 2000s, just as Yogi Berra was the catcher of the 1940s and 1950s, Johnny Bench was the catcher of the 1970s and Carlton Fisk and Gary Carter were the catchers of the 1980s.

There's always one elite catcher in baseball at any given time. Right now, we really have two.

One, obviously, is Posey. Per FanGraphs, he's tied for first among catchers in batting average since he became an everyday player in 2010, and he ranks third in on-base percentage and second in slugging percentage. His .893 OPS over the last three seasons tops the charts among all catchers.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
The dude can hit.
For that matter, Posey's career OPS of .883 (he also played seven games in the majors in 2009) currently ranks third on the all-time list among catchers, according to FanGraphs. A bit of a silly thing to point out at this point in time given the small sample size, but pretty telling all the same.

The other elite catcher in baseball at the moment is Yadier Molina. He was known as a defense-only catcher for the first few years of his career, but he's developed into a well above-average hitter. This past year, he set new career highs with an .874 OPS and 22 home runs.

Posey is a better offensive player than Molina, but there's no question Molina is the better defensive player of the two. Molina rated as baseball's top catcher this year in the eyes of the advanced metrics (see FanGraphs), and he was a deserving recipient of his fifth straight Gold Glove.

Posey probably won't be winning any Gold Gloves as long as Molina is around, but he's no slouch defensively. He also rated as one of baseball's best defensive catchers this year, which is a big reason why he was able to lead all catchers and indeed all NL players in general in WAR in 2012, according to FanGraphs.

The comparison between Posey and Molina is a fun one to consider from a purely conversational standpoint, but it's a useful one too. Molina can aspire to be more like Posey, and Posey can aspire to be like Molina as he progresses further into his career. Molina is proof that being an elite catcher is a process that can get better over time rather than a process that simply starts with a bang and then holds steady or gets worse.

When Molina entered his 25-year-old season (i.e. the season Posey just played) in 2008, he had yet to post an OPS higher than .708 and he hadn't played in more than 129 games in a season. He wasn't even a Gold Glover yet.

In the five seasons since, Molina has played in at least 136 games four times and his offense has only gotten better and better. His defense, which was great to begin with, has stayed very strong. 

The fact that Molina has gotten better while also becoming one of the more durable catchers in the league should give Posey hope going forward, as he is also looking to be be the rare catcher who stays productive and durable. Molina's career goes to show that it should not be taken for granted that something is going to knock Posey off the path that he and Molina are treading.

Not even a major injury. Posey has already suffered one major injury in his career, and he was able to come back from it. To boot, that major injury was also a useful learning experience.

Jason O. Watson-US PRESSWIRE
Pictured: One of the biggest gut-punch moments in recent sports history.
Scott Cousins taught Posey a lesson in May of 2011 that any catcher who is too willing to sacrifice his body can pay dearly, and both Posey and the Giants have made an effort to make sure it never happens again. Posey altered the way he played around home plate in 2012, keeping a healthy distance between himself and the dish and going for swipe tags rather than trying to block runners.

The Giants' plan to keep Posey healthy in 2012 worked. He caught 112 games during the regular season, and 14 more in the postseason.

As long as both the Giants and Posey are erring on the side of caution, there's no reason to think he won't be able to remain a durable catcher. As long as his defense remains solid and his hitting remains excellent, his safety-first style should ensure that he'll maintain his place as one of baseball's elite catchers for quite a while.

But...

 

Why To Sell

There's not a doubt in my mind that Buster Posey has the skills to be an elite catcher for a long time. My doubts have more to do with whether he's cut out to be a full-time catcher for much longer.

A couple years ago, Minnesota Twins catcher Joe Mauer was the elite catcher in baseball. He was a .327 career hitter when the 2009 season came to an end, and he ultimately collected his first MVP and his second straight Gold Glove award. He also collected an eight-year, $184 million contract before the start of the 2010 season.

Now look what's happened to him since. 

Mauer had a solid season in 2010, playing in 137 games and hitting .327, but his power production tailed off in a huge way. After slugging .587 in 2009, Mauer slugged just .469 in 2010.

Harry How/Getty Images
Mauer never look right physically in 2011.
Mauer then went on to be limited to 82 games in 2011 due to various health concerns, and he once again failed to hit for much power in 2012 even with good health. 

The struggles Mauer has gone through in the last three seasons are relevant to Posey for a couple reasons.

One, you just never know when catchers are going to get hurt. Mauer had a billing as an injury-prone player before the 2011 season, to be sure, but he had averaged 134 games played between 2005 and 2010 and it wasn't a collision at the plate or any kind of freak incident that derailed his 2011 season.

Mauer underwent a seemingly innocent knee surgery after the 2010 season, and it developed into a problem as his recovery went along. He did his best to fight through it early in the 2011 season, but a catcher trying to fight through a knee injury is like a pitcher trying to fight his way through an arm injury. By trying to fight through it, Mauer actually made things worse for himself.

Say what you will about Mauer being injury prone, but all his situation in 2011 really told us was something we already knew: catchers break. It's what they do.

As for Mauer's power outage, many are rightfully quick to chalk that up to the Twins' transition into Target Field in 2010. Mauer had a .477 slugging percentage for his career at the Metrodome, and he has just a .412 slugging percentage for his career at Target Field. It's not a great park for hitters, and it's certainly done a number on Mauer's numbers.

Why shouldn't this same concern apply to Posey as long as he's playing his home games at AT&T Park? It's an awful park for hitters, and even Posey has been tamed by it. His OPS was 62 points lower at home than it was on the road in 2012, and Posey's career OPS at home for his career is 142 points lower than it is on the road.

Furthermore, Posey's comeback this past year had something in common with Mauer's own comeback. Posey bounced back to play in 148 games and Mauer bounced back to play in 147 games, but both of them were able to do so largely because they weren't catching full-time.

Mauer played a combined 72 games at first base and as a DH, compared to 74 games as a catcher. Posey played 29 games at first base in 2012, and he actually had a significantly higher OPS when he played first base than he did when he played catcher. 

The St. Paul Pioneer Press reported in September that the Twins are looking to have Mauer catch on more of a full-time basis in the future, but manager Ron Gardenhire admitted that having Mauer play first base and DH definitely saved him from some wear and tear. If Mauer gives them another injury scare, the Twins will therefore be tempted to make the status quo from 2012 into the permanent status quo.

Tony Medina/Getty Images
Posey at first base was an odd sight, but he held his own there.
The same could be true of the Giants and Posey. Having him play first base on occasion allowed them to keep him on the field for more games and thus to maximize the production they got out of his bat. If they were to have him catch on a full-time basis again in 2013 only to see his production wane or another injury occur, the writing will be on the wall.

Make no mistake, the key concern for the Giants (and any other team Posey may end up on) is always going to be protecting Posey's bat. As Mauer was in his heyday, Posey is a very rare case of a catcher who's an elite hitter even if you choose to ignore the fact that he plays catcher. Because of this, it will always be in the Giants' interest to think of him as an elite hitter first and an elite catcher second.

This is where Posey differs greatly from Molina, as he was an elite catcher who became a very good hitter. The Cardinals didn't have to worry about Molina's hitting possibly taking a dive as they were grooming him, as there was nowhere to go but up for his bat.

After the season he just had, the only place for Posey's bat to go is down. And we know from Mauer's career story, Brian McCann's story and various other career stories that a good catching career can ruin a great hitting career pretty easily. 

Posey has a great hitting career ahead of him. If it becomes apparent someday down the line that his catching career is going to get in the way of his great hitting career, somebody will be forced to decide that the whole catching thing just isn't worth the trouble.

 

And the Most Logical Conclusion Is...

I will not argue that Buster Posey isn't an elite catcher right now. For that matter, I don't think that's an argument that anybody can make.

But I'm not anticipating him remaining an elite catcher. Or, to put it a little more positively, I'm expecting him to remain an elite catcher in the same way I'm expecting Mauer to remain an elite catcher.

People were still referring to Mauer as one of the game's great catchers in 2012, but the claim came with an asterisk. He wasn't so much a great catcher as he was a great part-time catcher. He was a great hitter who happened to play a little catcher.

The Twins may want to use Mauer as a full-time catcher again down the road, but they can't deny that they found a plan for Mauer in 2012 that worked to perfection. They were able to keep Mauer on the field for a career-high number of games, and that allowed them to get plenty of quality offensive production out of him even despite his relatively unimpressive .446 slugging percentage.

The Twins will be tempted to repeat their plan for Mauer in 2013 and the years after because they need to do everything in their power to make sure he's providing good value for the huge amount of money they're paying him. If he gives them around 145 games played, a .300 average and an OPS in the .850 neighborhood on an annual basis, they'll be in no position to complain.

Do you think Buster Posey will be an elite catcher for the rest of his career?

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There will come a day when the Giants will also have to worry about maximizing Posey's value. In fact, there's likely to be more pressure on them to maximize Posey's value than there is on the Twins to maximize Mauer's value.

Right now, Posey is cheap. He only made $615,000 in 2012, and he's not due to hit free agency until 2017. 

Eventually, though, he's going to need a contract extension. And when the Giants sit down to finally offer him one, they're going to have to start at $15 million per year, which is right around what Molina's deal with the Cardinals is paying him.

That likely won't be good enough, however. If Posey's 2012 season is any indication, he's going to be worth more like $20 million per year. He may even stray into Mauer territory ($23 million per year).

When you're paying an offensive player that kind of money, you worry about his hitting first, with everything else being a distant second. In Posey's case, his good defense behind the plate, his deft handling of the pitching staff and his intangibles won't come close to giving the Giants (or whoever) good value for his big contract if the hitting isn't there.

Since the money will come eventually, I'm more than willing to bet my bottom dollar on Posey one day moving further and further away from the crouch. He could become a 50-50 player like Mauer was in 2012, or he could just become a full-time first baseman.

Whatever the case, Posey's bat will eventually overrule his mask.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted. Salary figures courtesy of Cot's Baseball Contracts.

 

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.

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