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Soto and the Rangers

Way back in Ye Olden Days of 2008, Geovany Soto was the Cubs’ Rookie of the Year catcher. He hit for average, power, drew walks, and played acceptable defense behind the plate. He was just 25 years old. The best seemed to be to come.

Four years later, Soto got non-tendered by the Rangers, then reportedly turned around and signed a one-year, $3 million contract with them. For a contending team like Texas with a sizable payroll budget and in need of a catcher, the issue is not so much about the money. Rather, given the dearth of other catching options either internally (especially with Mike Napoli reportedly signing with Boston) or externally, the issue is whether Soto is good enough to be a regular starter for the Rangers in 2013.

Soto’s path not been a total disaster since 2008, when he hit .285/.364/.504 (120 wRC+) in 563 plate appearances. His 2010 was better on a rate basis (.280/.393/.497, 137 wRC+), although he only received 387 plate appearances and dealt with injuries. From year to year, his power and his average on balls in play have fluctuated, and in 2011 and 2012 his walk rate also dropped. Soto’s 95 wRC+ in 2011 was disappointing given his prior performances, but it was still easily good enough for him to be a starting catcher. However, things really fell apart in 2012, and he got even worse after being traded to the Rangers. The 62 wRC+ he put up overall this past season is barely good enough for a part-time catcher.

However, what matters for the Rangers is not what Soto has done, but what they expect him do to — his true talent. Over the last three years, Soto has actually been about a league-average hitter, which is good for a catcher. Of course, we should also weight the averages toward more recent performances, regress to the mean, and so forth. Soto is a below-average hitter. It is hard to believe that he is as bad as he looked in 2012, but his true talent with respect to drawing walks and hitting for power can be pretty safely said to have gone downhill. His true talent with respect to BABIP, another big factor in his terrible 2012 performance, is likely better than .222. This is not to say that Soto’s true-talent BABIP is .300 or something liek that, but it is feasibly closer to, say, something around .280. It is not unreasonable to think that Soto could come close to his 2011 numbers. Five or ten runs below overall league average over a full season is still acceptable for a catcher.

It would be a mistake to focus on Soto’s troubled bat at the expense of the rest of his game. Like most catchers, he is poor on the bases (despite doing pretty well in 2012), and probably will costs his team a couple runs there relative to league average. What is more interesting is Soto’s work behind the plate. In terms of throwing out base stealers Soto has been below average, while being a bit above average when it comes to blocking pitches. However, when it comes to pitch framing, the balance might shift in Soto’s favor. He is no Jose Molina or Russell Martin, but as Mike Fast’s well-known study of pitch-framing from 2007-2011 shows, and Matthew Carruth privately confirmed with me from his own calculations that include Soto’s 2012 season, Soto has regularly been above-average when it comes to framing pitches. Matthew has Soto at about four or five runs above average each of the last few years.

Overall, Soto is likely a below average hitter and base runner, but also offers average or above-average defensive skills once his pitch-framing is taken into account. He also plays a premium position. Being a catcher, his playing time is going to be limited, and Soto has only played more than 120 games once since 2009. He also had knee surgery in 2012, and while some might use that as a partial explanation of his struggles in 2012, it is hard to spin an injury, particularly a knee injury for a catcher, as some sort of positive harbinger.

Still, even at only 100 games over a season, something close to two wins above replacement does not seem like an unreasonable projection for Soto for 2013. That is hardly out of line with past performances if one looks beyond just 2012. Soto is hardly a team-carrying star, and it would probably be a good idea for the Rangers to make sure his backup is someone they can trust for at least 40 or 50 games a season. That would not be not an unusual arrangement, however, and Soto is good enough to provide value as the primary starter.

Although I said at the outset that the focus should not be on the money for this deal, it is worth mentioning in closing. If the Rangers do want to spend a bit more for a caddie for (or even an upgrade over) Soto, it is not as if his contract is so big that it prevents them from doing so. More importantly, although Mike Napoli clearly would have been preferable straight-up to Soto (even if Napoli probably cannot play catcher full-time that often any more), he was also quite a bit more expensive. By going with a one-year, inexpensive stopgap like Soto, the Rangers are leaving themselves budget space for making other potential moves that could help them over more in the short- and long-term, such as signing Zack Greinke or re-signing Josh Hamilton. In that larger context, this low-risk deal for Soto makes a lot of sense, as well.