In 2011, the Pirates received 2.5 WAR and a 92 wRC+ out of their catchers, mostly because Ryan Doumit and Chris Snyder spent most of the summer on the DL. Pittsburgh declined the duo’s expensive options after the season, and today they brought in a new backstop via free agency, former Dodger Rod Barajas. The damage: one-year and $4 million with a club option for 2013 worth $3.5 million. It’s not often you see an option worth less than money than the guaranteed years, but I digress.
At 36 years old, Barajas is a known quantity. He’s managed to match or exceed a .307 wOBA in three of the last four years, though his on-base percentage hasn’t been able to crack .295 since 2007 – he’s had to make up for it by providing power, which is exactly what he’s done. Barajas is a Grade-A hacker that can punish mistakes, hitting at least 11 homers in his seven seasons with 300 or more plate appearances. He’s gone deep at least 16 times in each of the last three seasons, something accomplished by exactly one catcher in the long history of the Pirates franchise: Jim Pagliaroni in 1965, who hit 17.
Barajas does have some defensive value, at least in terms of things we can measure. He threw out 25% of attempted basestealers in 2011 and has a career success rate of 31%, both right around average. Our fielding values have him ranging from -4.0 runs to +2.2 runs over the last four seasons, so while he’s not an amazing defender, he’s at least an upgrade over the likes of Doumit, anyway.
At $4 million, Barajas is currently the highest paid player on the team’s roster. Joel Hanrahan has a shot at exceeding that through arbitration, but work done by our own Matt Swartz at MLB Trade Rumors forecasts a $3.9 million salary for the closer. The Bus are paying their new catcher to be worth just about one win, something Barajas should be able to do just by staying healthy and running into the occasional fastball. The move also allows them to be a little more patient with top catching prospect Tony Sanchez, the former fourth overall pick who had a rough go of it in Double-A this past season (.306 wOBA). It’s not a great value signing, but it’s hardly a disaster, and gives the Pirates some stability at a position where they’ve had a lot of turnover.
So far this offseason, we’ve seen three flawed players in Barajas (lack of OBP), Juan Rivera (declining pop), and Chien-Ming Wang (shoulder problems) sign for a $4M base salary in 2012, essentially setting the market for mediocre role players. Willie Bloomquist got half that annual salary as part of a two-year pact.
The rising prices for filling out the bottom 20% of a team’s roster is showing that teams do place a value on below average but better than replacement level players. Like his fellow free agents to sign so far, Barajas isn’t a difference maker, but he provides some security against disaster, and teams are showing that they’re willing to invest in these kinds of insurance policies.