The American League East is Catching On

If the 2009 Major League Baseball season were to begin today, there would be a lot of uncertainty behind home plate for most of the clubs in the American League East. Aside from the New York Yankees organization, which features veterans Jorge Posada and Jose Molina behind the dish, the remaining clubs have big question marks.

The Baltimore Orioles club does not currently have a catcher on its 40-man roster, although it does feature three non-roster invitees for spring training: Chad Moeller, Jose Reyes, and Guillermo Rodriguez. The club is expected to hand the No. 1 starting role to phenom Matt Wieters, who spent 2008 in both High-A and Double-A, where he batted a combined .353/.452/.599 in 434 at-bats. Despite his inexperience, it would not be shocking to see Wieters become the most productive backstop in the AL East next season.

In Boston, barring a late return from former captain Jason Varitek, the club could end up with some very poor offensive numbers from some fringe catching prospects currently on the 40-man roster, including George Kottaras, Dusty Brown and Mark Wagner. Kottaras has the most MLB experience of the trio, but with just five at-bats, that is not saying much. He hit 22 homers in Triple-A in 2008, but managed a batting average of just .243. Brown, 26, had a nice line in Triple-A in 2008 at .290/.374/.471, but he struck out 81 times in 297 at-bats (27.3%). Wagner has the best chance of developing into a starting catcher at the Major League level, but he is also the furthest away having spent the 2008 season hitting .219/.297/.363 in 342 Double-A at-bats at the age of 24. His offensive numbers prior to 2008 were much more encouraging.

In Tampa Bay, Dioner Navarro is pretty much entrenched behind the plate, having appeared in 120 games for the club last season. But he may need more rest after also appearing in 119 games in 2007 and that job will likely go to either Shawn Riggans, or John Jaso. Riggans was the go-to reserve in 2008 before injuries ruined his season. Even when healthy, though, the 28-year-old hit just .222/.287/.407 in 135 at-bats. Jaso is the organization’s catcher of the future, but he has just 118 at-bats above Double-A, including 10 at the Major League level. He is not quite ready for a regular roster spot.

In Toronto, the Canadian dollar’s decreased value has not helped the club in its search for a capable replacement for departed free agent Gregg Zaun. The job is likely going to be handed to former second round draft pick Curtis Thigpen, who had a horrendous offensive season in 2008. He managed a line of just .222/.264/.310 in 361 Triple-A at-bats and an average of .176 in 17 big league at-bats. He has the potential to hit for a better average but he lacks power and his defence is nothing to write home about. Luckily, the 25-year-old has some competition on the way in the form of two prospects who will be splitting time behind the dish in Triple-A in 2009: J.P. Arencibia and Brian Jeroloman. Arencibia, 22, hit 27 homers and drove in 105 runs last year over two minor league levels. Jeroloman is a stellar defensive catcher who walks more than he strikes out and posted a .427 OBP in 2007 and a .396 OBP in 2008. Rod Barajas will be the main catcher for Toronto in 2009 and he is coming of one of his better offensive seasons in the last couple of years with a line of .249/.294/.410 in .349 at-bats.

There is plenty of time for the AL East clubs – especially Boston – to improve their offensive potentials behind the dish. Even New York, which appears set at catcher, could face rough times if the picture remains the same in April as it is now. Posada is coming off his worst offensive season in years, including his lowest wOBA since 1999, and can now be considered an injury risk given his age (37) and games played (just shy of 1,500).

If you’re looking for offence from a catcher for your Fantasy Baseball team in 2009, consider the projected starters from the AL East in this order: Wieters, Posada, Navarro, Barajas, Kottaras. As for the remaining catchers, Arencibia and Jaso are names to stash away for 2010 and beyond.




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Marc Hulet has been writing at FanGraphs since 2008. His work focuses on prospect analysis. Follow him on Twitter @marchulet.


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