The Reds signed veteran catcher Brayan Pena on Friday to a two-year deal, prompting much discussion and intrigue. The only logical conclusion to reach here is that the Reds are planning on trading one of the catchers they already have. The interneterati has come to the conclusion that the most likely to be dealt is stalwart veteran and classic catch-and-throw man, Ryan Hanigan. And yeah, I mean, that's a totally reasonable conclusion to draw here. But here's why I think they should trade Devin Mesoraco instead.
It probably goes without saying that Mesoraco is the more valuable trade chip at this point. He's only 25 and has only two years of service time in the big leagues. He hasn't hit all that well so far, posting a slash of just .225/.282/.359. But he was rated as a top-15 prospect as recently as 20 months ago and he has shown all of the tools that warranted that rating thus far in his career. The results aren't there, but there's plenty to lead one to believe that they very well could be and that relatively soon.
Hanigan, on the other hand, is just a year away from free agency and fresh off the worst season of his career. He was plagued by injuries, but he still hit under .200. And he's 33-years-old. He's well-respected around the game as one of the best game-callers and base-stealer-nabbers, but any team wanting to trade for him would be well served to take heed of the numerous red flags.
So yeah, obviously Mesoraco is the more valuable of the two right now. But although he is more valuable on the trade market, he's also more valuable to the Reds. I mean, why would they sign a bag o' donuts like Pena in order to trade off a potential stud like Mesoraco?
As much as I like Mesoraco, the chances that he turns into a premium-level major-league catcher just aren't that high. The attrition rate among catching prospects is staggering. I mean, just how many premium-level catchers are there in baseball right now? Here is a list of catchers who have started 130+ games a year over the last two seasons while providing above average offense (115 wRC+ or higher). The list is alarmingly short:
That's it. Joe Mauer and Carlos Santana are also pretty good, but they DH and play 1B nearly as often as they catch. Aside from those guys, the ranks of major league catchers are populated by a whole bunch of pretty decent fellas.
Regard Matt Wieters. Wieters is one of the best catchers in baseball right now. But his value is entirely wrapped up in his ability to catch 130+ games a year. His bat is league-average (96 wRC+). He's an amazing defensive catcher by all accounts, but defensive metrics caveat. At this point, how confident are you that Mesoraco can become even as good as Matt Wieters? And just how much more valuable is that than a decidedly unglamorous pairing like Hanigan and Pena?
It's also worth noting here that catcher prospects are notorious heart-breakers. Jesus Montero, J.P. Arencibia, Wilson Ramos, and Derek Norris were all widely regarded as the best catching prospects in baseball in recent years, along with Mesoraco. They are all fine baseball players, surely, but I'm sure each one of their teams is remembering a time two years ago when some other team offered them a great trade and they turned it down. And that remembering is regretful, not reliefful. Surely, the best example is when the Rangers had the likes of Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Max Ramirez, and Taylor Teagarden a few years back. All three were legitimate catching prospects and could have been dealt for real value. The Rangers basically got nothing, either in trade or on the field, from them.
I submit that the difference in production between a guy like Matt Wieters (who I think is a reasonably satisfactory great-case scenario comparison for Mesoraco) and the production of a dirt-cheap faceless catching tandem like Hanigan and Pena is less than the value that one could reasonably extract from trading Mesoraco this offseason. If the Reds can markedly improve at any other position by trading Mesoraco right now, then I think they ought to do it.
Catcher is a barren position. It's brutal and merciless, and I don't think it's prudent to invest value in the position. Sure, guys like Posey and Yadi provide incredible value to their respective teams, but the difference between them and average is a nearly unbridgeable gulf. Even good catchers like Wieters, Jon Lucroy, Sal Perez, and A.J. Ellis are really just merely okay. If Mesoraco can join the ranks of those second-tier guys, we would be ecstatic. But even if he does, he wouldn't be noticeably better than what could be signed off the scrap heap for a few million dollars over a few years. And that's no knock on Mesoraco, that's just the brutal state of the catcher market. This appears to be a real inefficiency out there, and the Reds would be smart to exploit it.