Booms and busts: catcher
Last year, in my first full spring covering baseball for SI.com, I identified a handful of breakout candidates at each position, players I expected to take significant steps forward. I had no hard-and-fast criteria for those players, made no promises of fantasy league dominance or skyrocketing statistics. But between poring over projections and identifying players in changed circumstances such as trades, new roles, recoveries from injury, or entries into the prime age range of 26-29 years old, I wanted to earmark a handful of players before the season started. Similarly, I found candidates whom I felt would take steps backwards. Hence my Booms and Busts series.
While my success wasn't uniform at every position, overall I was right about twice as often as I was wrong when I chose to weigh in — good enough that I felt it was worth repeating the exercise. In the spirit of accountability, in addition to identifying this year's picks, I'll also revisit last year's picks as I do these, and see what I've learned (or haven't); those picks will be judged on a PASS/FAIL basis as to whether I was right or wrong. (Note that I won't be including rookies in this process.)
Alex Avila, Tigers
Back in his age-24 season in 2011, Avila broke out with a performance that earned All-Star honors, hitting .295/.389/.506 with 19 homers en route to 5.2 WAR. He's taken steps backward in each of the two subsequent seasons while missing time due to a variety of injuries that have resulted in three trips to the disabled list, most notably a concussion late last year. He finished 2013 with a .227/.317/.376 line while nabbing just 17 percent of opposing base thieves en route to 0.7 WAR. That last stat, however, doesn't reflect his strong work at framing pitches (he was about 10 runs above average according to soon-to-be-published data from Harry Pavlidis and Dan Brooks of Baseball Prospectus and Brooksbaseball.net) or his dramatic second-half improvement ( .303/.376/.500, up from .177/.279/.293 in the first half).
While I don't expect him to make 130 starts or slug .500 again as he did three years ago, I do think the now-27-year-old will take advantage of the arrival of new manager and longtime catcher Brad Ausmus to pick up a few tips, reestablishing himself as an above-average contributor on both sides of the ball.
As a 26-year-old rookie, Gattis started the year filling in for Brian McCann as the latter recovered from shoulder surgery, and he quickly emerged as one of the season's great human interest stories thanks to his prodigious power and his backstory. The official version is that after graduating high school in 2004, Gattis took time off to deal with substance and depression issues, bouncing around the country as a cook, a valet and a ski-lift operator before being drafted by Atlanta in 2010. Even that was nothing compared to "The Legend of El Oso Blanco" ("Raised by wolverines in the mountains of Tibet… in fear of dethroning the game’s greatest players, he was hesitant to play professionally…"), which grew with his six homers in April.
Once McCann was healthy, the Braves found more time for Gattis in the outfield -- where he was absolutely brutal defensively (-10 Defensive Runs Saved in only 48 games) -- than behind the plate. In all, he finished the year with a lopsided .243/.291/.480 line but 21 homers in 382 plate appearances.
With McCann now in pinstripes, Gattis is heading into the year as the frontline catcher, slated to start around 110 games. His defense behind the plate isn't nearly as bad as his outfield bellyflops would lead you to believe; he was three runs above average in 42 games according to DRS, and his pitch-framing was a solid positive as well. Given his new role, he may have a genuine opportunity to sneak up on folks a second time.
A starter in Tampa Bay from 2007-09, Navarro spent the next three years skirting career oblivion, bouncing from the Rays to the Dodgers to the Reds while hitting a combined .211/.279/.325 in 369 plate appearances. He re-established himself with the Cubs in 2013, hitting .300/.365/.492 with a career-high 13 homers in just 266 plate appearances, a performance that netted him a two-year, $8 million deal to be Toronto's starting catcher. While he'll be an upgrade on J.P. Arencibia even if he merely matches his career line (.251/.313/.371 for an 82 OPS+), I'm skeptical that he can hold onto last year's gains, particularly as his performance included a drastic home/road split (.336/.414/.595 with nine homers at Wrigley Field, .266/.316/395 with four homers elsewhere) in a pair of evenly matched samples of 133 plate appearances. He's also not going to hit .361/.451/.672 against lefties again.
For the second year in a row, Rosario topped 20 homers, hitting 21 in 466 plate appearances, but his 109/15 strikeout-to-walk ratio and .292/.315/.486 overall line were less impressive given the context of playing half of his games in Coors Field, though to be fair his home/road splits were just 32 points of OPS apart. The real problem is that he's lousy behind the plate, having led the league in passed balls two years in a row while being around 30 runs in the red in terms of pitch-framing via BP/Brooks.
The Rockies went into the offseason having suggested a preference for signing a catcher and converting Rosario to a backup who would see more time at first base or rightfield, to minimize his defensive woes while taking advantage of his power. As camp opens, he's still the incumbent; newcomer Michael McKenry, who similarly combines shaky glovework with power but far more contact woes, is no threat to steal his job.
Last Year's Booms (graded Pass/Fail):
• Wilson Ramos, Nationals: Though dogged by a hamstring injury that limited him to 78 games, Ramos still made a significantly larger contribution than in 2012, when knee surgery cost him most of the year. He bopped 16 homers and hit .272/.307/.470 en route to a career-high 2.4 WAR. PASS
• Derek Norris, A's: After a 60-game rookie season, Norris asserted himself by adding about 70 points of OPS, hitting .246/.345/.409 (113 OPS+) with nine homers as Oakland's regular catcher, helping the team to its second straight AL West flag. PASS
• Devin Mesoraco, Reds: A top-20 prospect coming into 2012, Mesoraco inherited the bulk of the playing time in Cincinnati but hit a meager .238/.287/.362 and was right at replacement level (0.0 WAR). The Reds traded Ryan Hanigan to Tampa Bay, so his job may be safe, but I want off this bandwagon. FAIL
Last Year's Busts:
• A.J. Pierzynski, Rangers: I wasn't exactly going out on a limb in predicting decline for a 36-year-old catcher, but I wasn't wrong either. After his best season since 2003 in terms of both OPS+ (120, on .278/326/.501 hitting) and WAR (2.9) -- not to mention a career-high 27 homers -- Pierzynski backslid to a more typical .272/.297/.425 with 1.6 WAR. PASS
• Carlos Ruiz, Phillies: Speaking of catchers in their mid-30s coming off career years, it was a pretty easy call to predict decline for the 34-year-old Chooch, who had hit .325/.394/.540 with a career-best 16 homers in 2012. He began the year serving a 25-game suspension for a banned stimulant, lost four weeks to a hamstring injury and slipped below his career norms, hitting .268/.320/.368 amid the Phillies' worst season since 2000. PASS Scorecard: 4 PASS, 1 FAIL