The Catching Conundrum

Frame it: Rob Johnson getting a hit.

Question: If someone walked on the field and put a bullet in Rob Johnson’s head, would anyone stop them?

Answer: It wouldn’t matter. The bullet would just get past him anyways.

This question was posed to me via text message yesterday by my friend Pete, right after Johnson had allowed yet another passed ball. He currently leads the majors with six of those, more than double his closest competition (three players tied with three PBs, including his teammate, Adam Moore).

Worse yet, Johnson has been on the receiving end of 11 wild pitches, as opposed to just four for the entire 2009 season. Technically, blame for that statistic lies on the pitchers. But with such a huge gap between last year’s numbers and this year’s numbers, it’s hard not to point the finger at Johnson.

To top it off, Johnson’s catcher’s ERA (or the ERA of the pitching staff when said catcher is catching) has ballooned from 3.22 in 2009 to 4.11 in 2010.

Lauded for his defense in ’09, Johnson is an absolute abomination behind the dish this year. The fact that he hasn’t been hitting (.172/.295/.592, 2 HR, 7 RBI, 10 R, 19 TB) only compounds the problem.

Set to turn 27 years old in July, time is running out for Johnson. It doesn’t appear that he’ll ever be much of a hitter in this league (unless he’s always facing Ben Sheets, who he hit both of his home runs off of), and the only way he can truly stay relevant at this level is to be one hell of a defender. Clearly, if he’s doing neither, he has no role in Major League Baseball.

So what can the M’s really do about all this?

Well, for one, they can start playing Josh Bard more. A lot more.

The 32-year-old Bard is the walking definition of a journeyman (the Mariners are the fifth team he has played for in his nine-year big league career), but he has always been a decent hitter for his position. In 2006, while with the Red Sox and Padres, Bard appeared in 100 games, posting a .333/.404/.926 line, with nine HR, 40 RBI, and 130 TB. In 2007, he proved the previous year was no fluke with a .285/.364/768 line, five HR, 51 RBI, and 157 TB. In long-term stints, Bard has proven his worth with the stick. He may not have much long-term potential with the organization, but if the team is looking to win now, Bard (batting .333/.435/1.101, one HR, four RBI, 12 TB, in 18 at-bats in 2010) is the guy to go with.

And what about Adam Moore?

The 26-year-old Moore is currently on the 15-day DL with a strained left knee. When he returns to health, who gets sent down to Triple-A? Surely not Bard, as he is the only catcher amongst the trio who has been able to hit in any capacity so far this year. So it really comes down to a coin flip between Johnson and Moore.

A couple seasons ago, this would have been an easy decision. The club could simply option the younger Moore back to Tacoma and give the company line as to why they made the move they did: he needs seasoning, he needs to play every day, he needs to work on his hitting, he needs to work on his game-calling, all the usual garbage. The problem now is that Moore is 26 and those arguments simply don’t apply anymore.

At the same time, Johnson is more or less the same age as Moore, so whoever gets sent down is basically being optioned to baseball purgatory. By giving either of these players a free trip to T-town, the team is essentially giving up on the future of one, while extending a vote of confidence to the other. Catchers tend to age much faster than other position players, and both Johnson and Moore are nearing the primes of their respective careers. They aren’t over the hill yet, but they’re nearing the top.

The M’s are now in the position of determining which catcher has a brighter future with the team. Is it Johnson, the (supposed) defensive wunderkind? Or is it Moore, who might lack with the glove from time to time, but is probably the better hitter?

These are questions we need the answers to sooner rather than later. Or at least before fans start considering how to keep a bullet from getting past the catching staff on a regular basis.

2 thoughts on “The Catching Conundrum”

  1. It is definitely Moore they need to keep. Johnson’s really proven his value this year: he has none. Even if he had to claim waivers to go to Tacoma, he would. Because no one would want him. Moore, although he is only a year younger, has more potential and greater upside. The team should go with Moore/Bard.

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