In the wake of Russell Martin signing with the Blue Jays last week, it was reported that the Cubs (among others) were interested in Diamondbacks catcher Miguel Montero. Montero, who has hit .237/.324/.358 (89 OPS+) over the last two seasons, has three years and $40 million left on his contract. The Diamondbacks, who will likely be in a rebuilding state over the next few seasons, are understandably trying to get out from under that commitment.
What Montero will return in such a trade, though, is difficult to pin down. While GMs aren’t dying to acquire aging platoon catchers who are owed significant money, the market for catching is indescribably thin right now. Geovany Soto may be the best available catcher remaining on the free agent market, and next year’s class is only a little better. If you’re in need of a catcher, and you’re not developing one right now, there are precious few options available to you.
Because of that, and because many teams got extremely poor production from their catchers last season, Montero’s value is going to be quite high. Even if he’s only, say, a 2-win player (which we’ll get to), several teams are staring at hundreds of well-below-replacement plate appearances from a catcher they could replace with his bat.
There’s also the complicated issue of how teams value catcher framing. I can’t sit here and tell you I know what metrics front offices are using, but Russell Martin and Brian McCann’s deals make much more sense if you think they’re 20-run-per-year framers. Montero, according to BP, was a +16-run framer in 2014, and only slightly below average in other facets of the job.
Less complicated is pinning down Montero’s value at the plate, where he has been well below average over the last few seasons. Friend of the program Stan Crousett (@crewsett) has repeatedly voiced his opinion that Montero’s been over-exposed to left-handed pitching, which has some truth. In 233 PAs gainst lefties from 2013-2014 Montero hit .194/.253/.275, good for a wRC+ of 44.
Against righties, however, Montero has slashed .250/.344/384 (99 wRC+). The idea is that you would only play Montero against RHP and hope to get league average, if not slightly better, production out of him.
Unfortunately, it’s difficult to play catchers in a strict platoon without carrying three of them. Managers are loathe to pinch-hit for a catcher and put that day’s backup into the game for fear of injury forcing the emergency catcher into the game. It’s just difficult to hide a catcher’s weaknesses at the plate quite as well, especially left-handed batters who will face a bunch of LOOGYs late in games.
For what it’s worth, Montero has been atrocious against lefty relievers. Doing some very rough research using Daren Willman’s (@DarenW) MLBFarm.com, I found 116 Montero plate appearances from 2013-2014 against pitchers who have thrown in relief for more than 2/3 of their appearances in that time. That represents a little over 12% of Montero’s plate appearances.
Montero triple-slashed .152/.190/.171 against those relievers. That line is putrid, but given that LOOGYs exist to eat the souls of left handed hitters, it’s not unbelievable.
Even if you started him only against RHP starters, you’re still looking at about 50 to 80* plate appearances of utter futility. That’s a killer, and such poor production in those PAs likely docks 5+ runs off his production at the plate.
Taken altogether, Montero might be a 3-win player if you gave him 450 plate appearances per season and believe in pitch framing metrics to their fullest extent (fewer than 2 wins otherwise; calculations upon request, as always). Due to injury and aging he’s likely going to decline a bit going forward, but unless he completely forgets how to take a walk his value shouldn’t tank – all of his positive value comes from his glove and position, anyway.
If you expect him to lose roughly a half win of value per year as he ages, he could provide 6-8 wins over the remainder of his contract. For only $40 million, that’s not the worst deal. When you consider those 6-8 wins may look like 8-10 wins to teams with woeful catching scenarios, his value is actually quite high.
Surplus value is a flawed concept for a bunch of reasons, but for simply ballparking a player’s trade value I think it’s worth looking at. If you think a win on the open market is around $6 million per year, he has maybe $8 million in value to teams in dire need of a catcher. Given his age, past injuries, and the Diamondbacks’…interesting trade history, I would expect him to fetch more of a depth deal than one OK prospect.
Inflate some old Victor Wang research, and you may find that a couple of young Grade C pitchers or maybe a single Grade B hitter could get the job done. For context, Jeimer Candelario and Christian Villanueva were Grade B hitters going into 2014, while Paul Blackburn and Ivan Pinyero were Grade C pitchers.
The Cubs could easily spare a couple of 10th-15th ranked prospects in their system for Montero, and the White Sox could move a couple of their 5th-10th ranked guys.
I’d be surprised, though, if the Dodgers weren’t able to beat both of them. For the Dodgers, surplus value means a lot less, and if they view Montero as one of the final pieces to the puzzle, their offer could be very strong. They have quite a few good prospects in the second tier of their system, and it’s tough to see the Cubs’ FO parting with a Pierce Johnson-type piece for an aging catcher.
*Here’s a weird thing about platooning a guy like Montero – his plate appearances against lefties are going to act as something of a dampening coefficient. If he sucks against RHP, teams won’t bother wasting their lefty against him, keeping his batting line higher than it would be otherwise. If he mashes in his side of the platoon, though, he’ll face a bunch more lefties out of the bullpen in high-leverage situations, keeping his line lower than it would be otherwise.