Roster Battle: Back-up Catcher

If only Gregg Zaun would come out of retirement, OMSF would never run out of content.

To continue my look at the last remaining roster battles for the Brewers this spring, we make a play at the plate and look at the catchers.  The Brewers may finally have the answer to their carrousel of crap they’ve had at the catcher position for the last decade and a half in Jonathan Lucroy.  Johnny Estrada, Jesse Levis, Paul Bako, Gregg Zaun…ugh I just puked a little in my mouth. Lucroy appears to be a fine young player that has a much better bat than he showed last year.  I like Lucroy a lot, and look forward to getting him back on the field once his hand heals.

So with that said, we take a look at the battle that is raging behind the scenes for the backup catcher spot.  Long gone are the days of Jason Kendall catching 161 of the 162 games, so the backup catcher position is an important one that hasn’t received much attention over the past few years.  The three players that seem to be wrestling for the title of best backup kneeler are Mike Rivera, George Kottaras and Wil Nieves.

George Kottaras – When the Brewers picked up Kottaras last year from the Red Sox, I knew almost nothing about him.  His numbers didn’t look that great, and honestly I thought he was about 10 years older than he is.  With a name like George Kottaras, I just assume you were born during the Eisenhower Administration.  In fact, halfway through the year, I just started referring to him as George Takei Kottaras.  However, as we got to know him as a Brewer it became clear that he has some skills.  His .203 batting average didn’t show it, but what impressed me about Kottaras was his patience at the plate.  33 walks in 250 plate appearances is a nice ratio.  Mix that with 9 HR’s and 26 RBI’s out of your backup catcher and that’s not too shabby.  Additionally, Kottaras logged sometime at first base and RF last year (I can honestly say I do not remember seeing him in RF, but the stats don’t lie).  I am not Bill Schroeder, so I don’t know exactly how to diagnose a catcher’s ability to “call a game,” but I do know that he primarily caught Randy Wolf towards the end of the season last year, and during the last month there was no better pitcher on the staff than Randy was.  So that’s got to stand for something.  However, George’s defense was atrocious last year; only throwing out 8.3% of 48 base stealers.  That needs to improve.  Johnny Estrada could even top that.  This year, Kottaras is having a great spring with the Crew hitting .404 and leading the team with a studly .745 Slugging Percentage.  Despite only being 27 and seemingly having very limited big league work, Kottaras is already out of options.  However, so is the next player on our countdown. This roster battle may be a tough choice.

Wil Nieves – Similar to Kottaras, Wil Nieves was drafted by the San Diego Padres.  However, Kottaras was drafted by the Padres in 2002 and traded to the Red Sox to complete the David Wells trade (sack of shit that he was) whereas Nieves was drafted by the Padres in 1995.  1995?  Good God man.  Nieves came to the Crew this offseason after spending the last three years in the ‘Bigs’ with the Nationals.  Wil’s offensive numbers are not very awe inspiring.  In fact, with the exception of batting average, Kottaras outshines Nieves in almost every statistical category.  So it seems like it should be an open and shut case.  But not so fast.  From what I understand, people who are smarter than me, claim that Nieves is indeed very good at “calling the game” and is an excellent defensive catcher.  It’s hard for me to argue for or against these comments, because when I watched the Brewers play the Nationals last year I didn’t spend much time studying the play of the opposing catcher.  So, I’ll cede my opinion to the experts. As noted, Nieves is out of options as well, so if he doesn’t make the big league club, he’s gone.  Nieves probably has the most major league experience of the players vying for this position, and the Brewers gave him a handsome contract of $775,000.  So obviously Management liked what they saw.  I guess we’ll have to see if the Coaches like what they see this spring.

Mike Rivera – Old reliable Mike Rivera.  Rivera was the Brewers backup catcher from 2006-2009 until the Brewers let him out one night without his leash on and he ran away.  Rivera tried to have the Yankees let him in, and then tried the Dodgers, and finally was able to eat some scraps out of the Marlins trashcan at the end of last season.  Then this offseason someone saw a poster on a telephone pole with Mike’s face on it and called the Brewers saying they’d found their lost backup catcher.  Mike returned, tail waggin’!  Unfortunately, I think Mike’s time in Milwaukee is probably running short.  We enjoyed our time with Mike in the late 2000’s, and he proved to be a valuable member of the team, hitting .260 over that time and flashed some leather throwing out 23% of would be base stealers.  But that was a different time, and I just don’t know if Mike can eclipse the upside of Kottaras or the game tested skills of Nieves.  Rivera has had an okay spring hitting .313 and 2 HR’s, but hasn’t received much playing time despite Lucroy going down early in camp.  Rivera was only signed to a minor league deal, so he could hang out in Nashville and try to get Carrie Underwood’s autograph while he waits for an injury in Milwaukee.  Other than that, Mike might just have to be let free again.

Prediction:  As noted Rivera is a nice backup’s backup.  If he doesn’t make the big league club (and I doubt he will) hopefully he’ll hang around Nashville for a while in case we call him in from the yard.  The Coaches will have a tough decision between Kottaras and Nieves.  Both are out of options, so if they’re gone, they’re gone.  I believe Kottaras offers more at the plate, but his defense really needs improvement.  Nieves has much more big league experience than Kottaras and has been credited as being a good defensive catcher who calls a good game.  On paper, Kottaras is having a better spring, but with catchers a lot of the things that make them good don’t show up in the box scores.  So it’s tough to really look at it from 2,000 miles away and say it’s clearly one or the other.  I’ll have to let the Brewers brass make this decision, but I’m quietly rooting for George Takei Kottaras to be beamed back aboard.  However, if Lucroy starts the season on the DL, we may get the best of both worlds for a bit.

The Future: With Lucroy being brought up to the Majors last year and Angel Salomne taking his ball and going home, the Brewers currently only have one real catching prospect in the minors, Martin Maldonado. Martin Maldonado, not to be confused with former Brewer great Candy Maldonado has spent the last three years in the Brewers farm system, and was the primary catcher in Nashville last year.  Maldonado’s numbers in Nashville aren’t anything to write home about, but with Lucroy solidifying himself as the Brewers catcher of the future, that shouldn’t be too much of a concern.  Cameron Garfield, the Brewers 2nd Round pick in 2009 is still too young to really get a good read on, but we’ll keep an eye on him in the lower system.

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