Cockcroft: Posada returns to the Yankees
In a winter of anticipated change for the Yankees, one position will remain stable for them: catcher, a spot Jorge Posada has started at since 1998 and will continue to man through 2011. Posada signed a four-year, $52.4 million contract on Tuesday to remain with the team.
Naturally, Posada's fantasy status doesn't change much. Still, coming off the kind of season he just had, one praised by many as one of the all-time greatest by a catcher, Posada's return to the Bronx does warrant our attention.
Posada set career highs in the three big offensive "ratio" categories in 2007 -- batting average (.338), on-base percentage (.426) and slugging percentage (.543) -- and he did it at the ripe age of 36, which is "old" as catchers go. Now he'll be donning the tools of ignorance past his 40th birthday (which arrives in August 2011), and one must wonder whether the effects of age and contract security might lead to a letdown in 2008. Hmm.
Consider this: According to Baseball Reference's BPI functionality, Posada's .969 OPS is the best single-season number in baseball history among players age 36 or older who accrued at least 100 games at catcher and at least 450 plate appearances in a given year. The only other catcher to manage better than an .800 OPS beyond his 36th birthday, while meeting those minimums, was Carlton Fisk (.829 in 1990 at age 42, and .808 in 1985 at age 37), and even with these numbers included, he still had far inferior ratios after his 36th birthday than before it. (As an aside, a 37-year-old Mike Piazza fell short by one game at catcher and 11 plate appearances in posting an .835 OPS for the Padres in 2006, while a 36-year-old Gabby Hartnett managed an impressive .972 OPS for the 1937 Cubs despite falling 45 PAs short.)
Since 2000, Posada's first year as a workhorse, everyday-type catcher, he has logged 77.8 percent of the Yankees' innings behind the plate. That's a hefty workload by today's standards, so even if the inevitable decline doesn't come in 2008, it certainly will, maybe drastically, by 2011. If he's not DH-ing at least half the time by then, I'd be pretty surprised if it didn't.
Call Posada a top-five catcher talent for 2008, though, since he didn't show any signs of that drop-off approaching in 2007. Even after the All-Star break, he posted stellar .355/.463/.598 numbers. Still, with baseball players so apt to slide into their career norms in the long haul, I expect Posada to finish 2008 closer to his .277 lifetime batting average and 23-homer, 89-RBI averages per 500 at-bats for his career.
Doesn't it seem as if Jacque Jones always winds up in places where he'll do little more than block a more interesting or up-and-coming outfielder? In Chicago, all he seemed to do was stand in the way of Matt Murton or Felix Pie getting more at-bats. Now in Detroit, after being traded by the Cubs for utilityman Omar Infante, Jones potentially blocks both Cameron Maybin and Marcus Thames in left field.
In Maybin's case, it's tolerable; the prospect showed in a brief stint late last season that he's not ready for the big leagues. Thames, however, has totaled 44 home runs and 114 RBIs in 617 at-bats over the past two seasons. Unfortunately, Thames' weakness is an inability to hit right-handers. He had .209/.249/.456 rates against them in 2007 and was effectively a homer-or-nothing hitter against that side. Naturally, that means a Thames/Jones straight platoon is probable in left field, and as always, that's limiting from a fantasy perspective. Jones, by the way, slugged .397 against right-handers this past season. Is it any wonder why I'd rather see what Thames can do given a full slate of at-bats against righties?
Back in Chicago, Pie benefits most from Jones' departure. He'll presumably play regularly in center field, or at least against all right-handers. Pie managed .423/.466/.669 numbers against that side for Triple-A Iowa, then .241/.299/.390 against righties for the Cubs, so a .270s batting average and a decent steals rate could be in his immediate future. Maybe he's more NL-only worthy than mixed-league worthy, but Pie's a sleeper to track in the spring.
With Joel Zumaya out for perhaps half the 2008 season after Oct. 31 surgery to repair the AC joint in his shoulder (an injury he suffered while moving boxes during the California wildfires), the Tigers brought back Jones on Monday to close for yet another year. So continues the debate of recent years: "When will Joel Zumaya become Detroit's closer?"
Zumaya will resume throwing in early March, though that'd make a return around June 1 perhaps the best possible scenario for a full recovery. Even then, he'll need to prove his health in a lower-pressure role than as a closer, meaning Jones gets at least another half-season to rack up saves for fantasy teams, even if his ERA leaves a bit to be desired. Considering Jones will earn $7 million in 2008, there's a good chance the only way Zumaya overtakes him is if Jones gets hurt, is disastrous, or the Tigers fall out of contention so early.
As we always say, saves are saves, and Jones could be good for 30-plus of them. The problem, as always, is that his ERA probably will again be in the 4.00-4.30 range, and his WHIP will be around 1.35. Those are ugly ratios for a closer, but such is often the price for getting cheap saves.
A former Tiger also once standing in Thames' path to regular at-bats, Craig Monroe returned to the AL Central on Tuesday, traded by the Cubs to the Minnesota Twins for a player to be named later. Perhaps the Twins took the old phrase "if you can't beat 'em, have 'em join you" to heart. Monroe is a .322/.356/.544 career hitter, virtual All-Star numbers, in 79 career meetings against the Twins.
Unfortunately, like Thames, Monroe's primary knock is a homer-or-nothing approach to hitting right-handers. A .249/.296/.425 lifetime hitter against that side, Monroe is better served hitting against lefties but only sparingly against righties. In fantasy, that's a limiting role, and with a .303 career on-base percentage, Monroe is more suited to hitting low in the order, and that lineup slot (and his poor OBP) likely will limit his runs and RBI opportunities. The bottom line: If he's a regular, he's probably going to disappoint you. If he's used properly, he'll be merely a fringe AL-only asset.
Tristan H. Cockcroft covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.
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