The Miami Marlins spent a reasonable $21 million yesterday to acquire a league average catcher, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, filling a position previously inhabited by dismal figures like Jeff Mathis and Miguel Olivo. It represents a small expense for a probable 2 to 4 win upgrade. The logic of the deal appears even sounder considering the scarcity of internal options within the Marlins organization.
A Disappointing Year
The fortunes of a farm system can swing as dramatically in a year's time as those of any major league team. For every success that led to an early promotion last year, there were an equal number of prospects that failed to live up to their potential. Rob Brantly and Jacob Realmuto serves to remind us discerning baseball folk of the high attrition rate for prospects - most will underperform or never reach the majors at all.
I think the only fair word I can use to describe Rob Brantly's season is 'horrid.' After impressing with a .290/.372/.460 debut in 113 plate appearances in 2012, he plummeted to a .211/.263/.528 campaign last year. His .267 Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP) did him no favors either, but even that cannot entirely explain his poor performance. Brantly's walk and strikeout rates fell sharply, and he looked bad in Triple-A as well, hitting .186/.219/.271.
Realmuto's .239/.310/.353 season in Jacksonville doesn't constitute an abject disaster, as the transition to Double-A punishes all but the most prepared. I certainly expected more from him, however. I perhaps too casually wrote off his .256/.319/.345 season in High-A as a product of the Florida State League's spacious parks and tough pitching. Now the last two years look like the norm, and his breakout 2011 season looks like the anomaly.
Realmuto remains an extremely athletic player, and he has honed his defensive skillset in the past two years. He stole nine bases last year and was only caught once. Unfortunately, I don't imagine this skill will transition well to the majors, where superior defenses make stealing difficult. The wear and tear of catching will eventually cause him to slow down as well. Ultimately, Realmuto's future depends on his ability to hit baseballs and reach base.
The conversation here at Fish Stripes a year ago amounted to debating which one would take over as catcher of the future. Now we look ridiculous. Perhaps you were secretly bearish about both of them, in which case you should have said something sooner.
The Future for Brantly, Realmuto, and Miami
I may have presented this situation rather bleakly, which might wrongly lead you to think that Realmuto and Brantly are destined for mediocrity. I believe either one of them could produce at the Major League level, but I would emphasize that this scenario appears increasingly unlikely.
The more likely outcome for Brantly and Realmuto is that at least one of the pair develops into a workable backup catcher.
The front office forced Marlins fans to suffer through some extremely bad play at the catcher position last year, with the hope that eventually Brantly or Realmuto might take over. There was a reasonable process behind that decision. A fungible player like Jeff Mathis can act as a stopgap for a year, while a team awaits a permanent solution. I imagine they reexamined the expected futures for Realmuto and Brantly, and decided that it's no longer prudent to endure another subpar performer like Mathis or Miguel Olivo next season. Saltalamacchia is the type of player that can bridge a team from one catcher to the next for three, maybe even four years.
The Marlins should never settle for an average player when better options are available, but Saltalamacchia will give them the space to fill more holes in the roster and possibly seek out another catcher later. Perhaps they will use their first round pick in next year's draft on a catcher. It's also possible that after Kyle Skipworth and Realmuto have not grown as hoped for, the front office has identified catcher development as an organizational weakness and explicitly chosen to seek out external options. From whatever perspective one approaches the issue, the Marlins were wise to sign Saltalamacchia at such an affordable price.
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