Over the next few weeks, I thought it might be fun to break down the AL Central position by position ranking from top to bottom the best and worst that the division has to offer. Obviously some of these position battles are going to be divisive but I will do my best to justify my rankings as I go. As with all predictions and blogging, I am always happy to be proven wrong. Today we will start at catcher; I will be ranking from best to worst 1-5 for each position.
1. Carlos Santana – Indians
I realize that this may immediately alienate Twins fans from continuing to want to read this list! But hear me out. The difficulty with this kind of ranking is so many players in the central (particularly with the Twins) have question marks concerning their health.
In his first full big league season Santana broke out the power bat in a big way, bashing 27 HR and managing a decent .359 OBP despite his miserable .239 BA (mainly thanks to walking in approximately 15% of his PA, wow!) Santana suffered from a miserable .263 BaBIP in 2011 so with work in improving plate discipline by cutting down on strikeouts and improving contact, his average should rise in 2012. Don’t be surprised if he comes close to 30/100 with an average closer to .275. Defensively Santana threw out right on the league average of 28% of potential base stealers and despite being a slightly below average fielder (Rfield -4 in 2011), his offensive skill set should lead him to become the best power hitting catcher in baseball in 2012.
2. Joe Mauer – Twins
The primary reason Mauer was not ranked number one on this particular list is the questions surrounding his health from 2011. While Mauer has reported to camp completely healthy, you can never be too careful. The acquisition of Ryan Doumit will be crucial for keeping Mauer’s bat in the lineup as much as possible.
Simply put, when Mauer is healthy, he has one of the sweetest swings in baseball. Despite a power outage since the Twins moved to Target field after his MVP season in 2010, Mauer is one of the league’s elite hitters. Through 9 major league seasons Mauer owns a slash line of .323/.401/.471, averages 96 runs scored, 15 HR and 90 RBI. Mauer own a career WAR of 40.3 and throws out an average of 35% of base runners. Mauer received a brutal backlash from Twins fans last season in the wake of being paid $23 million for the first of 8 seasons in his mega-pact with the Twins and only managing to take the field for 82 games. This simply speaks to how critical Mauer is to the Twins chances of success and how high a standard and expectation he has set for himself. If the Twins follow the Indians blueprint with Santana, moving him to DH and 1B to give his body the rest it needs, expect that monster average and OBP to return and a lot of runs to be scored, with or without the power stroke.
3. Alex Avila – Tigers
Tiger’s fans might feel hard done by seeing Avila at number three on the list, especially after a season that had the Tigers catcher receiving some MVP recognition. The truth is, Avila was pretty lucky in 2011. Avila’s BaBIP jumped to a ridiculous .366 last season after having averaged .293 in the previous two. Avila’s average should come back down to earth this season to the tune of something around .270. Avila has a solid power stroke, with an ISO of .211 in 2011, walks a ton – (73 times last year), and strikes out a ton – 131 times last year. Avila threw out an excellent 32% of base stealers in 2011 and has improved his skills defensively behind the plate. Unfortunately for Avila, he plays at a position at which the AL Central is loaded. He will need a repeat performance of 2011 to be considered one of the games elite catchers.
4. Salvador Perez – Royals
Assuming that Salvador Perez picks up from where he left off in his excellent September call-up he could well be the Royals opening day catcher. In 148 big league ABs Perez managed a .331 average with 3 HR and a decent .361 OBP along the way. Similarly to Avila, Perez benefited from a bloated .362 BaBIP and 2011 was his first season playing above the A level minor league ball. Perez has suffered from a lack o plate discipline in his 5 minor league seasons (managing only 71 walks over that entire span) as well as striking out a little too much. This should lead Royals fans to temper their expectations of Perez going forward this season, particularly with regard to his batting average. If he can remain somewhat consistent he should get plenty of playing time to exhibit the decent pop in his stroke and with the sub-par Brayan Pena being his most significant challenger, he will have every opportunity to earn the Royals everyday job.
5. A. J. Pierzynski – White Sox
Most Twins fans can recall the aftermath of the 2003 season in which Pierzynski was traded away to the Giants in one of the most lopsided trades in MLB history, for a package that included Francisco Liriano, Joe Nathan and Boof Bonser (who, aside from Carl Pavano, had some of the most questionable and entertaining facial hair in recent Twins history).
Since moving onto the White Sox in 2005, Pierzynski has been nothing but consistent. He typically racks up a line of .285/.325/.425, with 15 HR and 70 RBI. Pierzynski is beginning to show signs of age and at 35 has seen his power output decrease steadily over the last three seasons. The Twins 3rd round draft choice of 1994 draft has declined defensively, with a weak arm and a worsening ability in the field. Pierzynski is a fierce competitor and will continue to be a solid presence behind the plate, but his best days are far behind him.