The biggest story of the 2005 season for the Diamondbacks is debatable. Was it the breakout year of Chad Tracy? The G-Force? Russ Ortiz falling flat on his face? Maybe the bullpen meltdown? One thing is for sure, after all the hype of last off season's signings, on opening day the biggest story, the most controversial story, was that Bob Melvin elected to start the season with Chris Snyder and Koyie Hill as his only two catchers.
It was a bold move by Melvin, a manager hired to manage a bunch of kids, but who ended up with a veteran laden team that spent much of the 2005 season in contention for the NL West. Arguably the most important position on the field, Melvin decided to start the year with two virtual rookies behind the dish.
It did not go as Melvin had planned.
Hill and Snyder remained together in a platoon role for the first two months of the season, but the results were less than spectacular. Snyder hit .224 in March/April, and .222 in May, while Hill struggled even more, hitting just .182 in March/April and though he hit .262 in May his playing time dropped as Melvin looked at his options and decided that since neither were hitting well he'd go with the better defensive option, Snyder, the majority of the time. On May 28th Melvin finally made a move, demoting Hill to Triple-A Tucson and calling up veteran backstop Kelly Stinnett.
The position just never became an offensively productive one for the Diamondbacks. At seasons end, it was Stinnett who carried the best offensive numbers, hitting an anemic .248 with six homers and just 12 RBI in 129 at bats, while Snyder got the majority of the playing time, hitting just .202 with six homers in 326 at bats. Hill, who would be called up for patches in July, August, September and for the last day of the season in October, never got on track, though he also never really got another chance. He hit just .218 without a homer in just 78 at bats on the season.
While Stinnett was never intended to be more than a veteran backup, the question now becomes are either Snyder or Hill the catcher of the future for the D'Backs. It would be unfair to try and make determinations about either of the player's careers based on just one season (and not a full season at that), but the fact of the matter is that the Diamondbacks have an opportunity to go after free agent catcher Ramon Hernandez this offseason. If they do, they will essentially be writing off Snyder and Hill, and that could be a huge mistake.
For starters, one has to take into account age. Major League catchers are rarely productive past the age of 35. Stinnett, who will be entering his 13th Major League season next year, could be back in a backup role, but if the D'Backs are forced to turn to him for extended time, they could be in a world of trouble. His numbers last year and likely to be as good as it gets, and they would almost certainly get worse if he was asked to be a full time backstop.
Snyder would be the youngest of the four catchers, as he'll be 25 at the start of the '06 season. He's generally considered one of the best young defensive catchers in the game, and has drawn praise from Diamondbacks pitchers for the way he calls a game. He showed a good power stroke in the minors, and Diamondbacks front office personnel have stated openly that they believe he can be a 20-25 home run guy in the next couple of years.
Hill is a slightly different situation. Also young, he'll turn 27 before the start of the '06 season, he's behind Snyder defensively, but hasn't been catching as long either, having moved behind the dish full time from third base just four years ago. He's a switch hitter with less pure power than Snyder, but has made better contact in his career. Still learning behind the dish, the general consensus is that with the two youngsters, it simply depends on what you're looking for. Snyder's defense and power, or Hill's versatility (if he reached his potential he could hit as high in the order as #2, and still be comfortable hitting seventh or eighth, while Snyder seems destined to spend his career in #6 hole) and switch hitting. Of course, all of that is based on these players reaching their potential.
Which is why Ramon Hernandez is one of the three most prized free agents on this year's market. A stellar defensive catcher with a canon arm and an understanding of how to call a game learned in the pitching heavy Oakland A's organization, he is also arguably the second best offensive catcher (behind Mike Piazza) in the game right now. He'll turn 30 years old during the 2006 season, and had played 136 games or more every season since he became a full time pro until 2004. That year a collision at the plate limited his time to just 111 games, and a rash of injuries in '05 dropped his service time to just 99 games. While he's not considered a health risk, there is always hesitation to sign a catcher to a long term deal (Hernandez is asking for at least three, and preferably four years at somewhere between $8-10 million) because he wear and tear the position demands can take its toll quickly and without warning.
For the Diamondbacks the question is a simple one. Take a chance that one of the two (or three if you count up and coming minor leaguer Miguel Montero) catchers will develop into a dependable MLB catcher, or sink a ton of money into a free agent who's value is increased exponentially by a weak market, particularly at his position. The answer isn't clear. Traditionally catchers are asked to provide defense first and offense second, and since the Diamondbacks have a pretty potent lineup already, an argument could be made that if the Hill/Snyder tandem could combine to put up a .245 average, 15 homers, and 50 RBI with good defense, the Diamondbacks would be okay, because the offense can come from other places.
But can Jeff Moorad and Josh Byrnes pass up the chance to grab one of the few catchers capable of hitting .280 with 25 homers and good defense? Last season Hernandez, in just 99 games, had the same number of home runs, and 12 more RBI, than Snyder, Hill, and Stinnett combined. It will likely be the toughest decision the D'Backs front office has to make this season. Ultimately the decision may be made for them. The Mets are going to aggressively pursue Hernandez, and their recent free agent signings have shown that they are not willing to overpay for a player they want, particularly if that player is of Latin decent. The Diamondbacks might give Hernandez $24 million over three years, but if that price tag moves toward the $40 million over four year range, the D'Backs will quietly back away from the negotiating table, and hope that Snyder and/or Hill can make them look smart for doing so.
That will likely be the prudent decision, and not because Snyder and Hill have such bright futures. Though he is still a minimum of two years away, Miguel Montero elevated himself into the upper echelon of D'Backs prospects this season when he hit .349 with 24 homers and 82 RBI in four months at Hi-A Lancaster. He struggled with injuries and inconsistent playing time after a promotion to Double-A last year, but performed well in the Arizona Fall League before heading to his native Venezuela where he is currently tearing up the Venezuelan League by hitting nearly .400. Grabbing Hernandez for three years would allow Montero the time to develop, four years would bury him in the minors for too long, better to stay with the pair of potentially solid youngsters they have now, and wait for Montero's defense and breaking pitch recognition to catch up with his incredibly quick bat.