07/23/2007 7:44 PM ET
Mets BTN: Catch as catch can
Lo Duca, Castro or ... that's the problem for now and 2008
By Michael Salfino / SNY.tv
Paul Lo Duca gets thrown out of the game after arguing with home plate umpire Angel Hernandez in 2006. (AP)

The entrenched mediocrity in the NL East is quite forgiving. The Mets thus are very likely to make the playoffs, warts and all. This removes much of the urgency from roster analysis.

But this team is underachieving. The Mets are in the middle of the NL pack in runs scored. Yes, they are sixth in on-base pecentage, slugging percentage and average (quite a remarkable coincidence). If you believe that hitting with runners in scoring position (RISP) is mostly luck, you have a case that the Mets should be in the top half of the league in runs. But this was an attack that was supposed to be lethal, especially by NL standards. So what's gone wrong?

David Wright has been great since May and Carlos Delgado and Carlos Beltran also (predictably) seem to be hitting their stride of late. Still, the offense seems in need of tuneup. The return of Moises Alou will help, especially if it gets Shaun Green's bat out of the lineup against lefties and even some righties. But the return of Alou will likely result in a lineup reshuffling that will return C Paul Lo Duca to the No. 2 hole. And it's Lo Duca who is the biggest offensive problem on this team.

As is the case with all poor hitters, there's no good place to slot him in the lineup. He's a disaster at the top because he clogs the bases when he's on and doesn't get on nearly enough unless he's hitting .300. His complete lack of power makes him a bad fit for the middle of the lineup, as he fails to protect bigger hitters.

It's questionable whether having protection on deck helps the guy in the batter's box. Economist Ken Kovash of the University of Chicago said that while hitting outcomes don't seem to change much with a bigger hitter on deck, the experience of the hitter is certainly different: more fastballs and more strikes. That hitters fail to perform better statistically despite this may argue in favor of challenging hitters at all times regardless of who is on deck.

Lo Duca should be jockeying for the seventh spot with Ruben Gotay. But his veteran status and All Star resume make this unlikely.

In fact, you can make a strong case that Lo Duca doesn't belong in the lineup at all as long as Ramon Castro continues to badly out-hit him. Castro right now leads the Mets with homers on 21 percent of flyballs. Lo Duca is at about seven percent.

Castro is also hitting .333 with RISP (.191 for Lo Duca). Castro has hit into a double play once in 100 plate appearances, Lo Duca 11 in 338. Castro has an .927 OPS. Lo Duca's is .661.

The conventional wisdom is that Castro would wilt in an expanded role. That's mere speculation, as he's never logged more than 209 at bats in a season.

Defensively, Castro hasn't caught a base stealer all year. LoDuca has caught just 22 percent. But opponents haven't run any more versus Castro than versus Lo Duca. The Mets ability to catch thieves was a strength in the early going. Now, it's a problem. In the last 30 days, teams are 22-of-27 stealing versus the Mets.

So, if you accept that there's little difference in them defensively, Castro deserves a large chunk of the playing time at catcher. I suppose there's a chance that Lo Duca rebounds in the short term. But if you believe that you can project a player's future by seeing what the players most similar to him did from that age forward, you have to bearish on Lo Duca even in 2007. His most comparable catchers at this age -- Brian Harper, Sandy Alomar and Don Slaught - all badly faded and never came close to recapturing peak form after passing Lo Duca's current age.

So this is very likely a long-term problem. Lo Duca isn't even signed for next year should the Mets. Tony Pena's son Francisco (age 17) has really struggled in Single-A Savannah, especially of late (batting .174 in July). But he was aggressively promoted and it would be foolish to write him off as a prospect. Other than Pena, who is, at best, years away, the Mets catching cupboard is bare.

A young catcher who can hit would be a prized off-season or even trade-deadline target for GM Omar Minaya. But with the dearth of good-hitting catchers in the majors, most will be untouchable.

Seattle's Jeff Clement, generally regarded as the best catching prospect in baseball in the preseason, has been disappointing for Triple-A Tacoma other than in his red-hot June (eight homers). With Kenji Johjima playing well enough and signed through next year, Seattle is an obvious trade partner. But they have a couple of exciting young outfield prospects of their own and are thus don't seem to be a fit in the one area where the Mets arguably have a surplus of prospects.

Aiming lower, with Mike Napoli flashing power for Anaheim, post-hype prospect Jeff Mathis, still just 24, might be available the way Ruben Gotay was last year. And the Angels seem to be a better trade fit for the Mets. The Angels also have 19-year-old catching prospect Hank Conger, which might work to facilitate a trade of Mathis.

Yes, the Braves have a young catcher to trade. But there's little chance of those teams ever striking a significant deal.

Cleveland's Kelly Shoppach is a favorite target among many Mets bloggers. But Victor Martinez can't catch very well and might have to spend a lot of time at first base or DH in the future. So Shoppach is needed in Cleveland.

The Rockies Chris Iannetta is similar to Mathis in many ways. Like Mathis, Iannetta has been very solid in the Minors and very bad in the bigs. And he's also 24.

If the Mets go chalk, they'll sign Lo Duca to a friendly, short-term deal, using the lure of finishing his career in New York. And they'll keep Castro, of course, with the understanding that the timeshare at catcher will be more equal unless someone steps up with a red-hot bat. Since Castro's bat is red-hot now, the Mets should use the present to start planning their future. After all, there is no better time.

Michael Salfino is a nationally syndicated football and baseball newspaper columnist and regular contributor to SNY.tv.
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