About 36 hours and one highly forgettable game -- which I'll refrain from commenting on, although thinking back, it's odd that the Rangers effectively played for one run in the bottom of the third inning with a no-out sacrifice bunt, but didn't play for one run in the top half of the inning by keeping the infield pulled back with a runner on third base and one out -- have elapsed since the trade, and after having had some time to ponder it, to analyze it, to digest it, I've unceremoniously concluded that I'm still not a fan of it. I understand why it was done, but that doesn't mean I like it. I doubt very many of those residing in the prospect-educated camp do like it.
ESPN.com's Jayson Stark stated yesterday that he was a fan of the Bengie Molina-to-Texas deal, even going so far as to suggest that San Francisco would come to regret it because Molina "is a winner." With all due respect to Stark, that, in a nutshell, symbolizes the source of some of the backlash we've seen against this deal: In a baseball context, what does it really mean to be "a winner?" Moreover, what value does such a nebulous attribute bring to the table? I think "veteran leadership" -- another popular baseball buzzword closely associated with Molina -- does give you something, particularly on a relatively young ballclub that lost its de facto leader to free agency (Marlon Byrd), but people notice the underwhelming statistics, find themselves overwhelmed by vague baseball-ingrained descriptors and naturally become suspicious. It's not surprising.
With Molina's projected rest-of-2010 offense being roughly equivalent to what we would expect from either Matt Treanor or Max Ramirez (and, for that matter, inferior baserunning), strong defensive/leadership qualities are a necessity rather than a luxury; absent those, the Rangers would have likely done just as well plucking a replacement-level backstop out of somewhere. With no good way to quantify the value of leadership, but while still acknowledging its presence, we turn to Molina's defensive chops -- something which has eroded, per various anecdotal reports, because old, bad-body catchers don't typically hold up well in that regard.
When I say "defensive chops," I'm referring more to the physical aspects of the position that immediately spring to mind -- throwing out baserunners (and not committing errors while doing so) and preventing passed balls/wild pitches. He's presumably still stronger in that regard than Max Ramirez, whose defense behind the plate has been described by Jason Parks as "fringe-average," but arguably not as strong as Matt Treanor; in other words, it's an upgrade, but one of the marginal variety. Of course, Molina's forte -- and the apparent driving force behind this deal -- is his game-calling ability, something which is separate and distinct from those aforementioned aspects of the catching position.
Not even the world's top sabermetricians really understand how to quantify perhaps the haziest component of catcher defense, which leaves only the conviction of baseball people in its value. I'm inclined to play things safe and neither dismiss the value of game-calling nor go overboard in extolling its virtues, but let's say for the sake of argument that the difference between a really great game-caller and a below-average one is around two full wins per season (that might be overstating the case). With Molina likely slated for 50-60 percent of the playing time going forward, that's around one-.half of one win added above and beyond Max Ramirez, or several million dollars of value.
In a pennant race, one-half of one win can help make a difference, but here's a converse point of view -- pitch framing (or the catcher doing whatever necessary to help generate more strike calls) may not be a part of the total game-calling package, but is something that is given a fair amount of attention in the context of catcher defense. Matthew Carruth of Lookout Landing/FanGraphs examined the value of pitch framing back in February, compared a perceived pitch-framing leader (Kenji Johjima) to a purported weakling (Rob Johnson), and found that the difference over a full season amounted to a whopping two runs. That's it. Two runs. We can't pretend to understand everything (anything?) about the catching dynamic, but count me among those inclined to play it conservative when it comes to internally valuing it.
Look, we get why this deal was made. The Rangers felt they needed to find catching reinforcements sooner rather than later, and ponied up for the reliable what-you-see-is-what-you-get veteran type. It was never my intention to paint Michael Main as some sort of untouchable super-prospect, because he's not; rather, he was a good medium-upside pitching prospect that was expendable in the right deal. The thing about it is, I still dislike what it represents, because Texas still overpaid for what was likely a very marginal overall upgrade -- and not in money, but talent. Were that to become a longer-running trend, the strength that is the Rangers' farm system would not be a strength for very long. For now, I'm just going to trust that there won't be any such trend.