On the day before the 2008 winter meetings, the Rangers moved catcher Gerald Laird to Detroit in an effort to recoup some pitching value and alleviate what was then a four-catcher logjam behind the plate (h/t JN) ... and on the day before the 2012 winter meetings, the Rangers have re-signed Geovany Soto in order to avoid a possible future without a catcher. There's a little embellishment there on the back end for dramatic effect, but we wanted action this week, and action is what finally appears to transpiring.
Per the local beats, Soto has agreed to return to the Rangers for the 2013 season on a one-year deal (pending physical). Financial terms have not yet been disclosed, but it's a virtual certainty that Soto will bank less than his $4.6 million arbitration projection (via Matt Swartz's arb-forecasting model), and it's been my belief for a while that Soto would ultimately bank less than his $4.3 million salary from last season. A couple of weeks ago, I pegged Soto as a non-tender who would eventually re-sign with Texas for $3 million; that figure may be a tad on the low side, and I won't be surprised if his salary is eventually revealed to be in the $3.5-4 million range instead.
Texas acquired Soto from the Cubs at the non-waiver trade deadline back in July in exchange for Jake Brigham, who proceeded to experience arm trouble and hit the disabled list shortly after joining the Cubs; late last month, the Rangers reworked the original deal by taking Brigham back from the Cubs in exchange for a healthy Barret Loux, and both Soto and Brigham were cut loose in advance of last Friday's 11:00 p.m. CST non-tender deadline. Soto is now locked in, and as of two days ago, Brigham was expected to be re-signed by the Rangers to a minor league deal.
I gave the bird's eye view of Soto's career back when the original trade went down in July, and, truthfully, not a whole lot has changed since that point -- I had high hopes at the time that Soto's strong pre-trade contact rates might augur well for an offensive bounceback in Texas, but he was a sub-replacement level black hole down the stretch, hitting a meager .196/.253/.338 (52 wRC+) over 164 regular-season plate appearances after joining the Rangers. If you're the blame-ascribing type, Soto also threw down a sub-.430 OPS in regular playing time over the final three-plus weeks of the season. Yes, those numbers are quite alarming all the way around, and even with the lowered offensive standards inherent to the catcher position, Soto has to be better than that.
The other half of the valuation equation, though, pertains to defense, and Soto netted significant praise on that end of the spectrum for his late-season work with the Rangers' pitching staff. Yu Darvish launched his game into a CYA-caliber gear down the stretch with Soto as his personal catcher, and in mid-late September, assistant general manager Thad Levine went on the record about how much the organization appreciated his ability to learn on the fly and work cohesively with the pitching staff:
“Anytime a catcher makes a change mid-season, you expect there to be some learning transition as he gets to know the pitching staff,” Rangers assistant general manager Thad Levine said. “I think we almost feel like we didn’t experience that one iota. He picked up right where our guys had left off. He became such a student of the game, spent so much time with [pitching coach] Mike Maddux, [bullpen coach] Andy Hawkins and the pitching staff. On the days he wasn’t catching those guys, he spent time with each of the pitchers. I think he made it a seamless transition. So, yes, he has hit the ground a lot faster than we had expected.”
A month and a half ago, I ruminated a bit on Soto's possible positive impact on the team's called-strike rates (relating somewhat to the concept of pitch-framing), and at the end of the day, the biggest reason why Soto is coming back is because the organization seems to highly value catchers who mesh well with the staff, who have a skill for calling games, and who can generally bring out the best in their pitchers in one manner or another. In that sense, Soto's two-month run was a rousing success, and that's the big reason why the Rangers are going to end up paying upwards of $3 million for a player who gave them virtually nothing with the stick in August/September.
With Soto in the fold, the catching situation for 2013 becomes a little clearer, and the options open up a bit -- in a perfect world, Soto is a No. 2 catcher who logs about 60 games behind the plate in a given season and alleviates some of the abuse on the No. 1 catcher, but he at least has the chance/ability to be a viable No. 1 catcher if circumstances should push Texas in that direction. That's the scenario you're probably looking at if the Rangers should manage to re-sign Mike Napoli, given that Napoli has never started more than 84 games behind the plate in any calendar year, and given that the team who signs him is probably best served by starting him only 50-60 times behind the plate in 2013.
Per Jeff Wilson of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, both Napoli and A.J. Pierzynski top the Rangers' catching wish list (bearing in mind those caveats with Napoli I just stated), and they're also believed to be interested in the Blue Jays' crop of catchers, including J.P. Arencibia. Per Evan Grant (and at least one other local writer whose name escapes me at the moment), the Rangers have thus far been unwilling to offer Napoli more than two guaranteed years, and last week's meeting between the two sides doesn't appear to have triggered any clear progress towards an agreement.
One other thing worth mentioning: my payroll projection from last month had Texas at $110.65 million after including projected arbitration raises and after including Soto at my initial $3 million prediction. If Soto ends up making more than $3 million on this deal, adjust that payroll projection accordingly, and adjust all other expectations of yours accordingly.