All-Star Recognition is da Honor for Navarro
On Tuesday, Rob Neyer asked Who are this year's short-lived All-Stars?
What about Dioner Navarro? Like Ludwick, Navarro's an All-Star in his first season as an everyday player … but he's not really an everyday player, having played only 69 games so far. Last year he batted .227/.286/.356, and wasn't even an afterthought in everybody's rotisserie drafts this spring. What's more, when you make a list of obscure All-Stars over the years, you're going to wind up with a bunch of catchers. So maybe Navarro's our man … except he's only 24, and was highly regarded as a prospect, and catchers often take a while to develop as hitters. Anybody want to bet he doesn't enjoy a productive major league career?
My two cents is that Dioner Navarro is far from a fluke and instead a legitimate All-Star. His full-year stats last year don't do him any justice as the Tampa Bay catcher had a horrendous first half (.177/.238/.254) but rebounded in a big way in the second half (.285/.340/.475). Navarro has continued to hit well through the All-Star game this season (.310/.361/.424) and his production for the past year places him among the top-ten hitting catchers in the game.
Among catchers with 400 or more plate appearances during this time frame, Navarro ranks fifth (out of 22 eligibles) in AVG (.301) and SLG (.451), seventh in OPS (.805) and RC/27 (5.36), and eighth in OBP (.354). The six catchers who rank ahead of him in OPS and RC/27? Jorge Posada, Geovany Soto, Brian McCann, Joe Mauer, Chris Snyder, and Russell Martin.
Posada's inclusion is based on a career year in 2007 while Soto, McCann, Mauer, and Martin – All-Stars all – are probably the four most highly regarded catchers at the present time. All of these receivers are older than Navarro except for McCann, who was born 11 days later. Put it all together and the Rays have one of the youngest and most productive backstops in the majors.
Signed by the New York Yankees as an amateur free agent in 2000, Navarro has already played for three different teams in the big leagues even though he is just 24. To Paul DePodesta's credit, he acquired the youngster in a three-way trade (along with three others while dumping veteran Shawn Green's salary) in January 2005 when he was the Dodgers GM. The switch-hitting catcher split time between Las Vegas (PCL, AAA) and Los Angeles that summer. He hit .273/.354/.375 in the majors while displaying excellent plate discipline (20 BB, 21 SO) for a 21-year-old rookie.
Navarro was traded (along with two other players) to Tampa Bay in June 2006 by Ned Colletti, who had replaced DePodesta the previous fall. Who did Colletti receive for this up-and-coming prospect? Toby Hall and Mark Hendrickson. Two journeymen who did little or nothing for the Dodgers before leaving as uncompensated free agents within the next year or two.
With the arrival of Russell Martin in 2006, perhaps Navarro was no longer needed in L.A. A two-time All-Star, Martin won the Silver Slugger as the best-hitting catcher in the National League in 2007. He can hit, catch, and run with the best. Nobody inside or outside the game doubts Martin's ability or future.
But how much better has Martin been than Navarro over the past year? Let's take a look at their numbers:
AVG OBP SLG OPS Martin .281 .378 .434 .811 Navarro .301 .354 .451 .805
The above comparison points to the fact that Navarro has essentially matched Martin's rate stats over the trailing 12 months, which I believe is a reasonable way to measure the performance of players in the midst of any particular season. Now I'm not suggesting that Navarro is Martin's equal. If given the choice, I would take the latter all day and twice on Sunday. But maybe – just maybe – the gap between the two is much narrower than generally believed.
Defensively, after throwing out only 9 of 58 base stealers with the Dodgers in 2005-2006, Navarro has gunned down 67 of 198 as a Ray, including 17 of 45 (or 38%) in 2008. Furthermore, the native of Caracas, Venezuela has only committed one error this season after making 14 miscues last year. He has also become a highly respected member of Tampa Bay's clubhouse and a take charge guy with the pitching staff.
Although Navarro will be eligible for arbitration after this season, he is the third-youngest player on the team (after Evan Longoria and B.J. Upton) and makes just $22,500 above the MLB minimum of $390,000. Don't be surprised if the Rays lock up their young catcher to a longer-term deal and fans outside of Tampa Bay begin to appreciate him for what he is: one of the top catching talents in the bigs.