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Bruce Maxwell Creates Layers Of Decision-Making For A’s Brass

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MLB: Seattle Mariners at Oakland Athletics
Uncertainty, thy name is Bruce.
Lance Iversen-USA TODAY Sports

From the Department Of Redundancy Department comes another article about the A’s catching situation. Worry not, there is ample room for “same concept, different spin,” as evidenced by Hollywood and its tireless devotion to “buddy movies”:

“He’s a conservative man from a well-to-do family. She’s a flaming liberal from the wrong side of the tracks. Now they’ve told to pair up to thwart the biggest bank robbers in the land!”

“He’s a cop who hates animals. Now he’s been assigned to the canine unit and travels with a slobbering but loving pooch who has boundary issues!”

“She’s a martian half-prawn-half-carburetor who needs to get home before Christmas. He’s a former astronaut whose fear of flying crippled his career. And he’s allergic to shellfish, but can’t say no to car parts...”

I should stop before I come up with something that’s too silly. Anyhoo...

There is much uncertainty surrounding the A’s catching situation right now. The only seeming certainty is that Sean Murphy is the heir apparent and general savior, but not until 2019 at the soonest. Murphy is an electric defensive catcher, but after tearing up the Cal League (.297/.343/.527), his bat stalled following an aggressive promotion to AA at age 22 (he turned 23 in October). Murphy batted just .209/.288/.309 at Midland, suggesting that Oakland still will need to solve its catching needs without him for at least another year.

Meanwhile, you can see why the A’s are standing behind Bruce Maxwell despite his legal troubles. Partly Oakland is correctly viewing Maxwell as innocent until proven guilty, but also the A’s know they are razor thin at catcher right now behind Maxwell.

Josh Phegley, a non-tender candidate, has allergies to walks (career 4.5% BB rate), to RHPs (career .207/.249/.343), and to catching pitches on the fly. Dustin Garneau worked nicely with the A’s pitchers but was also beloved by opposing pitchers (a career .192/.264/.320 batting line).

As a result it’s likely the A’s are on the hunt for a catcher. A backup catcher? A primary starting catcher? A LH batter? A RH batter? All this depends on whether Oakland is looking to complement Maxwell or replace him with a new primary catcher. And for many reasons it’s hard to know which direction the A’s should be going.

Is there a scenario where Maxwell becomes non grata in the A’s organization, regardless of ability or performance? Likely not, as any conviction is unlikely to occur very soon and far more probable is a plea that settles the case and allows the A’s, if inclined, to say “good enough” and move forward with Maxwell in the fold. Still there is risk in planning around someone who is in the midst of fighting a serious allegation.

This brings us to the second complexity around Maxwell and that is what toll it is likely to take on a young man to be playing major league baseball with the cloud of a trial hanging over him. He would not be the first player to push on in the middle of a nasty divorce, the illness or death of a family member, or a criminal trial. Both history, and simple logic, tell us that the impact on an athlete’s psyche, and subsequent performance, can be great. Even if Maxwell is available to the A’s, will he be capable of bringing to the table his best performance? Already the spectre loomed of how he would manage the runoff from his controversial decision to kneel for the national anthem, and that was small potatoes compared to a criminal trial.

Finally, the A’s have to consider a more on-the-field question with Maxwell: Is he any good? Maxwell has shown flashes of being a solid big league player, demonstrating excellent plate discipline and working well with pitchers, yet his ball blocking skills have left much to be desired and for all his muscle the A’s catcher has put up a career batting line of just .251/.331/.354. Certainly he has the potential to develop more power in his game. The problem is he also has the potential not to. In other words, Maxwell could stand for the anthem and be acquitted of all charges and still be a sub-.700 OPS hitter with poor blocking skills.

Meanwhile, wouldn’t you know it, the available catchers present alternative universes for the A’s. Some are ideal partners for Maxwell while others are more suited to being replacements.

Alex Avila, projected to get around 2/$16M on the free agent market, is a tempting target given his outstanding career OBP (.351) on a team with plenty of HR power to offset Avila’s lackluster .401 slugging, and his reputation as a strong defensive catcher.

Trouble is, Avila is a guy you would not partner with a LH catcher such as Maxwell because Avila has dramatic L/R splits: He is a career .250/.362/.426 hitter against RHPs but just .212/.306/.305 against LHPs. In other words, he would be a perfect replacement for Maxwell but he is not someone you would sign to share time with Maxwell.

In contrast, in a recent article I pointed out that Yan Gomes should be easily attainable from an Indians team already blessed with the RH stylings of Roberto Perez and with their #1 prospect, a catcher by the name of Francisco Mejia, coming up. Known as a top defensive catcher, Gomes has batted .276/.323/.470 against LHPs for his career. This could make him a wonderful complement to the LH batting Maxwell — but you wouldn’t really want Gomes as your primary catcher, exposing him to RH pitchers on a regular basis (career .229/.276/.395) and wearing out a catcher who is 30 and battled multiple injuries in 2016.

Welington Castillo might give you the best blend of options in that he mashes LHPs (career .295/.355/.499) but isn’t helpless against RHPs (career .246/.306./403) and he is known to have a great throwing arm, though his reputation with regard to calling games is suspect. Thing is, if Maxwell is in the picture then Castillo becomes most valuable starting about 13 of the time, against LHPs, and he is going to get a free agent contract that is too expensive to want to play him less than half the time. The same can all be said of Gomes, who is owed about $15M over the next two seasons.

Another “hedge your bets” option would be free agent Jonathan Lucroy, known as a very good hitter and decent-but-not-special defensive catcher who is coming off of a down year. Lucroy has been remarkably similar in his L/R splits, batting .288/.343/.471 for his career against LHPs and .279/.343/.421 against RHPs. That makes Lucroy solid enough to be your primary catcher if need be, but also makes him a guy who could split catching duties with Maxwell, with Lucroy getting all the starts against lefties. However, the market for Lucroy may be strong enough (mlbtraderumers.com predicts 2/$24M) that it only makes sense to sign him if you are going to start him over 100 times, so adding Lucroy relegates Maxwell either to “second catcher” status — which may not be the worst role for him this coming year.

Perhaps the A’s could justify signing Castillo or Lucroy or Avila and placing Maxwell in AAA purgatory while his legal issues, mental state, perhaps even his second attempt at sobriety, are being massaged. It’s just difficult for the A’s to pick a clear direction until they have one in mind for Maxwell. And Maxwell is currently quite the enigma as a catcher, a citizen, and a person combined.

Do the A’s really “view Maxwell as their primary catcher in 2018,” as they have indicated, in which case they are in search of a RH batting catcher who can be penciled in for about 60 games? Or behind the scenes are the A’s prepared to commit to a replacement, seizing an opportunity to nab a new primary LH batting catcher such as Avila, or a somewhat costly every day starting catcher such as Castillo or Lucroy (or Yasmani Grandahl, who would need to be acquired through a trade)?

Publicly, the A’s are saying the only things which make sense: “He’s ours right now, so he’s our guy. He hasn’t been convicted of anything, so we have nothing to say.” But privately, as trade and free agent signing season is heating up, Oakland has to have a clearer idea in mind of how they really view their “current best catcher — actually currently only decent catcher”.

And if the A’s believe Maxwell’s legal situation will end badly, or that his mental state, as a controversial figure with a looming trial and a return to drinking, will affect his performance, or they just feel his on-field performance wasn’t going to be all that great anyway — or if they feel that the combination of the three factors statistically creates too much risk overall — now is when Oakland has to make that determination even though everything Maxwell is squarely in the “who really knows?” stage.

If only Sean Murphy had been born two years sooner. But he wasn’t, and Maxwell’s situation is what it is, so what direction to the A’s go to bridge the gap until Murphy is ready to take over? A Maxwell-expected commitment such as Gomes? A post-Maxwell commitment such as Avila? A hedge-your-bets move such as Castillo or Lucroy? The A’s won’t know what they most need to know about Maxwell until later, but they have to make that decision closer to now.