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The Rise of Castro

Jack DickeyWednesday, July 18, 2007
By Jack Dickey

Many Mets fans adore Paul Lo Duca, for as a player and as a man, he embodies much of what we root for. He is by no means an exquisite physical specimen, as far as professional athletes go, and he has no one extraordinary talent, as his defensive aptitude pales in comparison to Mets catchers before him, like Vance Wilson, and his offense quite mortal when looking at Mike Piazza's prime. Lo Duca is a leader on this team: fiery, loud, and with eyes, tinted with a hint of Jake LaMotta, another "fiery Italian temper." As a man, the New York tabloids have dragged Lo Duca relentlessly through the mud, giving him the "Stray-Rod" treatment back when the New York papers had enough on their hands just criticizing Alex Rodriguez's on-field performance. Lo Duca is imperfect, as evidenced by whatever vices are pinned on him by the press and by himself.

Unfortunately, Paul Lo Duca's miraculous run as the Little Catcher That Could might have just ended. As with many others at the position, a thirty-fifth birthday has taken a toll on Lo Duca's body, and he is no longer the force that he was in his prime, or even last year. And, earlier this year, one might have thought it would have been okay to watch Lo Duca, battered with foul tips and foul media attention, sail into the sunset as a member of this Mets club in his contract season. After all, the Mets had an intriguing young catching prospect, Jesus Flores, coming off a 21-homer season in Port St. Lucie. Perhaps he, and an aging Lo Duca, or another free agent option, would be able to fill the void in 2008.

But the Washington Nationals in the December Rule 5 draft selected Flores, left off the 40-man roster by Mets management in a rare fit of naiveté. Rule 5 draft rules stipulate that a player must remain on the drafting team's 25-man roster for the entire season or be offered back to his initial team, unless traded, and the organizational head honchos assumed no one would attempt to pluck the twenty-one year old from the Mets' system. Oops. Perhaps Jesus will never join the ranks of the tremendous selections in that draft like Johan Santana and Roberto Clemente, but I might note that Rotoworld.com anointed him "probably the best prospect available" prior to the selection.

Flores has been nothing special for the Nats this year (a .231/.318/.321 line in 78 at-bats), but his absence has severely weakened the Mets' organizational depth chart. Is it any wonder that 41 year-old Sandy Alomar, Jr. and 38 year-old Mike DiFelice have the most innings among catchers for the Mets' top farm club, the AAA New Orleans Zephyrs? To add insult to injury, Alomar was recently called up to the major league club to serve as a third catcher. I don't claim to be an expert on nepotism, but when you're on the cusp of retirement and your father serves as a coach for the team, your promotion might be somewhat dubious.

So how do poor decisions during the winter meetings and a small army's worth of washed-up catchers affect Paul Lo Duca? He doesn't control the Mets' decisions when pursuing potential backups and insurance policies, but the team is one catcher too heavy (how apropos!) for Lo Duca to have achieved total complacency. That catcher? Ramon Castro.

Castro has been superb in limited duty this year, showing up strong each and every time he's been granted a start. His OPS is a whopping .922, good for tops on the club. It's not as though his playing time has been totally trivial, either: he's logged 81 at-bats. On the other hand, that ubiquitous age 35 decline has been there for Lo Duca, who went from a .318/.355/.428 season in 2006 to a .270/.314/.362 campaign in 2007.

Paul's power this season is nearly nonexistent, his plate discipline severely lessened, and his overall usefulness therefore decreased. Lo Duca's defense this season has been a lone bright spot, better than his 2005 and 2006 campaigns, although Castro has tended to be the better fielder during his Mets tenure, this season excepted. Many have claimed that Willie's decision not to use Lo Duca as his everyday number two hitter this season has contributed to the decline. Often overheard on talk radio are remarks claiming that Lo Duca's not a number six hitter, that he's not a power hitter and therefore should hit second.

But those making that case are often poorly informed: Lo Duca has posted a .234 batting average and .289 OBP during 128 AB in the two hole, a little less than half of his season. On the season, his batting average is .270 and his OBP .314, showing that lineup construction is probably not what's affecting Lo Duca. Paul Lo Duca may not be a number five, six, or seven hitter, but that is because he has been awfully close to an automatic out since his epic month of May. On May 31, Paul had a .319/.371/.394 line, showing a little less power than one would have hoped for, but relatively solid all-around statistics. He then hit .227/.262/.351 in June, and is now in the midst of an ice-cold .167/.189/.250 July.

The simplest antidote is, unfortunately for Paul, making Ramon Castro the co-starter for the time being, given his impressive numbers and Lo Duca's frigidity of late. After all, Ramon's numbers give him the best OPS among all National League catchers, and his five home runs rank him tied for tenth, despite all those hitters before him having at least 142 at-bats, nearly double Castro's time. With Lo Duca aging and likely on the way out after this season, a better offensive catcher would give the Mets a sorely needed opportunity to salvage this drowning season.

Note: Jack writes regularly at his own blog, Crosstown Rivals.

About me: Although I am only 16, having just completed my tenth grade year, I can perhaps pinpoint my Mets fandom to a bizarre childhood adoration of Masato Yoshii and Bobby J. Jones. I knew at a young age that I hated the Yankees for all their various excesses, and for Roger Clemens, and avidly watching the Mets limp through the early years of the millennium soon followed.   Read More -->

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