Jason Kendall is coming back, and there is not a damn thing you can do about it.

Actually, that a thirty-six year old, fifteen year veteran busts his rear end to get back from major shoulder surgery is admirable.  Jason Kendall will get paid $3,750,000 whether he is ready to play March 31st or August 31st.  That he is pushing himself this hard to return early is truly commendable.

Jason Kendall takes a lot of heat, much of it deserved, on this site and others, but the truth is that much of it is not his fault.   It’s not his fault Dayton Moore offered two years and six million dollars.   It is also not Kendall’s fault that Ned Yost and Trey Hillman insisted on batting him second even though he had not posted an even average OPS+ since 2004.   As major league managers, it is also their fault, not Kendall’s, that they played him every day.

Sure, Jason doesn’t have to be such a jerk on the days when he is not in the lineup and he can be a bit of a condescending assclown when it comes to dealing with the press and fans.   Still, we cannot fault a guy for wanting to play baseball and busting his ass to do so.

Playing baseball, however, is the key phrase in all the above and Jason Kendall is not what he used to be when it comes to that skill.   Last season, Jason hit a very skinny .256/.318/.297 for an OPS+ of just 71.   His traditional OPS of .615 was the worst mark among all catchers with more than 300 plate appearances, as was his slugging percentage.  

It is not that the Royals had a ton of options to amp up the offense from behind the plate, however.   While almost all of us think Brayan Pena brings more offense to the position, his 2010 line of .253/.306/.335 (OPS+ of 76) was decidedly Kendall-esque.   Lucas May, in admittedly small sample size of just 39 at-bats, was an anemic .189/.205/.216.

Defensively, we all know that judging catchers is tremendously difficult..  You don’t really need to be a ‘baseball man’ to watch a shortstop play and see if he is a great defender or a poor one.   Discerning a great catcher is much harder, however.   How many times have you given a catcher credit for a pitcher’s good outing?   How do you tell if he even deserves the credit?   We don’t see how many hours a catcher spends studying opposing batters or if he manages to translate those hours of study into an effective game plan.

What we are left with is an inexact science of stolen base percentages, passed balls, wild pitches and the almost absurd ‘catcher’s earned run average.’   As inaccurate as those are, here’s a quick look at the three Royals’ catchers last year:

  • Passed Balls per 9 innings:   Kendall (.053), Pena (.027), May (.444)
  • Wild Pitches per 9 innings:  Kendall (.309), Pena (.401), May (.556)
  • Stolen Bases per 9 innings:  Kendall (.89), Pena (.77), May (.78)

Pena actually was tagged for a passed ball half as often as Kendall (and no, I did not forget a zero in front of May’s number), but I am not sure 337 innings of work on Pena’s part is enough to make much a case.  

Although wild pitches are technically the fault of the pitcher, I do put some stock in the fact that a good defensive catcher does have some role in his hurlers getting tagged with wild pitches.   Using that logic, Kendall was better than Pena who was better than May.

While Pena and Kendall both threw out 29% of potential base stealers, runners took liberty with Kendall more than they did with Pena.   Again, I am not sure this, like any of the above really tells us who is the better defensive catcher.    Frankly, the best defender in the organization is probably Manny Pina, who NO ONE will ever bat second.

The funny thing about this whole situation is that it is very possible that none of these three is a legitimate everyday catcher and yet, the Royals might well break camp with all three of them on the twenty-five man roster.   Here is something even funnier:  I might actually advocate doing so.

Now, as Craig mentioned yesterday, there is really no use for a third catcher, particularly in the American League.  A third catcher who cannot hit and field who plays behind two guys who can’t either is bordering on the insane.    Even more insane is that I think it is unlikely that either Bryan Pena or Lucas May, both out of options, make it through waivers if the Royals try to send them down to the minors.   Baseball is funny that way.

   With no need for a fifth starting pitcher until April 16th and carrying an eighth reliever being even more ridiculous than a third catcher, it opens up a temporary twenty-five man roster spot.    With essentially a free spot to burn, we are faced with these undeniable truths:

  • If healthy, Jason Kendall will play most days.   We can rail against it all we want, but you know it and I know it.
  • We don’t know if Jason Kendall is healthy.
  • Manny Pina has played 17 games above AA ball.
  • The Royals’ catcher of the future, Salvador Perez, has played no games above A ball.
  • Brayan Pena and Lucas May are out of options.

While the possibility remains that Jason Kendall opens the season on the disabled list, my guess is he won’t.   Assuming that Kendall is active, the Royals will be faced with the gnawing uncertainty that he may or may not be truly healthy and, given the pace at which he returned, could be susceptible to re-injury.

As Nick suggested on the most recent podcast, it might make the most sense to go with the veteran Kendall backed by the defensive minded Pina, IF Kendall is healthy.   (Again, by ‘most sense’, keep in mind that we are operating in reality here – the one where you know that Jason Kendall will play virtually everyday.)  Not knowing if Kendall is healthy and will stay healthy dictates that someone with major league experience join him on the roster.   

Enter Brayan Pena, who has hit one year and not hit the next and is, by most accounts, becoming a tolerable catcher.   He is a likable guy, good clubhouse guy considering he almost never gets to play and almost certainly will break camp with the team for the simple reason that he is better than Lucas May and more experienced than Manny Pina.

What about Lucas May then?    He came to the Royals along with pitcher Elisaul Pimentel in exchange for Scott Podsednik.    May did not show a lot in a brief stint with Kansas City last season, but is still a work in progress.   There is some sentiment that he might have some offensive upside…..for a catcher.     Having been in the organization for less than a year, one would think the Royals might like to take a longer look at him.

Now, the world will not end if the Royals try to pass May through waivers and get him a minor league assignment.   Heck, I just spent the better part of this column telling you that none of the Royals’ catchers are very good.    Still, they really don’t know what they have in May and almost certainly would prefer to have Manny Pina catch everyday in Omaha and Salvador Perez do the same everyday in Northwest Arkansas this year.

Keeping May in some fashion protects younger more viable catchers in the system from being rushed to the majors to be a backup should an injury strike down Kendall or Pena.     If the Royals had a roster squeeze, this would not be worth the effort, but they don’t.

The decision to play Lorenzo Cain in Omaha has apparently been made:  an unfortunate side effect of promising Melky Cabrera playing time this winter.   With that the five outfielders are set and the Royals can maintain their hold on the out of options Gregor Blanco and Mitch Maier. 

The infield is down to a) is Wilson Betemit healthy and b) can Chris Getz hit?   Lance Zawadzki and Pedro Feliz await those answers and probably, if the Royals really wanted to, one of them could stake claim to this temporary spot in place of the third catcher.   Keep in mind, however, keeping Feliz comes with an $800,000 price tag and the caveat that we will actually have to watch him hit.

In my mind, it will probably be easier to sneak an out of options player through waivers in mid-April than right before breaking camp.   By then, organizations will have their minor league rosters set and be a little less likely to jump on a marginal player from somewhere else.  

So, three catchers?  Really?   It doesn’t make any long term sense at all, but for a brief couple of weeks this spring, it might be the prudent thing to do.