WHO THEY GOT: Mike Matheny, 34 years old, Catcher
Theres not much disputing Mathenys defense, which won its 3rd gold glove for the 2004 campaign, and its second straight. Hes one of the better defensive catchers in the majors, though the mid-thirties is usually when age catches up with players who play the physically demanding position of catcher. Matheny gives 110% at stopping any ball that might go by him, and stops most of them, and there are many stories of Matheny going all out to stop pitches even during bullpen sessions in spring training. He also has a strong, accurate arm, catching just under 30% of base stealers in 2004 and boasting a 34.8% career mark in that regard. He is also a true pitchers catcher, coming prepared to every game, discussing gameplans with pitchers ahead of time. Former teammates have called him the most prepared catcher theyve ever seen.
There is very little disputing Matheny defensively and as a person. Hes a solid clubhouse guy, and a pitchers favorite behind the plate.
Which brings up to what he does at the plate. Or more precisely, doesnt do.
Mathenys coming off a five year stint in St. Louis, a team with so many offensive weapons, Mathenys offensive problems were not an issue and were often overshadowed by his teammates incredible production. Matheny wont have that luxury in San Francisco. Although his last two seasons were two of his best offensively, its saying something that those seasons both had his batting average hovering around .250, and managing 8 and 5 home runs in 2003 and 2004 respectively. Matheny strikes out often for a non-power hitter, striking out once ever 4.6 at bats in 2004, and his walk total (23) dropped to its lowest level since 1999. Matheny had a .292 on base percentage in 2004, which is amazingly very close to his career on base percentage of .293.
To put it in terms of his new teammate, Mathenys OPS (On Base Percentage + Slugging Percentage) was .640. Bonds OBP alone last season was .609.
Matheny has problems catching up to fastballs, though he has quickened his swing with a new stance in the last couple of years. Hes particularly vulnerable to high and inside pitches, and will chase a lot. His power is to the gaps, particularly the opposite field gap, which could prove to be a problem at SBC Park.
WHAT THEY SPENT: 3 years, $10.5 million with an option for a fourth year.
A lot of clubs have taken to the theory of paying in the future for their players now, but rarely has any team so efficiently defined the future as a particular year as the Giants have this year. The Giants seemingly have deemed 2008 as the future, a year when the Giants could pay nearly $10 million dollars to players no longer on their roster.
Mathenys deal calls for him to make $1.5 million in 2005 ($1 million in salary, $.5 million in signing bonus), $3.25 million in 2006 ($2.25 million in salary, $1 million in signing bonus), and $3.75 million in 2007 ($2.25 million in salary, $1.5 million in signing bonus). There is a team option for $4 million in 2008, with a $2 million buyout, but that money is realistically just deferred salary. Matheny has about as much chance to have his option taken in 2008 as Ralph Nader does to take the presidential election that year.
Matheny made $2.5 million in 2002, $3.25 million in 2003 and $4 million in 2004 playing for the Cardinals.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Its impossible to judge this deal on its own without looking at the ramifications outside of Matheny. Mathenys signing ended the short Giants career of A.J. Pierzynski, one of the best offensive catchers the Giants have had in years despite having a down year and leading the league in double plays. Whats more, instead of trading the young catcher, the Giants inexplicably decided to waive him without even trying, despite having Pierzynskis arbitration rights for 2 more years.
Pierzynski never quite gained the fans approval after being traded for the popular Joe Nathan, and many fans blamed him (wrongly) as they watched the Giants bullpen struggle, and saw Nathan blossom as Minnesotas closer and place 4th in AL Cy Young voting. Giants fans now have nothing to show for that very unpopular trade, and with Pierzynskis release, a move that is headlined on ESPN as a Giant Mistake?, its unlikely that the fans will be any more forgiving or understanding to Matheny, despite him having even less to do with the loss than Pierzynski.
Whats more is that Matheny cannot come close to replacing Pierzynskis role in the offense. Pierzynski spent most of his time batting between the 5th, 6th and 7th spots in the Giants order and was a big part of the second highest scoring offense in the league, grabbing 50 RBI in 221 at bats in the 6th spot alone. Matheny, meanwhile, had a career high 50 RBI total in 385 at bats total in 2004.
Mathenys defensive contribution can also be debated. Quantifying defensive statistics at any position is difficult, but particularly so at catcher, where errors are not always given for defensive miscues that may give up a base. One thing that is heavily looked at, and is an oft-quoted factor in Mathenys signing is throwing out baserunners. In 2004, Pierzynski threw out only 22.7% of runners while Matheny threw out 29.6%. How big a difference is that? A.J. had 66 steal attempts against him in 2004: he caught 15. Mathenys rate last year wouldve thrown out 19, only 4 more basestealers.
What should also be considered is that Pierzynski had a down year defensively as well as offensively. Other than 2003 and A.J.s first in the majors (when he faced only 5 attempts), A.J. has had each year a better CS% than Mathenys 29.6% last year. And Pierzynski is going into his prime, and will probably bounce back, while Matheny is getting pretty old for a catcher.
Ultimately, this deal will always be associated with the Giants essentially giving up a very talented player whom the Giants had to win a bidding for in the previous year for literally nothing. Obviously, none of this is Mathenys fault; any blame goes to whatever negotiating problems must have existed between Brian Sabean and A.J. Pierzynskis agent. But Matheny will be the figurehead the fans will key on in the wake of this fiasco. While Matheny himself is a solid role player on a good team whose offensive liabilities can be hidden in a strong lineup, the bottom line is that the Giants significantly weakened their lineup by signing him.