The Yankees have a bunch of needs to address this winter and the catcher position is one of the biggest. The law firm of Cervelli, Stewart & Romine was one of the worst catching crops in baseball in 2013 and in definite need of an upgrade. The free agent market offers several quality backstops like Brian McCann, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, and Carlos Ruiz, but New York might not be able to afford them. At least not until the ruling in Alex Rodriguez’s appeal hearing is handed down.
Late last week, the Reds made the first notable free agent signing of the winter by bringing in switch-hitting backstop Brayan Pena. Young Devin Mesoraco is untouchable, which means the veteran Ryan Hanigan is a man without a roster spot. In fact, soon after the Pena signing, Ken Rosenthal reported Cincinnati is likely to move the 33-year-old this winter. Buster Olney noted the Yankees (and Rays) have liked Hanigan in the past and could turn to him as a more cost effective catching option. Let’s break down his game.
- Hanigan’s offensive game is built around controlling the strike zone and getting on base. His walk rate both this year (11.4%) and over the last three years (11.6%) is above-average and has allowed him to post a .346 OBP since 2011 (.359 since breaking into the league full-time).
- In addition to the walks, Hanigan rarely strikes out. He’s walked more than he’s struck out every year since 2008 and his strikeout rate was basically half the league average both this past year (10.4%) and over the last three years (10.3%). Only six players best his contact rate (91.4%) since 2011.
- Hanigan has consistently graded out as one of the best defensive catchers in baseball (2013, 2012, 2011, 2010 rankings) and he’s thrown out 40% of attempted base-stealers in his career (47.5% over the last two years). He also ranks as one of the game’s best pitch-framers and has spoken about that skill at length.
- Matt Swartz projects Hanigan to earn $2.3M next season, his final trip through arbitration. He is scheduled to become a free agent for the first time next winter.
- Hanigan did not hit a lick this past season, putting up a .198/.306/.261 (53 wRC+) batting line in 260 plate appearances. He has never hit for power (.063 ISO in 2013 and .081 career), so his offensive game depends entirely on those walks and putting the ball in play.
- That gaudy walk rate has been artificially inflated. Hanigan has been intentionally walked 25 times (!) over the last three years, so his unintentional walk rate is a still solid but not excellent 9.0%. Batting eighth in front of the pitcher has its benefits.
- As expected, he chips in nothing on the bases. Catchers usually don’t. Hanigan has attempted one (!) stolen base in parts seven big league seasons and he’s taken the extra base (first-to-third on a single, etc.) a below-average 35% of the time in his career.
- Hanigan has had some injury problems over the years, including two DL trips in 2013. He missed three weeks with an oblique strain and a month with a wrist sprain. Obviously the wrist could have contributed to the poor batting line. Hanigan has also dealt with concussion (2009) and thumb (2010) problems.
Given his low salary and the general dearth of catching, the Reds shouldn’t have much trouble finding a trade partner for Hanigan. I would be surprised if they have to non-tender him at the deadline on December 2nd. Not too many catchers have been traded one year prior to free agency in recent years, especially none similar to Hanigan. A.J. Pierzynski (Twins to Giants) was dealt one year before hitting the open market but that doesn’t really fit — he was younger and better and that trade was a decade ago. I haven’t the slightest idea of what it would take to acquire Hanigan in a trade.
If the Yankees aren’t going to spend big for McCann or Saltalamacchia or Ruiz, Hanigan is pretty much the only catcher they could bring in who would be an upgrade over the in-house options while not taking a huge bite out of the payroll pie. He’s a better defensive catcher than Stewart (pitch framing!) and even though he has zero power, Hanigan will at least put together quality at-bats and get on-base regularly via walks. It’s worth noting he had a career-low .216 BABIP in 2013 (.283 career) despite no change in his batted ball profile. A little BABIP rebound would get him back into the .270/.360/.340 range he sat from 2011-2012. That isn’t anything special, but it’s better than what the Yankees have now and the (financial) cost is very reasonable.