Scouting the Free Agent Market: Back-Up Catchers

(Norm Hall/Getty Images)
(Norm Hall/Getty Images)

The average major league catcher slashed .245/.315/.406 in 2017, good for an 89 wRC+ – and the average back-up catcher was much, much worse than that. And that puts Austin Romine‘s offense in an incredibly unflattering light, as he was the worst hitter among the 49 backstops that amassed 200 PA last season. The baseline is incredibly low, and he fell about as far beneath it as is possible (to be fair, he ranked 62nd among the 67 catchers that had at least 100 PA). And his defense doesn’t really make up for it, either.

As a result of this, the Yankees might just be in the market for a better back-up option behind the dish. Whether or not one is available on the free agent market is an intriguing question; particularly when Mike already wrote about Alex Avila. Given that he stands to make a fair bit of money, though, he does not seem like a terribly likely candidate to accept a back-up role. That leaves us with the following free agent catchers, listed along with their 2017 production (framing and blocking runs courtesy of Baseball Prospectus):

catchers

The pickings are rather slim, as one might expect given the value of a passable catcher. Only a few of these guys grade out as strong defenders across the board (the league-average CS% is around 27%), and Chris Iannetta was the only one to be an asset with the bat (though, Rene Rivera was above-average for the position). I’ll dig into each of the names a bit:

A.J. Ellis

Okay, to clarify, Ellis isn’t terribly interesting. However, he does seem like the exact sort of player that the Yankees would value, given his reputation as a clubhouse leader (lest we forget Clayton Kershaw’s reaction when he was dealt) and experience in big markets. Ellis is also 36, hasn’t hit well since 2015, and has never graded out well as a framer or a blocker. Hard pass.

Nick Hundley

Hundley has been an average-ish hitting catcher throughout his career, with a career slash line of .249/.300/.406 (89 wRC+). He’s also a subpar pitch-framer, grading out as well below-average in three of the last four years, and a middling blocker and thrower. He might be an upgrade over Romine with the bat, but defensively he’s not up to snuff – and I think the team would want a large upgrade in one aspect to move on from the status quo.

Chris Iannetta

Iannetta checks a great many boxes for the Yankees. He walks (career 13.6% walk rate) and hits for power (.176 ISO), and he was a strong pitch framer in 2017, with slightly below-average marks in blocking and the throwing game. His offense has been up and down throughout his career, but the patience and power are always there; but defense is another matter entirely. Consider his framing over the last three years, as per BP and StatCorner:

  • 2015: +13.1, +14.4
  • 2016: -13.8, -12.3
  • 2017: +6.1, +0.0

Publicly available catcher metrics are still a work in progress, but it’s strange to see a catcher bounce from elite to awful to average/above-average in a span of three years. That’s especially true with Iannetta, who vacillated between average and awful prior to 2015. If he is as good as last year’s numbers indicate on defense, he’s a massive upgrade over Romine; if he’s as bad as 2016, he’s not. I have faith in his bat, though.

Jose Lobaton

If you think last year’s framing numbers were an aberration, Lobaton is essentially a slightly better version of Romine, having been worth between 2.3 and 4.5 framing runs in his other major league seasons. Otherwise, he’s one of the few catchers that are worse.

Jonathan Lucroy

I have to imagine that Lucroy will get a starting gig somewhere, as he’s only a season removed from being a very good hitter (123 wRC+ in 544 PA in 2016) and a solid defender (4.0 framing runs, 1.8 blocking runs, 39% CS%). He graded out as absolutely horrendous on defense last year, though – and BP was far more generous than StatCorner, which had him at -29.2 framing runs. I would be happy to see the Yankees take a flier on Lucroy, given his high marks in the past (and his ability to play some first base) – but there are enough catching gigs around the league for him to wait for a better opportunity.

Miguel Montero

Montero appears to be in the decline phase of his career, at least as a hitter. 2017 was the worst offensive season of his career, and that came on the heels of another subpar season (82 wRC+). He also ruffled feathers this past summer, when he criticized Jake Arrieta (and the Cubs pitching staff as a whole) for slow delivery times. That earned him a DFA, and a trade to the Blue Jays, and makes one wonder if there were other behind the scenes issues. That factor may well make Montero a non-option for the Yankees; though, his left-handed pop and strong framing and blocking could mitigate that concern.

Rene Rivera

Mike summed up the appeal of Rivera in his off-season plan. He’s a good to great defender with a reputation for working well with pitchers, and he has a bit of pop in his bat, too. In short, he’s what the Yankees hope(d) Romine could become.

Carlos Ruiz

Scroll up and read my take on A.J. Ellis (which is kind of funny, as they were dealt for each other), and you’ll have a good idea of Ruiz’s potential appeal and clear-cut flaws.

Hector Sanchez

Sanchez is probably the worst all-around catcher on this list, and is included largely as a means to hammer home the scarcity of good options at this position. He doesn’t grade out well at anything, other than running into a few home runs over the last two years (he had a .212 ISO in 189 PA as a San Diego Padre, which is actually fairly impressive).

Geovany Soto

Soto missed the majority of 2017 due to elbow surgery, but is said to be ready to go for 2018. And, depending on his medicals, he could be an interesting target for a team willing to roll the dice. He has always been a good hitter for a catcher, with a career 102 wRC+, and his defense has long graded out as roughly average. The warning signs are obvious, in that he’ll be 35 in January and each of his last two seasons have been cut short by elbow injuries, but he has the makings of a more than competent back-up.

Chris Stewart

Stewart’s defense has slipped noticeably over the last two years, with his framing runs dropping precipitously as per BP and StatCorner. Given his own struggles with the bat, it’s likely that Romine is actually a better option than Stewart right now.

Contract Estimates

Lucroy is the only name of consequence on this list, and neither FanGraphs (3-years, $33 MM) nor MLB Trade Rumors (2-years, $24 MM) sees him as a tremendous bargain. Though, I suppose he would be a bargain at either price if he bounces back.

As for everyone else, I don’t really see an offer for more than a few million per year.

Do They Make Sense for the Yankees?

Lucroy is a pipe dream for the Yankees; even if he signs for peanuts, he’ll seek and find a starting role. With that being said, I think any of the following players – listed in order of preference – would be fine options to replace Austin Romine: Chris Iannetta, Rene Rivera. Iannetta would outhit him by a significant margin (and might be a better defender), and Rivera would just be better across the board.

That’s a short list, but the rest of these catchers all have a serious flaw that is not mitigated by a legitimate strength. I might be interested in some on a minor league deal (Soto comes to mind), but otherwise I’d stay the course with Romine. And I think the Yankees would, too.

McCullough: Yankees showed little interest in Carlos Ruiz

Via Andy McCullough: The Yankees never showed much interest in free agent catcher Carlos Ruiz before he agreed to re-sign with the Phillies. The Fightin’s gave him a three-year contract worth $26M with a club option for a fourth year earlier this week. New York had interest in acquiring the backstop prior to the trade deadline but was told he was not available.

Ruiz, 34, hit .268/.320/.368 (89 wRC+) with five homers in 341 plate appearances this past season after serving a 25-game amphetamine-related suspension. He managed a 128 wRC+ from 2010-2013 and is regarded as adequate defensively. The contract is probably a year too long but the salary is reasonable. The Yankees seem to be going in one of two directions behind the plate: either they’ll go big and sign Brian McCann or they’ll go cheap with Chris Stewart, Austin Romine, et al. The latter seems more likely given payroll restrictions.

Heyman: Yanks made two offers for Young; Ruiz was unavailable

Via Jon Heyman: The Yankees made the Phillies two offers for Michael Young prior to yesterday’s trade deadline. They first offered right-hander Tommy Kahnle while assuming the $5M left on Young’s contract before offering a different (unnamed) prospect, but both were rejected. The Yankees also asked about Carlos Ruiz but were told he wasn’t available.

Both Young and Ruiz are prime August waiver trade bait as Philadelphia continues to fall out of the race. The Yankees are pretty high up on the waiver priority list, at least relative to their primary wildcard competitors, but both Young and Ruiz would have to pass through the NL and about a half-dozen AL teams before New York had a shot at them. Here’s how August waiver trades work, if you need a reminder. It’s doable but complicated.

Feinsand: Phillies interested in Joba, open to moving Young & Ruiz

Via Mark Feinsand: The Phillies are open to trading infielder Michael Young and have interest in Joba Chamberlain. Feinsand says it would be a salary dump trade that saves Philadelphia roughly $7M, but I think his math is wrong since the Rangers are paying $10M of the $16M owed to Young this year. He says catcher Carlos Ruiz is available as well.

The Yankees are said to have interest in both Young and Ruiz, which makes sense because they’re rental players who represent big upgrades over the team’s current options at third base and catcher. The idea of acquiring one of those guys in a salary dump featuring Chamberlain seems just a little weird to me because the Phillies aren’t exactly poor. They’re talent-starved more than anything. For what it’s worth, Feinsand says Brian Cashman is “lukewarm at best” about a deal with the Phillies, but I suspect that’s just typical GM poker face stuff.

Salisury: Yankees have “kicked around” the idea of pursuing Carlos Ruiz

Via Jim Salisbury: The Yankees have “kicked around” the idea of pursuing Phillies catcher Carlos Ruiz in a trade. He doesn’t say if the two sides have discussed anything, however. For what it’s worth, Phillies CEO David Montgomery indicated to Ken Rosenthal that the team is hesitant to sell at the moment. They did take the plunge and deal both Shane Victorino and Hunter Pence at the deadline last year, remember.

Ruiz, 34, is hitting .273/.310/.299 (68) in only 84 plate appearances this year, down considerably from his career-best 151 wRC+ a year ago. He’s missed a bunch of time with a hamstring injury and a 25-game amphetamine-related suspension. Chooch has always been regarded as a strong defender and a good clubhouse guy, plus he’s owed only ~$2.5M for the rest of this season before becoming a free agent. Even before his huge year in 2012, Ruiz produced a 113 wRC+ from 2009-2011. Adding even a league-average hitting catcher to the lineup would be a huge, huge upgrade for the Yankees. This is a rumor that I hope has some legs.

A way, way too early look at possible trade deadline targets

(Dilip Vishwanat/Getty)
(Dilip Vishwanat/Getty)

We are now less than three weeks away from pitchers and catchers reporting for duty in Tampa, meaning it’s looking less and less likely that Brian Cashman & Co. will pull a major move out of their sleeve this offseason. The Yankees still need a starting catcher (not happening), a DH (will probably happen), bench help (almost certainly will happen), and various depth pieces (will happen) before the start of the season, so the shopping list isn’t small. Since it’s unlikely each of those holes will be filled before the season, let’s look ahead at some players who might be available at the trade deadline.

Now, looking ahead seven months and trying to figure which teams will be in it and who be available is very, very tricky business. At this time last year I was touting Andre Ethier as a potential deadline DH target, yet by time late-July rolled around he had signed a new extension and the Dodgers were suddenly owned by free-spending billionaires. There are surprise contenders and surprise extensions every summer, which throws a wrench into the trade market. Since we like talking about possible trades though, here are a few players in their walk years — I’m assuming the Yankees won’t want to take on any multi-year contracts given the 2014 payroll plan — on projected non/maybe-contenders who might be available at midseason.

(Ezra Shaw/Getty)
(Ezra Shaw/Getty)

Grant Balfour
The Athletics surprised everyone last season with their late surge to the AL West crown, but you don’t have to try real hard to envision a scenario in which they’re out of the race and far behind the Angels and Rangers come the deadline. Oakland had a ton of walk-off wins and nearly all of their rookie arms worked out last year, neither of which I would count on happening again. The Yankees have had some interest in Balfour before, and the 35-year-old right-hander would be an obvious target if things go wrong in the bullpen and another late-game arm is needed.

Matt Garza & Ricky Nolasco
The Yankees have plenty of pitching depth at the moment, but we know how this stuff goes. It has a way of disappearing quickly. CC Sabathia is coming off elbow surgery, Hiroki Kuroda and Andy Pettitte are up their in age, Phil Hughes seems to perpetually walk the tightrope, and no one really knows what to expect out of Ivan Nova and David Phelps. Since Adam Warren and Brett Marshall are the next-in-line guys in Triple-A, a veteran starter could easily be on the trade deadline agenda. The Cubs and Marlins aren’t going anywhere and they’ve already been shopping Garza and Nolasco, respectively, so it’s a safe bet both guys will be moved at some point before the end of July. Garza, 29, has AL East experience while the 30-year-old Nolasco is more of a break glass in case of emergency option. The Yankees have had interest in both in the not-too-distant past.

Corey Hart
Hart, 30, was supposed to have knee surgery yesterday, but he pushed the procedure back so he could get a second opinion. He was expected to miss three or four months once he had the operation. Hart is basically another Mike Morse, except he hits for a slightly lower average and makes up the on-base numbers with walks. He hits for power from the right side and can play either corner outfield spot in addition to first base. DH is always an option as well. The Brewers overhauled their league-worst bullpen from a year ago but didn’t add any starting pitching, so contending in the tough (but winnable!) NL Central will be a chore. For what it’s worth, Brewers GM Doug Melvin was non-committal when asked about signing Hart to an extension a few weeks ago.

(Doug Pensinger/Getty)
(Doug Pensinger/Getty)

Todd Helton
This one might be coming out of left field, but I think there’s potential here. Helton, 39, fits the Ichiro Suzuki/Lance Berkman mold of a former great who has been toiling on a non-contender for years and could request a trade in hopes of one last shot at a World Championship. He’s battled knee, hip, and back injuries in recent years but still provides value at the plate because he’s very disciplined (13.8 BB% in 2012, 14.4% career) and he doesn’t strike out much (15.5 K% in 2012, 12.1% career). Yes, the guy has been in the big leagues since 1997 and he still has more unintentional walks (1,111) than strikeouts (1,088) to his name. His power (.164 ISO last two years) is mostly the product of Coors Field — Yankee Stadium is a pretty good place to hit as well — and he will need a platoon partner. Helton has already hinted at retiring after the season, and if the Yankees need a left-handed hitter for their DH spot come July, and I bet his name pops up in rumors. He fits the good clubhouse presence, veteran change of scenery guy mold perfectly.

Carlos Ruiz
Ruiz, 34, has to serve a 25-game amphetamines-related suspension to open the season, but he’ll still have about three months before the deadline to prove last season’s 151 wRC+ wasn’t a fluke. I don’t expect him to ever hit like that again, but he’s been an above-average hitter over the last four seasons because he takes walks (career 10.4 BB%) and doesn’t strike out (career 11.1 K%). He’ll probably go back to hitting single-digit homers again, but that’s fine given his batting average and on-base ability. Chooch has consistently ranked in the top-six of the various catcher defense rankings (2010, 2011, 2012) and he’s thrown out base-stealers at a league average rate or better throughout his career. If the Phillies skid to the finish and make Ruiz available at the deadline, he’d be the perfect rental for New York even if he doesn’t repeat 2012 and reverts back to his 2008-2010 form.