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.

Mailbag: Smyly, Kemp, Beckett, Braun, Lowrie

Nine questions this week, so it’s another rapid fire mailbag with short-ish answers. Use the Submit A Tip box in the sidebar to send us anything at anytime.

(Christian Petersen/Getty)
(Christian Petersen/Getty)

Peter asks: Should the Yankees speak to the Tigers about trading for Drew Smyly and turn him back into a starter? How well do they match up and what would you give up?

To answer the question, yes, I think the Yankees should look to trade for Smyly so they can convert him back into a starter. Jon Morosi says the Tigers are fielding offers for Max Scherzer, Doug Fister, and Rick Porcello as a way to plug other roster holes and clear payroll with Smyly taking over the vacated rotation spot. The Yankees should have interest in all of those guys — slightly less interest in Porcello, who needs a good infield defense to be effective — including Smyly. I looked at the 24-year-old southpaw as a trade candidate last winter and everything still holds true, except he now has a season as elite reliever (2.37 ERA and 2.31 FIP) under his belt and one fewer year of team control. Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski doesn’t trade for prospects (he trades them away), he’ll want big league pieces in return. Detroit needs bullpen help and I’d give them David Robertson (free agent after 2014) for Smyly (free agent after 2018) in a heartbeat, but I suspect it’ll cost a bit more than that.

Ross asks: With the focus on the $189 million goal this off-season, what’s the likelihood the Yankees give extra years to free agents with a lower average annual value to separate their offers from other bidders?

An example of this would be signing Brian McCann for eight years and $81M ($10.125M luxury tax hit) instead of five years and $75M ($15M tax hit). The extra years lower the average annual value and thus the luxury tax hit while putting a little more money in McCann’s pocket for his cooperation. The Collective Bargaining Agreement covers potential luxury tax circumvention, and this type of maneuver would fall under that. The league would flag it and probably void the deal. It’s a good idea in theory — I’ve seen people suggest giving Alex Rodriguez a multi-year extension worth $1M a year to lower his tax hit — but I don’t think it would fly in reality. MLB doesn’t take too kindly to teams trying to game the system.

Mark asks: How do you like Chris Iannetta as a consolation prize for losing out on McCann? Would add a little bit more power to the bottom of the order.

Iannetta, 30, hit .225/.358/.372 (111 wRC+) this past season and has a 100 wRC+ with a 15.5% walk rate over the last three seasons. He’s also usually good for double digit homers. Iannetta isn’t a good defensive catcher these days (2013, 2012, 2011, 2010 rankings) and he’s owed $10.225M through 2015 ($5.1125M tax hit). The Angels are looking to stay under the luxury tax threshold themselves and one way they’ve discussed doing that is by dealing Iannetta and giving the catching reigns to young Hank Conger. Iannetta is better than the guys the Yankees have in-house and if they don’t bring in another catcher via free agency, he makes sense as a trade target. The Halos want pitching, so maybe something like Adam Warren for Iannetta makes sense for both sides. Not sure if that’s enough though. Just spit-balling here.

Glen asks: The White Sox are open to trading Alexei Ramirez. What would it take to get him and should the Yankees do it?

(Rich Schultz/Getty)
(Rich Schultz/Getty)

Well, according to Mark Gonzales, the White Sox turned Carlos Martinez when the Cardinals offered the one-for-one swap prior to the trade deadline. Jon Heyman shot that down, which makes sense because I can’t imagine Chicago would decline an offer like that. They’d be crazy. The 32-year-old Ramirez is basically Eduardo Nunez with a better glove and a much more expensive contract ($10.25M tax hit through 2015). He’s a total hacker (3.2% walk rate last two years) with no power (.098). I would prefer simply signing Brendan Ryan, who will play similar (if not better) defense and hit for a lower average but come far, far cheaper. I know good shortstops are hard to find, but I am not a Ramirez fan at all.

Bill asks: Any interest in Matt Kemp as a trade target?

Yes, but two things need to happen first. For starters, the Dodgers would have to eat a whole bunch of money. Kemp is owed $128M through 2019 ($21.3M tax hit) and I’d be willing to take him on at $16M or so annually. That means Los Angeles would have to kick in about $32M or so, a lot in the real world but little relative to the contract. Secondly, Kemp would have to go through a very thorough physical. The guy had ankle surgery a few weeks ago and left shoulder (labrum) surgery last winter, plus he’s missed a bunch of time with hamstring problems the last two years. There is evidence that hitters who have their front shoulder surgically repaired (like Kemp last winter) can lose bat speed and power for a long time and perhaps permanently. Adrian Gonzalez is a very good example — his power isn’t nearly what it was pre-2010 shoulder surgery. It has to do with the mechanics (and biomechanics, I suppose) of the swing and everything like that. Click the link, it’s interesting stuff. Kemp just turned 29 in September and his upside (MVP level performance fro, 2011-2012) is so very high that it’s hard to ignore. The salary needs to be offset and the body (especially the shoulder) needs to be checked out first, but yes, I’m interested.

Aaron asks: Any interest in Gordon Beckham for 3B? I know its been a few years but I think he’s still young enough to handle the switch back over.

Not anymore. I liked Beckham a few years ago and thought he was salvageable, but we’re going on nearly 2,500 career plate appearances with an 86 wRC+ now (88 wRC+ in 2013). Yes, he is only 27 and a breakout could be right around the corner, but Matt Swartz projects him to earn $3.5M next year and that’s a little pricey for a reclamation project in my opinion. I don’t think the transition from second base over to third will be much of a problem — hell, he still might be an option at shortstop — but it’s everything else that comes along with it, namely the price tag and noodle bat.

Travis asks: I’m thinking outside the box and more than likely this is one of the stupidest things you’ve heard in a while, but what if a team traded for Josh Beckett and made him a closer? He’s a former Red Sock, so I wouldn’t suggest Yankees, but someone?

That is stupid outside the box. (Kidding!) Beckett, 33, made only eight starts this year before needing surgery for Thoracic Outlet Syndrome, which is what effectively ended Chris Carpenter’s career. It’s serious stuff but not always a career-ender. Dillon Gee and Matt Harrison have both dealt with it recently and come back perfectly fine. Beckett’s stuff has been fading in recent years and he was only sitting 90-91 with his fastball before getting hurt this year, and he’s a very different pitcher at 90-91 than he was was 95-96 a few years ago. Maybe a move to relief will bring back some velocity. If he can’t hold up as a starter anymore following the surgery, the bullpen would be worth exploring. I wouldn’t want to be the one to trade for him and try it, though.

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

Mark asks: Assume the Yankees part ways with Robinson Cano, any chance you see them trying to acquire Ryan Braun? Or does he have too much baggage with his PED suspension? Not sure the Brewers are open to dealing him, but I suspect they are given how bad the team is. Assuming he is available, he could fill the void in RF or 3B (can’t be much worse than Miguel Cabrera), is just 29 and is signed to a super team-friendly deal through 2021 (when he turns 37) at $16.5 million per year.

Believe it or not, Braun is still pretty popular in Milwaukee. This isn’t an A-Rod situation where pretty much everyone hates him. Braun is beloved by fans and his team (again, unlike A-R0d) and there’s no real desire to get rid of him. He’s the franchise cornerstone and they’re going to move forward with him as the centerpiece despite the PED stuff. Even if they wanted to get rid of him, I don’t think the Yankees don’t have the pieces to get a player of that caliber. It’s not like the Brewers would just give him away to save face and money. It’s a nice idea — he’d fit wonderfully in right field (third base isn’t happening, I don’t think “can’t be much worse than Miguel Cabrera” is a good enough reason to play him there) — and in the middle of the lineup, but it ain’t happening.

Mike asks: Would Jed Lowrie make sense as a possible trade target? He’s in his last year of arbitration this season before becoming a free agent in 2015. He’s a SS who has played 3B and 2B in the past, and he had a good year where he stayed healthy (finally) in 2013. If Billy Beane was inclined to deal him (would he be?), what kind of package would the Yankees have to give up?

Yes, he definitely makes sense. The 29-year-old Lowrie managed to stay healthy for a full season for the first time in his career this past summer, hitting 15 homers with a 121 wRC+ in a pitcher’s park. He can play shortstop but his defense is spotty, though he does make up for it with the stick. Matt Swartz projects him to earn $4.8M in 2014 and there’s a decent chance he’ll be worth a qualifying offer after the season, meaning he’ll net a draft pick if he doesn’t sign a long-term contract. Again, I’m not sure if the Yankees have enough to swing a trade for a player of Lowrie’s caliber — for what it’s worth, Joel Sherman hears the Athletics aren’t looking to trade him in the wake of the Nick Punto signing — but he’s a definite fit at this point in time.