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.

Waiting For Montero

Oh, sorry. Did you think I was talking about someone else? (Greg Fiume/Getty)

A few weeks ago I wrote about the Yankees’ long-term catching situation, which now revolves around Russell Martin and Austin Romine following the trade of Jesus Montero to the Mariners. Martin can become a free agent after the season, though Romine may not be ready to step on a full-time basis in 2013. At least not for a contending team anyway. Catchers always take a little longer to adjust to big league life, it’s a tough transition.

Those two aren’t the only potential long-term solutions behind the plate, however. I don’t think many of us seriously consider Frankie Cervelli an everyday guy, and the duo of J.R. Murphy and Gary Sanchez are still years away from serious consideration. There is always the free agent market though, and while we all know how stocked the free agent pitching pool will be next offseason, a gem of a catcher may also be available: Miguel Montero of the Diamondbacks.

No relation to Jesus despite also being Venezuelan (or maybe they are related and we just don’t know it), Miguel turned 28 in July and produced a .282/.351/.469 batting line (.351 wOBA) with 18 homers in 553 plate appearances last year. A knee injury that required surgery kept him on the shelf for more than two months in 2010 (.333 wOBA in 331 plate appearances), but in 2009 he hit .294/.355/.478 (.357 wOBA) with 16 homers in 470 plate appearances. That looks an awful lot like his 2011 showing. Over the last three seasons, his .348 wOBA is sixth among all catchers (min. 1,000 plate appearances).

Catcher defense is a very tough thing to quantify, though all indications are that Montero is a solid gloveman. He threw out a whopping 32 of 80 attempted base stealers last season (40.0%), a ridiculously good number that sticks out like a sore thumb compared to the rest of his career (62-for-241, 25.7%). I would expect that to come down next year even if he has improved his throwing since 40.0% is pretty close to unsustainable. Mike Fast’s work on catcher framing says Montero saved the seventh most runs (33) with his pitch framing ability over the last five seasons, and Matt Klaassan’s catcher defense rankings say he saved the second most runs (7.8) in 2011 in terms of stolen bases, passed balls, wild pitches, etc. I don’t feel comfortable putting a number on a catcher’s defensive value, but all the evidence suggests that he’s not a butcher back there.

As a left-handed hitting catcher with patience, power, and some amount of defensive value, Montero is poised for a serious payday next winter if he stays healthy in 2012 and performs as he’s capable. Other than the knee injury (suffered running to first base) and the various dings and dents associated with catching, he’s been durable throughout his career, and that only heightens his value. Above average everyday catchers just do not hit free agency in the prime of their career, with only Martin and Ramon Hernandez able to make that claim over the last five or six years. Catchers have a high attrition rate, and whenever a team does get a hold of good young one, they have a tendency to lock them up long before free agency becomes an issue

An extension is obviously very possible for Montero and the Diamondbacks, though they agreed to terms on a contract for next season minutes before a scheduled arbitration hearing this morning. He filed for $6.8M and the team countered with $5.4M. That’s a relatively small gap, and you can make the argument that the two sides don’t really agree about his value if it took this long to split the difference. The D’Backs are contenders and figure to remain that way for the foreseeable future — plus they have no catching coming up through the farm system at all — so it would behoove them to figure out a multi-year contract with Montero at some point in the next nine months or so. If they don’t, the Yankees are in a position to pounce.

The timing works out perfectly as far as they’re concerned. Martin will be a free agent after the season, and while Romine could develop into the catcher of the future, he’s unlikely to turn into the player Montero is right now. The Yankees are all about winning now, and Montero fits their mold as a patient, left-handed bat with power. If Arizona winds up extending himm, then no big deal. The Yankees can stick with Martin for a few more years if they want, or go in another direction to help ease Romine into the bigs. If Michael Pineda and Ivan Nova establish themselves as above average starters next year, there will be less urgency to pursue a Cole Hamels-type after the season, freeing up some cash for a catching upgrade.

I have no idea what kind of contract Montero would require on the open market, but I have to think it would be significant. Something in the four years, $40-52M range seems not insane. A fifth guaranteed year might be what it takes to put someone over the top. Like I said, above average catchers don’t hit the open market often, so we don’t have many recent comparables. The Yankees have the money — especially if their young arms step up this coming season — and will presumably have a need, so it’s tough not to look ahead a bit. He’s not the Montero we’d all hoped to see behind the plate for the next few years, but Miguel is a worthy heir to the Montero throne.