Backstop bevy: NL Central loaded behind dish

January 8th, 2020

The National League Central is platoon central at the catcher position, with at least three of the five clubs planning to prominently feature multiple players behind the plate, and another, the Cardinals, mulling life after .

That the majority of clubs are attacking the position with numbers is not surprising, considering that only four catchers in the Majors qualified for the batting title last season. One of them was in Milwaukee, where switch-hitting Yasmani Grandal remains a throwback to the everyday catchers of yesterday. He moved on this winter to the White Sox.

With Grandal gone, there’s a new No. 1 in the NL Central’s hierarchy behind the plate.

Division’s best: Cubs

In recent seasons, has worked hard on channeling the aggressiveness and intensity he takes with him onto the field. When former Cubs manager Joe Maddon said that the team needs to "plug into" Contreras' energy, the catcher took that to heart. Offensively, Contreras has emerged as one of the best backstops in the game, and has earned starting nods for the NL All-Star team in the last two summers.

Contreras' name has been in trade rumors this offseason, but that chatter has quieted and it looks more likely that he continues to lead Chicago's catching corps in 2020. He slugged 24 homers with an .888 OPS and 2.7 WAR (per FanGraphs) in '19. Framing continues to be an area of development for Contreras, but he made strides with that skill last season.

Behind Contreras, the Cubs have a capable backup in Victor Caratini, who filled in admirably as the starter at times in 2019. Combined, Contreras and Caratini helped the Cubs post 3.6 WAR from behind the plate (fifth in the Majors). Chicago's MLB staff will also get a close look this spring at prospect Miguel Amaya (No. 2 on Pipeline's Top 30 Cubs Prospects list), who was added to the 40-man roster this winter. Amaya, who will turn 21 in March, has shown good on-base ability, plus defense and will likely head to Double-A Tennessee to start '20.

The rest (in alphabetical order)

Coming off a season in which Yasmani Grandal ranked second in the Majors in WAR at catcher, made the NL All-Star team and set a Brewers record for home runs by a catcher, Milwaukee is going back to a platoon approach at the position with newly acquired Omar Narváez and returning veteran Manny Piña. It’s worked before; in 2018, the Brewers made it within a game of the World Series with a tandem of Piña and another veteran, Erik Kratz, who each had their moments offensively but more routinely impacted games with their defensive work and game calling.

That’s the challenge for Narváez, who was acquired in a trade with Seattle on Dec. 5, two weeks after Grandal inked a four-year deal with the White Sox. Narváez, 27, is a left-handed hitter who posted a .278/.353/.460 slash line for Seattle last season, with 22 home runs and a wRC+ of 119 that ranked fourth best among catchers with at least 300 plate appearances, just behind Grandal’s 121. But he has defensive limitations, which explains the difference in FanGraphs WAR between Grandal (5.2) and Narváez (1.8).

“It is, frankly, an area where we have had some success in the past, helping players improve,” Brewers president of baseball operations David Stearns said. “That certainly doesn’t guarantee success in the future, but we think we have a good shot.”

Beyond their big league duo, the Brewers have question marks at the position. They’d hoped that Jacob Nottingham would have emerged as the heir apparent by now, and while he has made strides defensively, his bat has taken a step back. Milwaukee’s best catching prospects are Mario Feliciano (No. 8 on MLB Pipeline’s list of the top Brewers prospects) and Payton Henry (No. 15).

This year will be Yadier Molina’s 17th year in the Majors, and the 37-year-old is entering the final year on his contract needing just 17 games to reach 2,000 for his career. He will once again be the veteran presence behind the plate for the Cardinals and in the lineup, barring injury -- he missed over a month last season with a right thumb strain. The Cards have expressed interest in signing a backup catcher again. Last year’s Minor League deal with Matt Wieters worked well when Molina did go on the injured list. But if the Cardinals can’t find a deal, they’ll look to the pipeline, where Andrew Knizner is waiting. Knizner, the Cards' No. 3 prospect, made his debut in 2019 and hit .226/.293/.377 in 18 games.

The Reds, who got a combined 19 home runs from Tucker Barnhart and Curt Casali last season, have looked for more offense out of the position this offseason, but their offer to free agent Yasmani Grandal was beaten by the White Sox. Therefore, Cincinnati is returning with the same tandem in 2020, though it could have more of a platoon look this time.

The switch-hitting Barnhart contemplated batting exclusively from his better lefty side, which should lift his overall offensive numbers. Casali has power from the right side and both catchers have good game-calling skills for their pitchers. Both improved defensively in 2019 under new catching coach J.R. House. Kyle Farmer, a utility player, is a perfectly suited third catcher who provides protection later in games or to pick up an occasional spot start.

Tyler Stephenson, ranked by MLB Pipeline as the Reds’ No. 7 prospect, is coming off his best offensive season as a pro while at Double-A, and he followed that up with an even stronger Arizona Fall League performance. The 2015 first-round pick began his career slowly in part because of injuries, but the big 23-year-old (who stands at 6-foot-4) could be MLB ready sometime this season.

Two years ago, the Pirates had one of the most productive catching tandems in baseball, as Francisco Cervelli and Elias Díaz combined patience and power at the plate with solid defense behind the dish. They couldn't maintain that success last season, as Cervelli was sidelined by a concussion and Diaz struggled in every phase of the game. One bright spot was the emergence of Jacob Stallings, who developed into a trusted game-caller, an improved pitch-framer and a more legitimate offensive threat.

Stallings will return in 2020 to guide a pitching staff with more talent than it showed in '19. Barring any further changes to the roster, he will be paired with free-agent signee Luke Maile -- a similarly defensive-minded catcher who hit just .151 with a .440 OPS in a backup role with the Blue Jays last season. The Bucs are still in search of a long-term solution behind the plate, but they're at least expecting better defense from their backstops this year.