Punxsutawney Phil may have predicted six more weeks of winter, but spring is just around the corner for Major League Baseball.
In preparation for the 2021 season, MLB.com will take the next few weeks to go around the horn and compare where each team in the American League Central stands at each position in advance of what could be the closest division race in years.
Here’s a look at how each AL Central club stacks up, starting behind the dish:
In an offseason that required some difficult payroll decisions, the Indians didn’t think twice about picking up Roberto Pérez’s $5.5 million option for 2021. Because the club relies so heavily on its pitching staff (especially its starters), the Tribe has not hidden how much it values what Pérez can do over the last two years. He took home a Gold Glove Award in 2019 and ’20, becoming just the second catcher in franchise history to win multiple times. He’ll return as the starting backstop in '21, carrying the longest active streak by an MLB catcher of not allowing a passed ball (since Sept. 4, 2018).
It’s clear that Pérez will be the Tribe’s primary catcher, but what’s unclear is how the club will use Austin Hedges. The Indians acquired Hedges in the trade that sent Mike Clevinger to the Padres at last year’s Trade Deadline. Cleveland was attempting to tighten up its payroll, but with Hedges set to make $3.28 million on top of Pérez's salary, the catching duo alone takes up a decent chunk of it. Hedges is similar to Pérez, known for his above-average defense instead of his bat. Will that mean Hedges will split time behind the plate (especially because of Pérez's recent injury history) or play more often than a typical backup catcher? That remains to be seen.
-- Mandy Bell
Veteran catcher Salvador Perez is coming off one of his best years in the Majors -- following Tommy John surgery, no less -- leading the team with 2.1 WAR, according to Baseball Reference. He hit .333/.353/.633 with a .986 OPS despite missing time with COVID-19 and a left eye issue that caused blurred vision. But he returned without missing a beat, hitting 11 home runs and driving in 32 runs in 37 games. Perez has emphasized that he’s “100 percent healthy” and ready to go for the 2021 season. Cam Gallagher, who played in 25 games last season, should make the team as Perez’s backup, barring injury.
After Perez’s accomplishments in 2020 -- including winning the AL Comeback Player of the Year Award -- there isn’t much unknown about his starting spot. What is unknown is what happens after this year. Perez is entering the final year of his contract, and the Royals will likely try to extend him. The club’s payroll provides flexibility over the next few years, and that, combined with Perez’s talent, performance and meaning to the organization will increase the likelihood of an extension.
-- Anne Rogers
The Tigers will have their fifth different catcher pairing in as many years after signing Wilson Ramos to a one-year, $2 million deal. He said Monday that he told manager A.J. Hinch he was looking for close to everyday playing time, which helped sway him to Detroit. Despite a down season offensively last year with the Mets, Ramos brings some much-needed pop to a position where the Tigers have received minimal offensive support the last few seasons. His pitch-framing is a mixed bag, but he’s better coaxing called strikes inside and outside than low.
While Jake Rogers, Grayson Greiner, Dustin Garneau and Eric Haase are expected to compete in Spring Training for backup duties, the focus is clearly on Rogers, the Tigers’ No. 12 prospect last year. He didn’t appear in Detroit at all last season after making his big league debut in 2019, and his offense has been a lingering question. Hinch could be a big benefit for him, though. Rogers has a chance to claim a share of catching duties, but his time as a prospect is running out with 2020 second-round Draft pick Dillon Dingler now in the farm system.
-- Jason Beck
At their best, the Twins should have one of the highest-upside catching tandems in the league between Mitch Garver and Ryan Jeffers. The former is the 2019 Silver Slugger Award winner at his position, while the latter is the club's prized catching prospect who got his first taste of the big leagues -- and the playoffs -- last season. Garver had a difficult '20 campaign, but the big bat that broke out with 31 homers and a .630 slugging percentage in '19 could come back with a more normal buildup to the season. Jeffers combines his MLB-ready body and highly regarded defensive ability with an above-average bat, posting a .791 OPS in 26 games last season.
The Twins have maintained a healthy split in playing time between their primary and backup catchers under manager Rocco Baldelli over the past two seasons, and it remains to be seen what that split will look like this year, -- especially since both Garver and Jeffers hit right-handed, leaving no clear platoon. Some of it could depend on how well Garver rebounds from his disappointing 2020 at the plate, which presents another uncertainty. Still, Garver's improving defense and his cerebral approach to the game should give the Twins plenty of value regardless -- and that historic upside still has to be in there somewhere. And where does Willians Astudillo fit in after losing most of '20 to COVID-19?
-- Do-Hyoung Park
Yasmani Grandal gives the White Sox one of the best catchers in baseball for 2021 and at least two years to follow. The switch-hitter was recently ranked No. 2 in the game by MLB Network behind J.T. Realmuto, and he not only provides the South Siders power from both sides of the plate but also a consistent on-base presence not exactly prevalent throughout this potent lineup. Grandal’s pitch-framing is near the top at his position, per Statcast. Zack Collins, the team’s top pick in the 2016 Draft, looks to be the frontrunner for the backup spot, potentially getting his most regular work behind the plate.
White Sox pitchers forged a strong bond with former catcher James McCann and the team greatly benefitted from his clubhouse presence over the last two years, but the veteran joined the Mets in free agency. So Chicago has a significant void to fill behind Grandal. Collins is a prominent candidate, as mentioned above, and has worked with Grandal at improving the intangibles of his craft. The White Sox also have Yermin Mercedes and Seby Zavala on their 40-man roster but will likely add a veteran, possibly as a non-roster invite, whose focus is more on handling pitchers than hitting.
-- Scott Merkin