Over the coming weeks, MLB.com will be taking a position-by-position look at the teams in the American League East. This week, we’ll start things off with the catchers.
The AL East has had at least two representatives in the postseason in each of the past five seasons, and with another active winter, the division will once again be one of the strongest in the Majors.
Among the key moves, Gerrit Cole is now the ace of the Yankees. Hyun-Jin Ryu will be pitching for the Blue Jays, and Hunter Renfroe will be playing left field for the Rays. But even with all the significant changes across the division, the catcher position in the AL East will look fairly similar in 2020.
Gary Sánchez still leads the way at the position. The 27-year-old led all catchers in 2019 with 34 home runs, but the Yankees are still hoping for continued progress with his defense. Christian Vázquez enjoyed a breakout season with the Red Sox, connecting for a career-high 23 homers. Now he’ll have to prove that he can sustain that production over multiple seasons.
After Sánchez and Vázquez, the rest of the catchers in the division are underwhelming. The Rays, Blue Jays and Orioles haven't yet made any changes at the position, hoping for better production by holdovers after some disappointing individual performances last season.
The division’s best
Last season was something of a mixed bag for Gary Sánchez, who earned his second AL All-Star selection while leading all big league catchers with 34 homers -- despite being limited to 106 games by left calf and left groin injuries. While those offensive numbers represented a rebound from a dismal 2018 campaign in which he batted .186, Sánchez's defense remains a hot topic, seeing a combined 37 passed balls and wild pitches on his watch while committing 15 errors -- most among Major League backstops. Backup duties are set to be entrusted to 29-year-old Kyle Higashioka, who earned positive reviews from the Bombers' staff while filling in during Sánchez's injured list stints. The Yanks have also signed veteran Erik Kratz for insurance. While the options behind Sánchez are underwhelming, the 27-year-old is the best individual talent at the position in the AL East, which is why the Yankees get the nod as the division’s best.
The rest (in alphabetical order, not ranked)
Toronto has its present and future together in the young catching tandem of Danny Jansen and Reese McGuire. Jansen, 24, will likely open the season as the 1A, but there will be plenty of room for both to earn playing time, especially with their handedness complementing one another. Jansen hit just .207 with a .640 OPS in 2019, but the Blue Jays expect those numbers to improve after he put a heavy emphasis on his defense in '19, which earned him a spot as a Gold Glove Award finalist. McGuire, 24, came up as a prospect with a glove-first reputation, but he has hit much better over 44 games in the big leagues (.882 OPS) than he did in the Minors (.672 OPS). Given their age and the scarcity of catching around MLB, Toronto has received a fair amount of interest in its backstops this offseason. The Blue Jays have the prospect depth to take those phone calls, too, with No. 8 prospect Gabriel Moreno and No. 12 prospect Alejandro Kirk.
For half of last season, the Orioles received better-than-league-average production from what became more or less a straight platoon between Pedro Severino and Chance Sisco, two young backstops getting their first chance at regular playing time in the Majors. Both are slated to return after slumping down the stretch. The O's hope Sisco, in particular, improves after consulting a private hitting instructor this offseason. Defense remains a focal point as well; Baltimore's backstops ranked among the AL’s worst in terms of caught stealing percentage, passed balls allowed and framing strikes.
Mike Zunino's first season in Tampa Bay was incredibly disappointing. Zunino struggled mightily at the plate, hitting a career-low .165 in 2019. His power numbers also went missing, as his nine home runs last season were the fewest since he hit five as a rookie with the Mariners in ‘13. But despite the struggles at the plate, Zunino was still a very solid defensive catcher and built a good rapport with the pitching staff, which is why the Rays decided to sign the 28-year-old to a one-year, $4.5 million deal in order to avoid arbitration. They are hoping a second season in Tampa Bay can help Zunino bounce back offensively and provide some more power for a lineup that hit 217 dingers last season. Behind Zunino, Michael Perez is looking to establish himself as the team’s primary backup. Perez was the Rays' Opening Day backup catcher in ‘19, but a series of injuries sidelined him for most of the season. Perez ultimately lost his spot on the roster once the club acquired Travis d’Arnaud.
Boston is heading into the upcoming season with a returning Gold Glove Award finalist and a recently added presence behind the plate. Christian Vázquez will look to follow up a standout 2019 performance in which he hit .276/.320/.477 and a career-best 23 home runs. He paired his offensive contributions with a .999 fielding percentage -- the highest among Major League catchers. The hustling 29-year-old played an AL-leading 119 games at catcher, as well as 11 at designated hitter, 10 at first base, four at third and two at second.
With Vázquez set as the starting catcher, the Red Sox had to address the backup role this offseason. The team traded Sandy León -- who appeared in 65 games (50 starts) last season -- to the Indians in December and signed Kevin Plawecki, 29, to a one-year deal on Jan. 2. Pitch framing is a strength of the five-year veteran Plawecki, who batted .222 with 10 doubles and three home runs over 59 games for Cleveland in 2019.