MILWAUKEE -- Yasmani Grandal didn't wait until Spring Training to begin his Brewers tenure. After signing a surprise one-year deal in early January, he texted a new teammate who also spends his offseason in Arizona.
Days later, Josh Hader was throwing his first bullpen session with his new catcher.
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"He's right there with any catcher in baseball as far as being one of the best in the game on both sides of the ball," longtime Brewer Ryan Braun said. "He makes us significantly better. It's an exciting move."
That Grandal, 30, is the addition about whom the Brewers themselves are most excited was evident at the team's "On Deck" event in Milwaukee. The surprise nature of the signing didn't hurt. After losing Game 7 of the National League Championship Series to Grandal's Dodgers in October, Brewers president of baseball operations and general manager David Stearns predicted only modest offseason movement, in part because a team that tied a franchise record with 96 wins did not have many holes.
So Grandal, the top free-agent catcher in this year's market, almost certain to land a lucrative multi-year contract, did not look like a fit. Especially since the Brewers had a more obvious need at second base, and since they were returning a capable defensive duo in Manny Piña and Erik Kratz, with catching prospect Jacob Nottingham coming off a year in which he made his Major League debut.
But on Jan. 9, the Brewers and Grandal agreed to a one-year, $18.25 million deal.
"It was a little shocking. It came out of nowhere," third baseman Travis Shaw said. "That is kind of David's M.O. He surprises people at the last second."
Stearns didn't make the move for the thrill of it, however. Grandal represented a significant upgrade after a season in which he topped 20 home runs for the third straight year and posted a weighted runs created plus of 150 and an OPS of .815, tied for third-best on both counts among MLB catchers who made at least 100 plate appearances. Brewers catchers combined to rank 23rd of 30 teams at 75 wRC+, led by Pina at 85, and 21st with a .657 OPS.
Grandal is also a switch-hitter, meaning he provides another left-handed bat in the lineup when the Brewers face a right-handed pitcher. Grandal historically does most of his damage left-handed, and Stearns has had good luck in recent years (Eric Thames, Shaw and Christian Yelich come to mind) importing left-handed hitters and seeing a spike in their power production. The Brewers haven't had a primary catcher who was a left-handed hitter or switch-hitter since Dave Nilsson in 1999.
Defensively, Brewers fans saw Grandal at his worst in the NLCS, when a spate of passed balls and misplays prompted the Dodgers to turn to less offensively proficient Austin Barnes. But in the bigger picture, Grandal is considered a plus behind the plate, particularly in the art of pitch framing. Baseball Prospectus rated Grandal the best in baseball in that department last year.
"Craig [Counsell] knows he can put Yasmani back there every single day," Stearns said. "He lengthens out our lineup. That's a pretty impactful addition. On the defensive side of the ball, he has proven to be one of the best receivers in baseball. That's a very important part of catching right now, and he does it really well."
Said Shaw: "It's a good deal for us. He makes us better. It is a one-year commitment, so I think it is low-risk for the organization, too. Yasmani is a really good player, and he is going to help us offensively. His defensive stuff I saw is really good for catching. He had a good year in L.A. He has been to back-to-back World Series, so his experience with doing that is going to help us, too."
Grandal is new to the NL Central, but he does have a long history with one Brewers player. At the University of Miami, he served as a host for a wiry outfield prospect from Southern California who was considering coming east. Yelich wound up being drafted by the Marlins and signing to play pro ball instead.
All these years later, they will finally play together.
"Expectations for me are, one, how good is my pitching staff?" Grandal said. "If I end up doing good [at the plate], that's great."
His experience with the Dodgers, who employed 31 different pitchers last season (including infielder Enrique Hernández in one game) should help Grandal with the Brewers, who used 30 pitchers (including infielder Hernán Pérez and Kratz). Despite all those moving parts, the Dodgers finished second in MLB with a 3.38 ERA in the regular season, and the Brewers were fourth at 3.73.
"There was a reason why we had success as a pitching staff, and that not only comes from myself behind the plate, but also the coaching staff, pitching staff," Grandal said. "If we are able to do that on a daily basis, it doesn't matter who's on the mound, we're going to compete and we're going to be successful. I get the fact I'm able to do certain things behind the plate that other people may not, but we have Manny here, Erik, who did a great job last year."