How to find a catcher in a weak FA market

November 20th, 2021

In a lot of ways, this winter’s free-agent market is deep, and talented. We’ve all heard so much about the incredible shortstop class, but there are also plenty of starting pitchers and corner outfielders; corner infield isn’t quite so deep, yet you can still go out and get Freddie Freeman or Anthony Rizzo or Kris Bryant or Kyle Seager if you want to. It’s a good winter if you need to find good players.

Unless, of course, you need a catcher. Need a catcher? Good luck. You cannot find a catcher.

The catching class is so thin that you might as well just figure out if Chris Taylor is interested in learning yet another new position. It’s not exactly a coincidence that two of the early notable moves of the winter came behind the plate, where the Tigers jumped to trade for Tucker Barnhart and the Braves moved fast to sign Manny Piña. Neither is a star-caliber name, but that’s the point. They were among the best available regardless.

Here, taken directly from our free agents by position list, is what the catching market currently looks like. (The numbers in parentheses are 2022 age and FanGraphs WAR projection.)

Yan Gomes (34, 1.8)
Luke Maile (31, 0.3)
Stephen Vogt (37, 0.1)
Pedro Severino [reportedly signed with Milwaukee] (28, 0.1)
Jeff Mathis (39, 0.0)
Rob Brantly (32, -0.1)
Roberto Pérez (33, -0.1)
Wilson Ramos (34, -0.2)
Jose Lobaton (37, -0.3)
Robinson Chirinos (37, -0.4)
Kurt Suzuki (38, -0.4)
Andrew Knapp (30, -0.6)
Chance Sisco (27, -0.6)
Sandy León (33, -0.7)
Austin Romine (33, -0.9)

It’s … grim. There are lots of mid-30s backups, a few 20-somethings who even the Orioles were fine with letting go, and very little in the way of offense. As a group, the catchers on that list hit .210/.276/.343 (.619 OPS) in 2021. Or, put another way, there were 30 different catchers worth 1.0 WAR (at FanGraphs) in 2021; with Piña signed, only one, Gomes, remains available.

It’s not like no one here is useful. Gomes has had an up-and-down career over the years, and Pérez remains a well-respected defender, though he’s also hit all of .155/.253/.277 over the last two seasons amidst an inability to stay healthy.

But suddenly, you understand why the Tigers were willing to trade for Barnhart and his below-average bat, at $7.75 million for next year; you get why Piña got multiple years. The Tigers and the Braves saw a need to add backstop depth and correctly realized they were going to have to move quickly.

What, then, do you do if you need to find a backstop? How might the Giants replace the retired Buster Posey? What about the endless legions of Yankee fans who would love to upgrade upon Gary Sánchez?

Or, from the other side, what if you do have some catching depth? Based on supply and demand, maybe a player you’re not desperate to move might have some extra value. 

There’s no J.T. Realmuto out there this year. There’s not even a James McCann. If you need a catcher, or you have one, here’s what you’re looking at.

Teams that need a catcher

A good, but incomplete, place to start is with the FanGraphs 2022 positional projections. WAR is not spectacular for catchers, because there’s so much that they do that cannot be quantified, but it’s at least a good starting point; it’s difficult to argue too much with the Dodgers (Will Smith), Phillies (Realmuto), and White Sox (Yasmani Grandal) all appearing in the top four.

There’s really no one in the top 15 that stands out as having an urgent need to upgrade, either because of an established starter or a competitive situation that has bigger needs elsewhere. Not everyone in the bottom 15 will go get a catcher, either. Certainly the Mets are committed to McCann, St. Louis will never replace Yadier Molina in his farewell season, the Astros might well just let prospect Korey Lee have a shot and the Nationals will probably let Keibert Ruiz run. The Rockies don’t rate highly, but they did just give Elias Díaz a three-year extension. Seattle seems committed to its current situation, despite poor 2021 performance.

Those clubs aside, there are five primary situations where you might want to talk about adding catching help.

Giants (30th)

Without Posey, it might seem obvious to simply hand things over to Joey Bart, the No. 2 pick in the 2018 Draft, and pair him with veteran Curt Casali. Maybe that’s indeed exactly what they’ll do. But Bart, while still well regarded (he’s MLB Pipeline's No. 2 Giants prospect), struggled in Posey’s absence in 2020 and has generally been more good than great in the Minors. That’s not to say he can’t or won’t be a very good Major Leaguer; he is, after all, turning only 25 in December. It’s just that the Giants are no longer rebuilding, not after 107 wins, and it’s incredibly rare for a rookie catcher to be the primary backstop on a winning team.

It's at least possible, too, that Bart himself is traded. While it may seem odd to consider moving such a high Draft pick so soon after he was selected, it's worth noting that Bart was picked by the previous Giants regime, with the front office being largely turned over six months after he was picked when Farhan Zaidi was hired in November 2018.

Marlins (26th)

In the final four games of the season, Miami started four different catchers -- Nick Fortes, Payton Henry, Alex Jackson and Sandy León, who is now a free agent. Notably absent from that list was Jorge Alfaro, who has been the team’s primary catcher for three seasons since coming from Philadelphia in the Realmuto trade but hasn't hit much (.625 OPS the last two seasons) and found himself playing in the outfield before a season-ending calf injury.

It’s clear Alfaro is no longer viewed as the answer, and while Fortes’ four homers in the final week of the season probably push him into the 2022 picture, none of the remaining backstops have really shown starting-quality offense in their pro careers to date, at least not enough to prevent the Marlins from viewing catcher as a place to possibly add badly needed production if they can.

Guardians (22nd)

Cleveland chose not to retain Pérez, its longtime backstop, and now catcher on the club's depth chart is led by Austin Hedges, who is skilled defensively but also has a career .194/.249/.347 line -- and he was below even that in 2021. The Guardians do have Bo Naylor as one of their better prospects, but since he hit all of .188/.280/.332 at Double-A in 2021, it’s safe to say he’s not going to be counted upon in 2022. For a team that has seemingly forever struggled to find the offense to support its quality pitching, any kind of offense behind the plate would be a welcome boost.

Yankees (16th)

Yes, 16th, which is about 40 spots higher than many Yankees fans would consider their situation to be. That’s in part because the bar for offense at the position is so low that Sánchez’s 99 OPS+ still makes him a top-15 bat among catchers, while Kyle Higashioka’s defense adds its own value. You probably don’t want either one starting every day, but combined, it’s a decent situation. We add them here not because we think Brian Cashman will prioritize this spot ahead of the club's more obvious needs at shortstop, first base and potentially center field, but mostly to show that while there is room for improvement, it’s not exactly a requirement, either.

Orioles (9th)

“But what about Adley Rutschman?” you’re wondering, and yes, what about Adley Rutschman? Everyone expects him to be a significant part of the 2022 Orioles and to perform well while doing it, hence the surprisingly lofty catcher ranking here. But Rutschman hasn’t yet taken his first Major League plate appearance, and if you look at the catcher section on the Orioles' 40-man roster, you will not find it, because they do not have one. Each of the four catchers who appeared in 2021 -- Pedro Severino, Austin Wynns, Chance Sisco and Nick Ciuffo -- are now free agents, and Rutschman hasn’t yet been added.

The O's won’t be shooting high here, because they have Rutschman. They need someone to pair with him, though, and it’d be nice if it was someone who had seen the Majors before. Sorry, Brett Cumberland.

Maybe these clubs will just add one of the depth pieces listed above and call it a day. What if they want more?

Catchers that might be available via trade

Fun as it might be to imagine the Royals moving Salvador Perez or the A’s shipping out Sean Murphy in the midst of what should be an active winter in Oakland, that’s not really going to happen. But if you’re willing to enter the trade market, you just might find some interesting names.

Willson Contreras, Cubs
Easily the most accomplished name here, Contreras is entering his final year before free agency as one of the few remaining members of the 2016 World Series team. It wouldn’t be difficult at all to see him receive an extension this winter as the Cubs continue to reconfigure their future, but if that doesn’t happen, an offseason trade seems more likely than trying to move him in July or letting him reach free agency next winter.

Contreras, 30 in May, has been 10% above league average with the bat the last two seasons, which, paired with a strong throwing arm behind the plate, makes him a solid all-around catcher, if more “above-average starter” and less “star level.” It’s at least mildly concerning that his contact rate has dropped four seasons in a row, though that’s more of a long-term concern than any reason to think he can’t be effective in 2022.

Jacob Stallings, Pirates
Stallings spent parts of five seasons as a backup in Pittsburgh, losing his roster spot multiple times, before claiming the primary job in 2020-21, and he’s making it easy on us, offensively, because look at his OPS in 2019, '20 and '21, respectively: .708, .702 and .704. None of that stands out, but you at least know what you’re going to get from him there.

Of course, he’s far more notable because he might just be the best defensive catcher in baseball. Stallings allowed zero passed balls; he tied Carlos Correa for the most Defensive Runs Saved (+21) at any position. (He was the Pittsburgh nominee for the Roberto Clemente Award, rewarding his charitable work, to boot.)

Stallings can’t be a free agent until after 2024, so the Pirates don’t have to trade him, and they probably won’t, valuing his contribution to a young and undermanned pitching staff. But he also turns 32 next month, and the next competitive Pirates team still seems a ways off. With his trade value likely as high as it ever will be, you imagine they’d at least have to think hard about it if San Francisco, Miami or someone else approached them.

"We need to be open to exploring. We need to be ready to be opportunistic, always,” GM Ben Cherington said in October. Might that include their Gold Glove catcher?

Mitch Garver, Twins
For interested teams, Garver would be a bet on ignoring everything about 2020, because after 2019, when he hit 31 homers with a .995 OPS -- and posted a no-hyperbole-historic performance against fastballs -- he looked like a true breakout-in-progress. Then came 2020, when he hurt his oblique, changed his swing to compensate and hit a miserable .167/.247/.264 with only two homers.

Garver still had health problems in 2021, getting into only 68 games due to groin and back injuries -- the groin injury, which required surgery, was less a pulled muscle and more an incredibly poorly placed foul ball -- but when he played, he mashed. Garver had a 139 OPS+. He slugged .517. Like he did in 2019, he pounded fastballs at an elite level.

Thirty-one in February, Garver has two more seasons before he’d reach free agency, and he’s on a Twins team that finds itself in an awkward spot after a last-place finish in 2021. They could, if they wanted to, trade Garver for badly needed pitching and give Ryan Jeffers another chance.

This has “Garver to the Marlins” written all over it, we think; no team in baseball was weaker against fastballs.

Carson Kelly, D-backs
The D-backs probably weren’t really “110 losses” bad in 2021, but in the top-heavy NL West, they’re still very far behind, without a seemingly clear direction. Kelly is only 27, so he’s hardly too old to be a part of the next good Arizona team, but he’s also appeared in parts of six Major League seasons already, so he’s on track to be a free agent following 2024.

Either way, the D-backs can’t simply return the same group that finished in last in 2021, so whether that’s a trade of Ketel Marte, David Peralta, Zac Gallen, Kelly or someone else, a large shakeup may be in order. Kelly was solid in 2019 (18 homers, 112 OPS+) and again in 2021 (13 homers, 104 OPS+), though he did miss time this past year with a fractured wrist. Should they decide to try to move Kelly, it seems probable the D-backs would just give more time behind the plate to catcher/outfielder Daulton Varsho, who had a fantastic second half (.879 OPS).

Danny Jansen, Blue Jays
Or any of the Toronto catchers, really; the Jays have three on the 40-man roster, including Reese McGuire and Alejandro Kirk, and top prospect Gabriel Moreno, another catcher, is knocking on the door. Toronto is very clearly in win-now mode, so this is not about subtracting a good piece so much as realizing you have extremely rare depth at a weak position.

With Robbie Ray and Steven Matz now free agents, the Blue Jays could use another starting pitcher; with Marcus Semien a free agent, they could use another infielder, either at second or third base; like every contender, they could use another bullpen arm or three.

McGuire profiles more as a backup, while Moreno is so well regarded and so close that Toronto probably won’t want to move him. Instead, Jansen, 27 in April, or Kirk, who just turned 23, seem like the best trade candidates here. Kirk has a 114 OPS+ in his short career and elite contact skills, having a mere 12% strikeout rate, though his defense remains an open question. Jansen has improved his offense each of the last three years (from 70 OPS+ to 85 to 106 this past year) and has a better defensive reputation.

They don’t have to make a move, not yet, not until Moreno is kicking down the door. It’s generally easier to trade a catcher over the winter than midseason, though.