The American League East is shaping up to be one of baseball’s most exciting divisions in 2021 and beyond with the Rays, Yankees and Blue Jays looking to return to the postseason as the Red Sox and Orioles work to rebuild after sub-.500 seasons in '20.
There’s been plenty of change in the division, most notably with Tampa Bay dealing lefty Blake Snell to the Padres and Toronto signing outfielder George Springer to a six-year deal, but not much has changed behind the plate, where these clubs will have plenty of talent to carry over into 2021.
Here’s a look at what we know, and what we don’t, about the catching position in the AL East.
Toronto has five young catchers on its 40-man roster in Danny Jansen, Alejandro Kirk, Gabriel Moreno, Reese McGuire and Riley Adams. Given the value of young catching across baseball, this could be a group the Blue Jays eventually deal from, but they’re in a good place entering 2021. Jansen is the presumed starter, and while he’s coming off a .183 average with a .671 OPS in '20, that’s a sample size of just 43 games. The club expects Jansen's numbers to improve in '21. Kirk generated plenty of buzz in just nine games last season and hits everything. Moreno is the club’s No. 8 prospect with Adams at No. 23, giving Toronto a variety of talents and styles behind the plate. It’s a great problem to have.
The name to watch from this group is Kirk. That’s not a knock on Jansen, either, who’s just 25, and at this point, potentially underrated. Kirk is the most unique player of the five, though, and one of the most unique players in the organization. The Blue Jays believe in him behind the plate, but he’ll need to prove that in both the short and long term. Kirk hadn’t played above Class A Advanced when Toronto promoted him to the big leagues in 2020, so this is a tricky development case. But Kirk’s bat is MLB-ready and development can still take place at the Major League level. It will be up to Kirk, though, to determine how big a share of playing time he receives, which will trickle down to everyone around him. -- Keegan Matheson
Until top prospect Adley Rutschman arrives, at least, the Orioles appear set behind the plate with the platoon of Pedro Severino and Chance Sisco, who have more or less split catching duties in Baltimore for the past two seasons. Both Severino, 27, and Sisco, 25, are relatively young, bat-first players who have shown more flashes than consistency at the big league level. Their offensive strengths complement each other. Severino has big power (18 home runs in 144 games over the past two seasons) and a big arm behind the plate, but he can be overaggressive and consequently prone to slumps and defensive miscues. Sisco’s strong plate discipline (.345 on-base percentage since 2019) hints at more offensive upside, but he is viewed as the weaker defensive player of the two. Either would profile as potential trade chips with strong starts in ’21.
It’s all about when Rutschman will arrive. Rutschman has been considered as a generational prospect since the O’s made him the No. 1 overall pick in 2019, and nothing has happened in the past year and a half to alter that perception. The problem is Rutschman hasn’t played all that much, for reasons outside of his control: Only 37 games after he was drafted and then zero in '20 after the cancellation of the Minor League season. There isn’t necessarily a rush, either. Rutschman will turn just 23 in February and the O’s remain very much in rebuild mode, potentially several years away from serious contention. Still, there are some who think Rutschman could play in the big leagues right now. Will he in '21? -- Joe Trezza
The Rays brought back Zunino, who will turn 30 in March, by re-signing the veteran to a $2 million contract with a club option for next season. Zunino is a quality defender who is familiar with Tampa Bay’s pitching staff, and capably handling that deep group of arms is the foremost responsibility for any Rays catcher.
Tampa Bay acquired Mejía, 25, from the Padres as part of its return in the Snell trade. Mejía was once a highly regarded prospect, ranked No. 28 overall by MLB Pipeline in 2018, known for his ability at the plate as exemplified by a historic 50-game hitting streak in the Minors in '16.
Mejía spent some time in the outfield for Cleveland and San Diego as a way to get his bat in the lineup, and general manager Erik Neander admitted, “There’s parts of his game behind the plate that he’s going to need to continue to develop.” But his bat produced a .225/.282/.386 slash line in 128 games the past four years, so it’s fair to wonder what kind of player they have on their hands here.
The knock on Zunino, meanwhile, has always been his offense. In 118 games with the Rays over the past two years, he hit just .161/.233/.323 with a 36.2 percent strikeout rate. But he was clearly the club’s top choice last October, starting each of their last 10 games and all but two overall in the postseason.
Do the Rays view Mejía as a good hitter who can still develop into a potential front-line starting catcher, or is he merely a backup with long-term club control? Will they platoon the right-handed-hitting Zunino with the switch-hitting Mejía, or hope one of them claims most of the playing time? How will the Rays balance their desire for more offense with Zunino’s experience and savvy behind the plate? -- Adam Berry
The Red Sox could have one of the best catching duos in the league with starter Christian Vázquez and backup Kevin Plawecki. Two years ago, Vázquez came into his own offensively by belting 23 homers in his first season of getting over 500 plate appearances. In last year’s shortened season, he was less consistent, but the overall numbers likely would have been the same over 162 games. Vázquez also cleaned up what was a major weakness in his game in ’19 -- blocking balls in the dirt. Plawecki had a seamless transition to the Red Sox in ’20 and hit better than anyone expected while playing the strong defense he’s been known for throughout his career.
What happens if Vázquez or Plawecki suffers an injury? Last year, the Red Sox had a veteran in Jonathan Lucroy waiting in the wings at the alternate training site. While they have no such luxury at the moment, Connor Wong could have what it takes to fill the void if an injury occurs. Wong was the third player the Red Sox acquired in the trade for Mookie Betts, and the club has optimism of the player he can become. Wong advanced to Double-A for the final 40 games of his final season in the Dodgers organization and had a strong showing, hitting .349 with nine homers and 31 RBIs. But with no Minors season last year, it’s hard to know if Wong is ready yet. -- Ian Browne
Gary Sánchez will enter the spring aiming to reclaim his role as the starting catcher, coming off a season in which he batted .147 and started only two of the Yanks’ seven playoff games. Sánchez earned plaudits from the organization by volunteering to play winter ball, believing that he needed to pick up at-bats after the pandemic-shortened season. Sánchez will continue to work with catching coach Tanner Swanson to hone his pitch framing, including the one-knee-down approach he tried in 2020. Kyle Higashioka is entrenched as the backup.
The Yankees considered non-tendering Sánchez in December, a move that would have been unthinkable as recently as 2019, when he earned selection as an All-Star before fading in an injury-marred second half. Sánchez burst onto the big league scene as the fastest player in American League history to slug 100 homers, but he has been approximately a league-average player over the past three years, posting a .200/.296/.453 slash line with a 99 OPS+ from 2018-20. Which one is the real Sánchez? -- Bryan Hoch