Dominoes fall in MLB's catching market

Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Amidst a flurry of moves across the MLB landscape, baseball's catching market sharpened into focus. Here is all you need to know about Tuesday's catcher-related transactions and what they mean for the teams involved.

When the news broke just after 8:00 am on Tuesday that the Red Sox had signed A.J. Pierzynski, it was but the start of a busy day across the MLB landscape. After all the dust had settled at day’s end, the offseason catcher’s market had taken shape, with the Rays trading for Ryan Hanigan and the Marlins agreeing to terms with Jarrod Saltalamacchia.

In many ways, the dominoes began to fall once Pierzynski signed with the Red Sox on a one-year, $8.25 million deal. Boston’s unwillingness to commit to Saltalamacchia for multiple years (and their ensuing agreement with Pierzynski) demonstrates that they view the upcoming campaign as somewhat of a bridge to 2015, when at least one of their rising catching prospects will be ready for major league duty.

For the time being, Pierzynski represents a safe, risk-averse option for a single year. The 36-year-old batted .272/.297/.425 and amassed 1.6 WAR in 134 games for the Rangers this season, but with David Ross returning to Boston, Pierzynski should settle in nicely as a platoon partner. The lefty backstop is a career .287/.329/.438 hitter against right-handers, even if he actually finished with a lower on-base percentage versus righties in 2013. Most importantly, Pierzynski has been remarkably durable throughout his career, playing at least 125 games per season dating all the way back to 2001.

While he can’t be expected to hit 27 home runs and post a 119 wRC+ like he did in 2012, Pierzynski still performed like a league-average catcher offensively in 2013, compiling a .313 wOBA and wRC+ of 90. Add in at least adequate defense and a slight bump in production given that he will encounter more favorable matchups, and Pierzynski should give the Red Sox exactly what they’re looking for: cheap, dependable innings at the catcher position.

***

Just a few hours after the Pierzynski news broke, the Rays added a catcher of their own, trading for Cincinatti’s Ryan Hanigan and tying him up with a three-year, $11 million contract that also includes a $3.75 million club option for 2017. That Hanigan is coming off the worst season of his MLB career should come as little surprise given Tampa Bay’s tendency to cash in on buy-low candidates whose value has recently dwindled.

Hanigan’s wRC+ of 53 and .198/.306/.261 line from 2013 were no doubt ugly, but the 33-year-old backstop derives much of his value from defense. For one, he has the third-highest caught stealing percentage among active MLB catchers for his career at 40.4%, a talent he again showcased this season when he threw out 15 of 33 possible basestealers. In addition, as Baseball Prospectus’ Ben Lindbergh has pointed out on multiple occasions, Hanigan is one of the best pitch framers in baseball, saving his team roughly 10-12 runs per season just by earning his pitchers a few extra strikes.

Although Hanigan won’t scare anyone with his bat, Tampa Bay’s newest acquisition gives the team a formidable framing duo behind the plate, and considering his defensive abilities, Hanigan should more than earn his contract with the Rays.

***

After the Red Sox decided to move on, the bidding for Saltalamacchia moved quickly, and before the afternoon ended, the Marlins tied up the 28-year-old to a three-year, $21 million contract. The six-year veteran is coming off a career year in which he batted .273/.338/.466 with a 117 wRC+, but a .372 BABIP (by far his career-best) and an elevated HR/FB ratio concealed a hitter who is far closer to league average. Saltalamacchia’s numbers from the year before (.222/.288/.454) are closer to his career norms, while his propensity for striking out (he posted a 29.6% strikeout rate in 2013) has been a theme throughout his career.

Nevertheless, given the price, Salty is still a solid buy even if his defense and throwing abilities leave much to be desired. He was the youngest catcher on the free agent market and, assuming he continues to stay healthy, the switch hitter’s production and above-average pop will be more than worthy of his contract. Don’t expect him to post 3.6 WAR again in 2014, but even if he matches his 2012 total (1.9 WAR), the Marlins should be happy with what Saltalamacchia can give them.

With these three transactions and Toronto’s recent signing of Dioner Navarro, an already-thin catching market is all but bare. If any team out there is still looking for a starter, they will be sorely disappointed with what's left. Potentially adequate part-time options in Kurt Suzuki, John Buck, and even J.P. Arencibia are still available, but beyond that there is little to get excited about.

. . .

All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference.

Alex Skillin is a regular contributor to Beyond the Box Score and also a Web Editor at SoxProspects.com. He writes, mostly about baseball and basketball, at a few other places on the Internet. Follow him on Twitter at @AlexSkillin.

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