There is little argument that the catching position is one of the most integral pieces of any club, but unfortunately it's also quite possibly the toughest position to fill. Players that can simultaneously manage a pitching staff, handle the defensive responsibilities of catching, and hit with any competency are extremely rare and even the best of them are susceptible to injuries and slumps thanks to the nightly toll the body takes behind the dish.
Those physical rigors also keep catchers from getting on the field as frequently as other position players. In 2013, just ten "catchers" amassed 500 or more plate appearances, and I put catchers in quotations because that figure includes Joe Mauer, Ryan Doumit, and Carlos Santana who combined to play 49.3% of their games at designated hitter, first base, or in the outfield. Compare that to shortstop, generally considered the next most physically demanding position on the diamond, and you'll see that 18 players topped the 500 PA bench mark and 11 actually made more than 600 trips to the plate. For that reason, top catching prospects are often moved off of the position (like we've seen with Bryce Harper and Wil Myers) to maximize the value of their bats, adding to the difficulty of developing backstops.
Troubles drafting and developing receivers leaves many teams to address their catching needs in free agency. Last year the collection of catchers (excluding Mike Napoli) wasn't even particularly strong, and yet Russell Martin (two-years, $17 million), A.J. Pierzynski, (one-year, $7.5 million), and David Ross (two-years, $6.2 million) all found good deals relatively early in the offseason. This year, there are no fewer than seven clubs that may be in the market for an upgrade, many of them with money to spend. Which players will they be targeting? Let's take a look.
McCann is clearly the best catcher on the market, and one of the best available free agents regardless of position. After missing the beginning of the season recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, McCann returned in early May and put together a strong offense that at least partially quieted concerns about his recent decline. Taking out his injury-riddled 2012 season, Brian McCann has been one of the most dependable and consistent catchers in the major leagues since 2009:
A catcher that is regularly 20% better with the stick than an average player alone is a valuable commodity, but McCann is also no slouch with the glove. Despite a poor throwing arm, the 29-year-old is generally regarded as one of the top framing catchers, a trait that is extremely valuable, and he should be expected to catch between 100-120 games a season for the next few years.
Because well rounded catchers like McCann are such a rare breed, he should draw plenty of interest over the next few weeks. The Rangers, Red Sox, and Yankees have been rumored as possible destinations and all are seemingly logical fits as big-market clubs in need of a catcher (unless you're a Yankees' fan that believes in J.R. Murphy) with the ability to transition McCann to DH or 1B in the later years of a multi-year agreement. The only real downfall for McCann in this market is that he does have that pesky draft pick compensation attached to him because the Braves made him a qualifying offer. The QO may give the Phillies and maybe even the Cubs reason to enter the conversation as well, being that neither would give up its first round pick to making the signing. For the Phillies, McCann represents an immediate boost for a GM that may be on his last legs, while the Cubs would add McCann counting on him to remain productive until they're ready to compete in the a few seasons. Any way you slice it, McCann is in a very favorable situation as the best option in a buyers' market. FanGraphs' crowdsourcing estimated that he'll get a four-year, $59 million deal, but given the competition for his services I'd bet on something closer to five-years and $80 million, which still may represent a bargain.
The next tier
Saltalamacchia should be hitting the market at just the right time - he's a year younger than McCann and coming off of his finest professional season, posting a .349 wOBA and recording 3.6 fWAR, the eighth most among backstops. But then of course he had a disastrous showing in the playoffs, hitting just .188/.257/.219 and striking out in 19 of his 35 trips to the plate before essentially being replaced by David Ross in the starting lineup. While teams certainly aren't going to let a small sample like that sway a decision too far, the performance didn't help him at all.
If anything, his struggles in the playoffs may have saved some teams from overvaluing Saltalamacchia and his BABIP-driven 2013 season. Truthfully, other than the .372 BABIP, Salty's numbers look nearly identical to the player that was a slightly below average hitter in 2010 and 2011. That's what teams should expect going forward -- a high strikeout, low OBP hitter with good power, though maybe not enough to justify his other offensive deficiencies. A switch-hitter, Saltalamacchia has yet to solve left-handed pitchers, registering an abysmal .266 wOBA against southpaws over his career. That makes him a strong platoon candidate, but given the market he's all but certain to find an everyday job. Behind the dish, he's a poor thrower and receiver, though as long as he continues to hit well against righties, he's passable defensively.
Interestingly, Boston declined to give Saltalamacchia a qualifying offer. That may mean that the Red Sox really want to pursue McCann and didn't want to chance that Salty would accept. It also may mean that the team feels that they can work out a longer term deal for a lower AAV. Or it may mean something entirely different. Whatever the reason, it should make him an attractive option to the losers of the McCann sweepstakes. Comfortably, I'd give him a two-year deal worth somewhere between $25-30 million, but again factoring in the number of suitors out there, it's more likely that he exceeds that deal both in length and AAV.
Photo Credit: Doug Pensinger
Ruiz was arguably the Phillies best offensive player in 2012, hitting .325/.394/.540 with a career-high 16 home runs. Unfortunately, he wasn't a free agent after that season because 2013 didn't treat him well at all. He began the season with a 25-game suspension for a second positive test for amphetamines and once he returned the power he showed the previous year didn't just regress, it disappeared completely. Worst of all, his walk rate, which had fallen dramatically from 2011 to 2012, continued to drop all the way to 5.3%, the lowest of his career. Add in the fact that Ruiz has never eclipsed 475 plate appearances in a season (partially due to playing in the NL), and that he'll be 35-years-old in 2014 and it's a little hard to see why he belongs in this tier.
Well around here we believe in using larger samples to form opinions, and including both his breakout from 2012 and his stinker in 2013, Ruiz has been a very good hitting catcher over the past five years. In that timeframe, his .374 OBP ranks only behind Joe Mauer and Buster Posey among catchers and his 120 wRC+ is slightly higher than Brian McCann's 114. While we shouldn't project that type of hitting going forward, it doesn't take a ton of imagination to see him being a league average hitter in 2014. Plus, he's a good defender with a reputation of working well with his pitching staffs.
Much like Saltalamacchia, in an ideal world Chooch would be a part-time player this year, but he'll undoubtedly find himself with the lions' share of the work wherever he ends up. If Philadelphia doesn't sign one of the younger top-shelf options, there's a strong chance that Ruben Amaro brings the fan favorite back for one more contract. The guess is that the team that does sign him will (reluctantly) give him two-years and $9 million per year.
Even heading into his age-37 season, Pierzynski remains a solid player in spite of his flaws. This is the second straight season he's a free agent, though he entered last year's marked coming off of a 2012 season in which he homered 27 times and bested his career high in isolated power by 80 points. That's not to say he wasn't productive in 2013 - he hit .272 with 17 home runs and 70 runs driven in - but the numbers dropped across the board and he should see his salary drop accordingly.
Over his 16-year career, Pierzynski has been hard pressed to find a pitch he wouldn't swing at. In the seven years that PITCHf/x has been available, Pierzynski has swung at more than 57% of the pitches that he's seen and he has never walked more than 28 times in a season. As a catcher he's scrapped by as a slightly below average hitter, but it is concerning that his walk rate plummeted to an all-time low 2.1% and he swung at more than 60% of pitches for the first time ever last year. Pierzynski doesn't have the power to swing the bat that often, and if his defense continues to slip, he may have a problem being anything more than a replacement player.
If we assume that he can come close to his offensive performance from last year (.313 wOBA, 90 wRC+) however, Pierzynski actually might be one of the best bargains at the position. He's extremely durable, catching at least 118 games in every season since 2002. And despite the public opinion, Pierzynski seems beloved by teammates which has some value even if we can't and won't try to quantify it. Look for him to accept another one-year contract, for somewhere in the neighborhood of $6.5 million.
To me, only two other players should be considered candidates to be a starting catcher in 2014: Dioner Navarro and Jose Molina.
Navarro was a pleasant surprise for the Cubs in 2013, producing just about two wins above replacement in 89 games. Offensively, he was downright fantastic, hitting .300/.365/.492 with 13 home runs and good walk and strikeout rates. He's always been a good throwing catcher and if he hits anywhere near as well as last year he warrants much more playing time. Just 30-years-old in 2014, teams shouldn't hesitate in giving Navaro up to $4 million a year for the next season or two.
Molina is a much different animal, a well below average hitter that derives all of his value on defense, specifically with pitch framing. To the average fan it's hard to believe that framing could make a career .278 wOBA hitter worthy of a starting gig, but it has been proven that it can add wins to a club without much question. To illustrate the difference it can make, consider that from 2011 to 2012 (the year Molina joined the Rays) Tampa's pitching staff increased their strikeout rate by 4.1%, decreased their walk rate by 0.6% and their ERA- and FIP- went from 92 and 105 to 82 and 89. Sure, the improvement can't be solely credited to Molina, but a big portion of the responsibility. Assuredly, however, teams will be wary of a nearly 40-year-old catcher that can't hit, presenting an opportunity for value to the team that does take the plunge on a one-year deal.
The rest of the market is comprised of names like John Buck, Kurt Suzuki, and Kelly Shoppach - quality players in their own right, but not more than part time players or backups. And I don't think there's much available on the trade market either -- if a team has a quality catcher they are holding on with dear life in most circumstances.
For now, all eyes should be focused on Brian McCann and his situation. He's the real prize in this bunch, a difference maker on both sides, and his contract will set the market both in terms of dollars and suitors for the rest of the group. Once he's off the board, Saltalamacchia will become a much more attractive option, and I wouldn't be surprised to see the spending get a little nutty for some of these players. Remember, it only takes one or two teams to really screw up the idea of "value" in free agency.
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Thank you to Ken Woolums for assistance with research. You can follow him on twitter @Wooly9109.
You can follow him on twitter @Andrew_Ball.
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