Let’s start with the last man standing. Freitas appeared in 35 games last season, but isn’t likely to have a larger role in 2019. The 29-year-old slashed a light .215/.277/.312 and was eventually supplanted by Chris Herrmann due to Herrmann’s offensive upside.
Speaking of Herrmann, he’s no longer with the club. Seattle waived the 30-year-old earlier this month and the Astros claimed him to offset the departures of Brian McCann and Martín Maldonado. Perhaps Herrmann doesn’t stick with the ‘Stros, but he belongs to Houston for now.
As far as other internal options, there’s no immediate relief on the farm. Depending on who was with Class-AAA Tacoma at the time, Freitas and Herrmann were Seattle’s minor league depth last year.
Of players in the pipeline, Prospect Insider founder Jason A. Churchill projects Joe DeCarlo could be available sometime in 2020. A year later, Cal Raleigh may be ready. That said, neither catcher played above Class-AA level in 2018, so it’s too early to know whether they can help long-term.
Clearly, Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto will go outside his organization to augment the roster. However, catcher is unique compared to other non-pitching field positions.
There was a time when shortstop was viewed as the most prominent defense-first position in a lineup and any offensive value delivered was a bonus. That’s now the case with catchers.
The ability to call games, block balls, throw out runners, and pitch-frame are the traits valued in backstops. Find a player who can hit and catch and you’re looking at someone special; an All-Star.
Last season, 23 catchers (including Zunino) had at least 300 plate appearances. Here’s their average age, slash line, and defensive runs saved (DRS) with Zunino’s info included for comparison.
Zunino was below average in batting average and OBP, although he did possess a potent bat and was a superior defender according to advanced metrics. Plus, he’s younger than the average mainstay behind the plate.
Considering what Zunino provided, it may benefit fans’ blood pressure readings to temper expectations when it comes to replacing the former Florida Gator. It won’t be as easy as some think.
What’s The Plan?
Obviously, the Mariners plan for the catcher position isn’t available for public consumption. Moreover, the team’s strategy could flex depending on market variations. With that in mind, let’s consider several different approaches to solving Seattle’s catcher shortage.
While Dipoto generally prefers the trade market, he’s used targeted free agent acquisitions to address short-term needs in the past. When he took over in Seattle, the 50-year-old decided to give Zunino an opportunity to jump-start his career by having him start 2016 in the minors. To support this plan, Dipoto acquired veteran backstops Chris Iannetta via free agency and Steve Clevenger by trade.
With Iannetta and Clevenger, there was a clear-cut starter/backup relationship with Iannetta serving as the primary receiver. Another route for the Mariners could be adding two players to time-share the position. Considering the workload of catchers across MLB last season, that could be the right approach.
Only 12 catchers (including Zunino) appeared in 100-plus games this year. That’s the fewest in any season over the last decade.
Adding two players capable of playing in 80-ish games may be more pragmatic than pursuing a primary starter. Especially if the Mariners can’t acquire a long-term solution.
Naturally, Dipoto would love to land a top-shelf catcher, but doing so will require parting with significant talent. It’s widely reported ace pitcher James Paxton is on the trading block. Perhaps a potential Paxton deal nets a Zunino replacement.
Now that we’ve discussed strategy, let’s consider actual names of players who would only cost money to acquire. To that end, I’ve compiled a list of potential free agents. Be forewarned I’ve avoided high-profile players.
While it would make for a splashy headline to sign Yasmani Grandal or Wilson Ramos, doing so would be a rapid departure from Dipoto’s long-standing aversion to signing marquee names to free agent deals. In his mind, teams generally overpay for the back of a player’s baseball card and don’t recoup adequate value from their investment. I agree.
With that in mind, I focused on short-term candidates, as Dipoto did with Iannetta and Clevenger three years ago. With each player description, I included their age, games (G) and 2018 slash line and DRS.
First up, a hometown kid.
The Lake Washington High School graduate’s slash line with the Giants is similar to what he produced with the team in 2017. Defensive metrics don’t like Hundley at all, but he has a reputation for being a clubhouse leader and working well with a staff.
Considering his age and recent workload with the Giants, Hundley might fit best with a club as a veteran backup rather than the primary receiver. On the other hand, the University of Arizona alum could potentially serve as part of a time-share.
Just a few years ago, Lucroy was the subject of trade speculation because he possessed a nice blend of hitting ability and defensive skills. A lot has changed for the player who finished fourth in 2014 NL MVP voting.
Lucroy’s offense has fallen off a cliff in recent seasons. Defensively, his -11 DRS this year was a career-worst. Then again, he helped guide an Oakland rotation ravaged by injuries to the postseason. That intangible that won’t appear on a stat sheet.
Perhaps decreasing Lucroy’s workload helps improve his overall value. In 2018, he logged 1,066 innings – most by any AL backstop.
Maldonado became a regular with the Angels last year after five seasons as a backup with the Brewers. The native of Puerto Rico rewarded the Halos with plus-defense earning him a Gold Glove in 2017.
This season, Maldonado continued his defensive excellence while providing almost the same amount of offensive production. In July, Los Angeles traded him to the Astros when knee surgery sidelined McCann.
With Maldonado, a team gets a strong defender with average-ish bat skills. He’s started 100-plus games in consecutive seasons and could serve as a bridge for a team searching for their long-term answer at catcher.
The Mets desperately needed a catcher after their top two receivers hit the DL within days of one another last May. For that reason, they acquired Mesoraco from the Reds in exchange for pitcher Matt Harvey in a change of scenery deal.
Mesoraco isn’t a strong defender, plus he didn’t deliver enough offense to overshadow his shortcomings with his glove. At this point of his career, the former All-Star appears better suited to be a backup.
The 12-year veteran is a great example of a potential time-share candidate. Suzuki started 83 games for the Braves this year splitting time with Tyler Flowers.
While Flowers was the defensive whiz, Suzuki provided more value with his bat. During his last three seasons with Atlanta and the Twins, the California State University alum averaged 13 home runs and a .270/.327/.456 slash line.
Suzuki appears capable of playing 100-plus games, although he’ll be entering his age-35 season next year. Continuing to pair the native Hawaiian with another veteran capable of regularly spotting him would help maximize his worth to a club.
For trivia buffs, Wieters attended the same high school as former Mariner Justin Smoak. More recently, health issues have plagued the four-time All-Star. In 2018, he endured two DL stints, including a 50-game absence due to hamstring surgery.
Over the last two seasons, the switch-hitting Wieters’ combined .658 OPS is 20 points below the league-average we previously established. Defensively, it’s six years since he won a Gold Glove and the metrics suggest he’s slightly below average as a receiver.
After spending the last two seasons with Tampa Bay, Sucre elected to become a free agent when the Rays removed him from their 40-man roster earlier this month. The former Mariner has always been a defense-first catcher who could potentially mentor young pitchers.
Having said that, Sucre’s 52 starts this season were a career-high for the six-year major leaguer. A significant uptick in workload may not be the best move for a player now on the wrong of 30.
The native of Bayamon, Puerto Rico began his major league career with the Mariners in 2004. Could he return to the Emerald City over a decade later?
Rivera spent most of last year with the Angels in a backup role before the Braves selected him off waivers in August. With Atlanta, he appeared in just three games.
Considering his advancing age and the fact he hasn’t made 60-plus starts since 2015, he might be a good option to tutor a young catcher expected to carry the majority of the workload.
Chirinos is another receiver viewed as better with the bat than glove. However, the Venezuelan’s offensive numbers trended in the wrong direction in 2018 with at least 30-point drops in batting average, OBP, and slugging percentage. He did manage to hit a career-high 18 home runs.
The seven-year veteran also set a career mark for starts last season with 102. Considering he’ll be entering his age-35 season too, Chirinos may be another time-share option for teams wanting to evenly distribute catcher workload.
Mathis may be the ultimate defense-first catcher. He led the majors in DRS, but is a career .198 hitter and ranked number-46 of 50 in OPS among catchers with 200-plate appearances in 2018.
As a game caller, Mathis had a great rapport with Diamondbacks staff ace Zack Greinke. In fact, he caught every game started by the former Cy Young Award winner. The club also had him work with starters Patrick Corbin and Robbie Ray when they were scuffling.
Mathis could help the Mariners as a pitcher whisperer capable of getting the most out of its staff, but only on a limited basis. The Florida native will be entering his age-36 season in 2019 and this year’s game total (63) was his highest since 2012 when he appeared in 66 contests for the Blue Jays.
When I looked at the trade market, no one with a multi-year deal or high salary made the list. That includes popular trade target J.T. Realmuto.
Sure, snagging Realmuto would make a splash. But expending significant trade capital to acquire a catcher with two years of club control remaining would be malpractice for an organization with multiple roster deficiencies.
Having said that, it wouldn’t be any fun if I didn’t at least insert a few intriguing names to discuss, even if it’s far-fetched any of them land in Seattle. Also included with the unlikely options are choices that are more practical, plus a few outliers.
Blake Swihart, Boston Red Sox
Boston’s former first round pick has struggled with injuries. As a result, he’s stuck behind the duo of Sandy Leon and Christian Vazquez on the team’s depth chart. Could a change of location deal make sense?
Perhaps, but there are two issues teams will likely consider regarding Swihart. The switch-hitter served in a utility role last season starting 16 games as a catcher, 11 as a corner outfielder, five at first base, and one at third base. Then, there’s the issue of salary and team control.
Swihart is entering his first year of arbitration eligibility. He projects to earn $1.1 million in 2019 and become a free agent after the 2022 season. How much is a player with exactly 100 MLB starts as a catcher who is already in his arbitration years worth to a team?
Elias Díaz, Pittsburgh Pirates
Díaz proved to be a capable understudy when starter Francisco Cervelli went down with concussion-related issues twice last season. For this reason and the fact Cervelli is a free agent after next season, the Pirates may not want to part with their backup catcher.
Still, the native of Maracaibo, Venezuela might be a tantalizing target for a club trying to reshape its roster.
Time will tell whether Díaz, who is arbitration-eligible after next year, can sustain his strong offensive numbers. He had a less impressive .263/.310/.346 slash during 726 plate appearances at Class-AAA Indianapolis. On the other hand, his .343 xwOBA tied with Realmuto for sixth best among MLB catchers this year.
Willson Contreras, Chicago Cubs
After a strong 2017 when he hit 21 home runs and had an .855 OPS, Contreras regressed to 10 homers and saw his OPS drop 125 points. Still, a .249/.339/.390 slash from a young, athletic catcher is encouraging.
Perhaps reducing Contreras’ workload would help the third-year player. In 2018, he logged more innings behind the plate than any MLB catcher did. It shouldn’t be hard to find ways to give him a break. He’s demonstrated the versatility to play several positions since debuting with Chicago in 2016 with 34 starts in left field and 3 at first base.
Trading Contreras would create a significant hole on the major league roster of a perennial World Series contender. Thus, he’s probably going nowhere unless he’s involved in a deal bringing Paxton to Chicago.
Luke Maile, Toronto Blue Jays
With 23-year-old Danny Jansen appearing to be the Blue Jays’ future behind the plate, Maile may be available.
The team may prefer trading veteran Russell Martin instead, but he’s owed $20 million next year. Unless the team eats a significant portion of his salary or exchanges him for an equally large contract, there’s a decent chance Martin remains in Toronto.
If the Jays can’t move Martin this month, the club may feel compelled to trim their 40-man roster, which currently includes four catchers. This could become increasingly important, as clubs must protect players prior to the Rule 5 draft early next month. Moving Maile might be the path of least resistance.
Austin Romine, New York Yankees
The younger brother of former Mariner Andrew would be an interesting addition, but the Yankees’ catching situation is in flux this offseason. Starter Gary Sánchez recently underwent shoulder surgery, although he’s expected to be ready for Spring Training.
Last year, Romine started a career-high 58 games due to Sánchez suffering a groin injury. Letting go of a known quantity without a better option available would be a risky move by New York, especially if their starting receiver were to suffer a setback.
John Ryan Murphy, Arizona Diamondbacks
Like Swihart, the Princeton product is entering his first year of arbitration and projects to make the same $1.1 million. Reportedly, the Diamondbacks are looking to shed payroll, but they’re already thin at catcher with Mathis leaving via free agency. Journeymen Murphy and Alex Avila are their primary backstops heading into the offseason.
As with Swihart, is it practical trading for a catcher who’s never started over 44 games and set to earn over $1 million next year?
Curt Casali, Cincinnati Reds
Casali started a career-high 62 games in 2016, but won’t see that much action anytime soon. Last year, starter Tucker Barnhart signed a four-year extension with the Reds. With the club set at catcher through 2021, could Casali be available?
The Vanderbilt product is under team control through the 2022 season and hits arbitration a year from now. Having said that, he has no minor league options remaining. Therefore, he must remain on the Reds’ 25-man roster next season or be sent through waivers prior to going to the minors. Perhaps this is reason enough to deal Casali.
Kevin Plawecki, New York Mets
Plawecki was the Mets’ first round pick in 2012, yet he’s never been able to take control of the starting job in New York. He had a plum opportunity to do so this year. But the former Purdue Boilermaker went down with his own injury shortly after starter Travis d’Arnaud was lost for the season. Hence the trade with the Reds for Mesoraco.
With the Mets looking to contend next season, there’s a good chance they’ll upgrade at catcher. If that’s the case, the budget-conscious club may look for a cheaper backup option than Plawecki, who projects to earn $1.3 million via arbitration next season.
Andrew Knapp, Philadelphia Phillies
There won’t necessarily be a sense of urgency for the Phillies to move their former second round pick, but Jorge Alfaro is entrenched as the their catcher. That said; Philadelphia could move Knapp before his price begins to creep up.
Like several other players on our list, Knapp is arbitration-eligible after next season and a free agent after the 2022 campaign. But it’s important to note the former California Golden Bear’s performance in limited action suggests he’s an average backup.
Bear in mind Dipoto doesn’t have to find his catcher of the future this offseason. The club isn’t tanking, but appears to be rebooting their roster and looking past 2019. What the Mariners need next season are catchers capable of supporting the pitching staff from behind the plate, not foundational pieces.
Considering the state of the position, adding two catchers who can time-share appears to be the most risk-averse approach. If one player is struggling or goes down with an injury, the club isn’t scrambling for help as it has when Zunino endured injuries and slumps.
If I had to select candidates from the free agent list, my choices would include Maldonado, Suzuki, and Lucroy.
As far as trade candidates, Contreras and Díaz would be long-term choices, although it’s unlikely their respective clubs will part with them. The remaining names make sense as backups, but only at a reasonable price.
Naturally, Jerry Dipoto and his staff will devise better ideas than mine. They’ve proven to be innovative dealmakers during the past three years. Plus next month’s Rule 5 draft may provide an opportunity to improve organizational depth at catcher.
It certainly should be a fun offseason, don’t you think?