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2018-19 MLB free agency by position: Catchers

What do the numbers tell us about backstops this offseason?

World Series - Boston Red Sox v Los Angeles Dodgers - Game Three
Free agent Yasmani Grandal throws out a runner during the World Series
Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The World Series is over and awards season is upon us. You all know what that means. The hot stove is on and it’s time to take a detailed look at the free agent market and what it means for the Cubs.

This post is the first in a series looking at the free agent market in a variety of ways. I’m going to start with a look at the market for catchers.

The market

The 2018 free agent market for catcher is headlined by the DodgersYasmani Grandal who was one of only seven players to receive a qualifying offer. If you think that number seems low, you’re right. That is the lowest number of players to ever receive a qualifying offer. It’s two fewer than last year’s nine, which had tied the previous low.

Here are the 2018 free agents who spent at least some time at catcher in 2018:

2018 Catcher Free Agents by fWAR

Player Primary position Additional positions Age (for 2019) 2018 Salary 2018 QO 2018 Opt Out 2018 fWar 2015-18 fWar 2018 Team(s)
Player Primary position Additional positions Age (for 2019) 2018 Salary 2018 QO 2018 Opt Out 2018 fWar 2015-18 fWar 2018 Team(s)
Yasmani Grandal C 1B 30 7,900,000 Y 3.6 11.3 LAD
Wilson Ramos C 31 10,500,000 N 2.4 6.5 TBR, Phi
Kurt Suzuki C 35 3,850,000 N 2.0 4.9 Atl
Robinson Chirinos C 35 2,250,000 N 1.6 6.1 Tex
Martin Maldonado C 32 3,900,000 N 0.9 3.1 LAA, Hou
Matt Wieters C 33 10,500,000 N 0.9 3.5 Was
AJ Ellis C 38 1,250,000 N 0.8 2.4 SDP
Nick Hundley C 35 2,500,000 N 0.8 4.0 SFG
Devin Mesoraco C 31 13,000,000 N 0.7 0.5 Cin, NYM
Jonathan Lucroy C 33 6,500,000 N 0.6 7.5 Oak
Brian McCann C 35 17,000,000 N 0.5 6.4 Hou
Rene Rivera C 35 2,800,000 N 0.3 0.9 LAA, Atl
Chris Gimenez C 1B 36 545,000 N 0.0 1.5 CHC, Min
Evan Gattis DH C 32 6,700,000 N 0.0 4.0 Hou
Drew Butera C 35 2,300,000 N -0.3 0.5 KCR, Col
Jose Lobaton C 34 1,250,000 N -0.3 -1.1 NYM
Jeff Mathis C 36 2,000,000 N -0.5 -0.8 Ari
Bobby Wilson C 36 433,640 N -0.5 -0.9 Min, CHC
Sephen Vogt C 34 3,065,000 N N/A 3.7 Mil
Data compiled from Sportrac, Fangraphs and MLB Trade Rumors by Sara Sanchez

I’m going to set aside Evan Gattis here because he only caught two games for the Houston Astros last year and seems destined to be a designated hitter in the American League. Looking at the rest of the field, a few things jump out to me.

The cream of the crop

Yasmani Grandal and Wilson Ramos are in a league of their own. Both are on the young side of 30, both were worth over 2.5 fWAR in 2018 and indicated they can sustain that production. Both are offensively oriented catchers who will command big money and a starting job. Neither is without concerns. Grandal has some defensive issues that were glaringly obvious in the 2018 postseason. In fact, he’s sixth among active players in career passed balls in only seven seasons. Ramos has torn his ACL twice, once in 2012 and again in 2016.

Even with those problems, Grandal and Ramos are the cream of the catcher free agent crop. I looked at catchers with 400 PA to ensure Ramos was included in the numbers. Both Ramos and Grandal were in the top 5 in fWAR (Grandal was second and Ramos was fifth). Ramos had the highest wRC+ among catchers with 131, Grandal was tied for third with 125. Very few teams have a catcher who isn’t an offensive liability so look for both Grandal and Ramos to get favorable deals as a starter.

The value veterans

After Ramos and Grandal there are a couple of other categories of catchers on the board Kurt Suzuki and Robinson Chirinos are both positive value catchers but they are also both 35 years old. Neither is likely to get a deal of more than two or three years, and most teams would be presuming they’d need another option to start at some point in that window. It remains to be seen what deals will look like for 2019, but neither Suzuki nor Chirinos made more than $4 million in 2018, and I doubt they will top that this offseason.

Don’t call it a comeback

Jonathan Lucroy and Brian McCann were both once top tier catchers. They both have multiple seasons over 3 fWAR. It seems more likely that Lucroy would be able to channel another of those seasons at 33 than McCann would at 35, but both players offer a high risk/high reward option for teams who are willing to pay a bit more for past performance.

Other notes of interest

Martin Maldonado is not a great hitter, his career slash line is .220/.289/.350 but I’m sure I wasnt the only one watching his defense and the way he handled the Astros elite pitching staff in the postseason. He’s also relatively young in this class at 31.

A.J. Ellis is 38 years old, and is known to be a student of the game. He was famously Clayton Kershaw’s personal catcher with the Dodgers before he was traded to the Phillies in 2016 and he knows a thing or two about catching aces. He’s also been highlighted as a mentor for the Padres’ young catchers last year.

Devin Mesoraco had a 4.5 fWAR 2014 and has just never been able to replicate it. There is no way he’s going to get close to the $13 million he made last year but he’s another player who could has demonstrated he can have a big year in the majors if everything goes right and he’s relatively young in this class at 31 years old.

The Cubs’ needs

I’ll be really clear at the outset, the Cubs don’t need to go after a catcher this offseason. They have an All-Star starting catcher in Willson Contreras and a perfectly suitable backup in Victor Caratini. Even in a down year offensively Contreras was the third most valuable catcher in terms of fWAR. He was tied for second in the major leagues with 27 CS in 2018 (four behind Lucroy’s 31 and tied with Detroit’s James McCann). While I’m sure Contreras would like to improve on his .249/.339/.390 slash line from 2018, his career averages and hard hit rate suggest he will. The Cubs don’t need a starting catcher, so Grandal, Ramos, Lucroy, McCann and Suzuki are probably not in play for the Cubs this offseason.

It’s possible they could repeat what they did last year and look for a Chris Gimenez type to play a backup role. If that were the case, I’d look for them to maybe make an offer to former Cub Rene Rivera or maybe re-sign Bobby Wilson, who they added in early September of 2018 for a stretch run that never materialized.

A more interesting move, however, would be to look for a David Ross type to back up Contreras and provide some mentoring to the Cubs all star catcher. If they choose to go that route the obvious choice is Ellis. The only other options with similar experience would have to be the result of a trade, however a move like this would likely make Victor Caratini available in a trade, particularly since the Cubs have Miguel Amaya waiting in the wings.

Are there any catchers you’d want the Cubs to pursue in free agency or are you comfortable with Contreras and Caratini at that position for 2019?