The Astros signed catcher Robinson Chirinos to a one-year deal yesterday, assuring that at the very least they have a good defensive backup who will draw plenty of walks to contribute at the plate. What that means for incumbent Max Stassi is unknown, but even if the Astros roll into 2019 with Chirinos getting 60% and Stassi 40% of starts this season, it’s not a terrible plan.
But all of this got me thinking about J.T. Realmuto, catcher for the Flordia Marlins, who reportedly (and understandably!) refuses to sign a contract extension. Therefore, the Marlins need to trade him, and soon, so that they can get somebody(s) who will contribute during their next competitive window, which starts around the year 2036.
Realmuto is arguably (but not very) the best and most valuable catcher in baseball right now. He can hit. He plays stellar defense. He’s young and has young knees. Thumbs-up, dude, you’re good at your craft.
And so, the Marlins (reportedly) are asking for the moon in trade returns. For the Astros, rumored asking prices have reached the nearly unprecedented return of two national Top 10 prospects in Kyle Tucker and Forrest Whitley....and more!
And so, the headline of this article.
Go home, Marlins. You’re drunk.
Because here’s the reality: this offseason is a buyer’s market for catchers. Sober up and let me educate you.
First, there’s the obvious point that many MLB teams don’t actually need a catcher. Realistically, the Yankees have Gary Sanchez. While he’s not a whiz behind the plate, I doubt the Yankees feel compelled to dish out a ridiculous cost (which reportedly would include Sanchez himself) to downgrade their offense. In fact, the Yankees have said as much, publicly denying reports that they are in talks with Miami and that Sanchez would possibly be involved in trade for Realmuto.
The Rays just acquired Mike Zunino, a stellar defender with an intriguing but thus-far disappointing bat. The Twins are locked in with Jason Castro. The Nats just acquired Kurt Suzuki and Yan Gomes. The Pirates have Francisco Cervelli locked up; he’s not bad. The Cardinals have Yadier Molina. Buster Posey exists. Do the White Sox want to part with their hard-earned top youngsters to upgrade a little over Welington Castillo? The Phillies seem to be hunting bigger game, and should be satisfied with Jorge Alfaro and Andrew Knapp. The Cubs are pleased with Willson Contreras.
So just by asking the question, “Who already has a catcher that is good enough that it would make no sense for the club to mortgage beyond-premium talent to upgrade to Realmuto,” it limits the field by about a third.
But that’s no different than any other season.
You also have to ask, “which clubs that aren’t on the previous list certainly won’t be in contention during the remaining duration of Relamuto’s contract, and so would never pay the prospect cost to acquire him?”
So that leaves a small group of teams that might contend in the next two years that might be looking for a catcher upgrade. That list includes:
- Indians (Roberto Perez)
- Astros (Chirinos & Stassi)
- A’s (Josh Phegley)
- Angels (Jose Briceno)
- Mets (Kevin Plawecki and Travis d’Arnaud, more on this in a second)
- Braves (Tyler Flowers and Brian McCann, see below)
- Brewers (Manny Pina)
- Dodgers (Austin Barnes)
- Rockies (Chris Iannetta)
- Red Sox (a bunch of stuff that was terrible last year)
Now I want to talk about the Mets and the Braves, who have repeatedly been “linked” to Realmuto in trades.
First, there’s an argument to be made that the Mets and Braves already have some of the better catching duos in the majors, from an all-around standpoint. Plawecki is a young guy with decent defense, decent power, who draws walks and is under team control. d’Arnaud is a not-quite-as young guy with decent defense and great power for the position. The Mets are also in Miami’s division. Do they want to face their own talent across the diamond every year? Do the Marlins want to face Realmuto, a constant reminder to their fans of how dismally managed the franchise was for years?
Flowers has long been regarded as a great defensive catcher, and he provides league-average-to-better offensive production. McCann has long been regarded as a great defensive catcher who provides good enough offensive production to justify his role on a major league club.
So if one were asking ME, both the Braves and the Mets should be included in the aformentioned clubs who don’t need a new catcher, but because baseball writers seem intent on bringing them up, they deserved to be put here.
From a “need and possible contention” standpoint, the Marlins’ market has realistically shrunk to between six and eight clubs, depending on your stance on a couple of those clubs. The Dodgers could and should be fine rolling along with Austin Barnes, for example, but could conceivably be looking for an upgrade.
But wait. We know what the cost on Realmuto is likely to be. TWO top ten national prospects seems like silly negotiating tactics. Let’s put the cost as at least one top-20 national prospect, plus a strong enough farm system (or very young and spare-able major leaguers) that the acquiring club can afford a reasonable asking price.
Generously, that cuts down the potential suitor list to the following:
- The Houston Astros
That’s really it. Just the Houston Astros.
There are qualifiers, of course. The Dodgers could try to put a package together of Alex Verdugo, Keibert Ruiz, and, say Julio Urias. The Brewers could try a package of Keston Hiura and...what? Orlando Arcia? Why would they do that, that’s silly. The Rockies have an elite prospect in Brendan Rodgers, but after that their system is largely devoid of anything that approaches Miami’s reported asking price. But they might be closest and most motivated, so let’s at least nod and acknowledge they could TRY to make a run. But nobody can match the resources that Houston has available and their obvious opportunity to upgrade. There’s no doubt that Miami knows it.
So we’ve narrowed the realistic market (at the market price, anyway) down to around maybe three at most, and only one club, the Astros, with the need and the means to meet Miami’s stated price.
So we come to the last issue.
This is perhaps the best class of catchers to hit free agency together in a very long time. Among the Top 10 catchers with 300 PA or more last year in Fangraphs’ WAR, #2 (Yasmani Grandal) and #5 (Wilson Ramos) are still available, and both were close on Realmuto’s heels in terms of offensive and defensive production. #10 was Kurt Suzuki, who signed with the Nationals. #7 was Gomes, who was traded to Washington. #8 was Omar Narvaez, just traded to the Mariners.
Chirinos, just acquired by the Astros, was the 13th-best catcher by fWAR last season among catchers who reached 300 plate appearances.
It’s a perfect storm for the Astros, who do still have a “soft” need to upgrade at the position, and a nightmare for the Marlins who everybody knows need to trade Realmuto as soon as possible to maximize his trade return. Perhaps they’ll have better luck at the trade deadline, if for example the Dodgers and Rockies lose half of their teams to injury and the Padres are suddenly gunning for a playoff spot. Or if the Reds’ front office does something inexplicable, which in retrospect seems likely.
The market of clubs who A) want to upgrade and B) can afford the cost of acquiring the best catcher in the game is teensy-tiny. It may be just one club—the Astros. At any point, the clubs in that market (whether it’s one team or three) can shrug and sign one of the best five catchers in the game for merely the cost of cash and perhaps a draft pick rather than send away elite talent to Miami.
Tucker and Whitley and more? Go home, Miami, you’re drunk. Your buyers can set the price of acquiring Realmuto, and they can afford to wait because they can get 95% of his production without hemorrhaging talent to south beach. Astros’ GM Jeff Luhnow is too savvy to let the internet pressure him into way overpaying for a market-devalued asset. And nobody else can come close to your asking price.