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Who is the best CATCH in Free Agency? - The Candidates

With Robinson Chirinos and Martin Maldonado no longer under contract, the Houston Astros are in the market for major league catching. We take a look at the 2019-20 Free Agent Catchers.

If you haven’t read it yet, Hatter did some amazing work analyzing catcher’s seasons this year, and recently published an article looking at the 2019 Catcher Spectrum Scores. As we know, Robinson Chirinos and Martin Maldonado are both Free Agents leaving a big gap at catcher (reminder: Max Stassi was traded this year as well).

So here’s our first look at the Free Agent Catchers for the 2019-20 Hot Stove. We will try to give a quick glimpse into each player to see who all the potential FA Candidates are. I’ll admit, it’s tough as a writer to be able to provide a good analysis of every one of these players since we do not see them every day but we’re going to take a look at it from a unique approach. I started with the traditional statistics (BA, OBP, SLUG, age, WAR, wRC+) to figure out a baseline of performance from last year. Next I added in the statcast numbers to get a sense of their abilities without some of the statistical noise. Lastly utilizing Hatter’s Catcher Spectrum Scores we get a bit more detailed of a look at how the players created value on the field. Lastly I added contract predictions based on MLBTradeRumors projected values, contract history and comparable signings.

Here are the 19 most prominent free agent catchers on the market, and their 2019 Catcher Skill Spectrum Scores:

We will later do deeper dives into the individual players and their potential prospect of being the Astros solution to catcher.

The Primary Ballot

MLB: OCT 01 NL Wild Card - Brewers at Nationals Photo by Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Yasmani Grandal (31 years old, 5.2 WAR) - Four Years - $68 Mil

2019: .246/.380/.468, 121 wRC+, .361 wOBA
Statcast: xWOBA: .304 | Framing (RES): 13 | ARM: 78.4 | Exchange: 0.72 | POP: 2.07
2020 Steamer Projection:.244/.358/.460, 115 wRC+, 4.8 WAR

The clear front-runner of the 2019-20 FA Catcher class is Grandal. After taking a risk and signing a 1-year deal, Grandal may have won big on the gamble as he comes in as one of the youngest FA Catchers with a 5+ WAR season last year without a QO attached. He’s the pick to dream on especially with Depth Charts and Steamer both predicting just short of a 5 WAR season (4.7 & 4.8). Grandal ranks 7th on MLBTradeRumors’ top 50, so we will use their prediction on salary. His wOBA vs xwOBA don’t show that his offensive production was a fluke, making him more likely to repeat it.

On the Catcher Spectrum Score Grandal predictably scores well ranking 2nd overall in the rankings with the majority of his value being driven through his batting and framing. His scores in some of the “older school” measured values would show a limited upside in regards to blocking and poor throwing. And his base running hurts his overall game.

2019 World Series Game 6 - Washington Nationals v. Houston Astros Photo by Alex Trautwig/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Robinson Chirinos (36 years old, 2.3 WAR) - Two Years - $10 Mil

2019: .238/.347/.443, 113 wRC+, .336 wOBA
Statcast: xWOBA: .316 | Framing (RES): -9 | ARM: 80.8 | Exchange: 0.72 | POP: 2.03
2020 Steamer Projection:.218/.318/406, 91 wRC+, 0.7 WAR

There were quite a few people disappointed with the Chirinos signing by the Astros last year, largely due to some high hopes of a Realmuto trade and a strong FA Catcher market. Although he fell short of my “bold” predictions last year of a .240/.350/.500 year, I doubt many were disappointed by his overall performance. He does seem to be Verlander’s catcher of choice, but at 36 years old, you have to wonder how much he has left in the tank at baseball’s most demanding position. He ranks 33rd on MLBTR’s top 50 Free Agents, with them predicting him to return to the Astros at 2/$10. Statcast shows Chirinos was slightly lucky with the bat, but should still be a solid contributor none the less. Defensively he did actually have a slight improvement but still lags the competition in this perspective.

Chirinos ranked tied for 6th overall on the Spectrum scores and I don’t think anyone would be surprised as they look through how Chirinos drives his value, although the blocking may actually be an interesting point of note as it can go unnoticed.

MLB: Kansas City Royals at Minnesota Twins Ben Ludeman-USA TODAY Sports

Jason Castro (33 years old, 1.6 WAR) - Two Years - $10 Mil

2019: .232/.332/.435, 103 wRC+, .328 wOBA
Statcast: xWOBA: .364 | Framing (RES): 2 | ARM: 82.1 | Exchange: 0.74 | POP: 2.01
2020 Steamer Projection:.222/.316/.396, 88 wRC+, 1.7 WAR

Another familiar name in the Astros family. Castro maintained his reputation of sterling defense behind the plate but for the first time since 2013 actually performed a touch over league average offensively. Interestingly, he ranks a hair behind Chirinos at #34 with the same contract predictions despite the two players being polar opposite as to how they gain their value. Statcast actually found Castro to have been extremely unlucky with his at bats indicating that his offensive rebound year may have been notably understated. This would make a huge impact on his potential value if he can maintain the changes he made last year would increase his value substantially.

Castro tied with Chirinos for 6th place but drew his value in a much different fashion. Whereas Chirinos’ defensive value came through blocking Castro’s framing is his redeeming quality.

I actually think Castro from a statistical sense makes a ton of sense as a huge “buy-low” player if his stats this year were indicative of the change.

MLB: Colorado Rockies at San Francisco Giants Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

Stephen Vogt (35 years old, 0.9 WAR) - 1 year - $2 Mil

2019: .263/.314/.490, 107 wRC+
2020 Steamer Projection: .241/.301/.431, 89 wRC+, 0.4 WAR

Another veteran option at Catcher, Vogt had a slight resurgence with his bat last year. Unfortunately, Vogt has never stood out as a catcher and at 35 years old there is limited value here. Having produced 1.2 WAR across the past 3 seasons, you would have to assume teams would largely look at Vogt as a back-up option instead of a primary one.

2019 ALDS Game 5 - Tampa Bay Rays v. Houston Astros Photo by Cooper Neill/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Travis d’Arnaud (31 years old, 1.6 WAR) - Two Years - $14 Mil

2019: .251/.312/.433, 98 wRC+, .314 wOBA
Statcast: xWOBA: .334 | Framing (RES): -2 | ARM: 83.5 | Exchange: 0.74 | POP: 1.99
2020 Steamer Projection:.256/.316/.444, 97 wRC+, 1.8 WAR

Once the 37th overall pick, it was easy to see his potential especially after a breakout season in 2015. Unfortunately, injuries have derailed d’Arnaud to an extreme extent with a torn PCL, broken foot, elbow surgery, broken hand, sprained elbow, rotator cuff strain, bruised wrist, and finally a Tommy John surgery. Some may still gamble on his potential after his re-assured his ability to catch runners this year and finally staying healthy. MLBTR ranked him 26th overall. Statcast did find him to have been slightly unlucky in his at bats but it would probably move to him being a league average batter. His defensive numbers on statcast were all his best since 2015, so there’s a chance he’s truly healthy now.

Ranking 12th (tied) on the list, d’Arnaud actually seems like a well rounded average player across the board other than his blocking which was well below average in 2019, but for which he has scored more highly in the past.

MLB: Arizona Diamondbacks at San Francisco Giants Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

Alex Avila (33 years old, 1.3 WAR) - 1 Year - $5 Mil

2019: .207/.353/.421, 97 wRC+, .323
Statcast: xwOBA: .357 | Framing (RES): 5 | ARM: 81.5 | Exchange: 0.74 | POP: 2.01 2020 Steamer Projection:.208/.339/.374, 88 wRC+, 1.4 WAR

Avila has been a polarizing player, with seasons of 140 wRC+ and seasons of 67 wRC+ - ranging the gamut from 0.7 to 4.5 WAR seasons. Avila signed a 2-year, $8.25 Mil contract the last time he hit Free Agency, and while he has not done anything to tarnish his name since then, some of the luster of potential has lost it’s shine and he is now 2 years older. I would guess a $1-year $4-5 Million dollar contract is not out of line. When you start to dig into his statcast numbers, Avila also had a notable amount of bad luck in his profile when looking at xwOBA which would have likely made him an above average batter. On the defensive side, he held fairly steady across the board.

Avila seems like a sneakier pick for a solid/above-average catcher for a bargain price, although there are rumors that both Avila and the Diamondbacks are hopeful for a re-union and working on a contract.

MLB: NLDS-Los Angeles Dodgers at Washington Nationals Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Russell Martin (37 years old , 1.2 WAR) - 1 Year - $2 Mil

2019: .220/.337/.330, 83 wRC+
2020 Steamer Projection: .224/.336/.381, 91 wRC+, 0.9 WAR

Once a premium name at backstop, Martin has had a decline as he’s continued to age. As the veteran of the group, Martin will have some challenges to overcome as he heads into Free Agency and may be a better back-up player than starter at this point.

MLB: San Diego Padres at New York Yankees Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

Austin Romine (31 years old , 0.9 WAR) - 2 Years - $7 Mil

2019: .281/.310/.439, 95 wRC+
2020 Steamer Projection:.250/.297/.406, 82 wRC+, 0.6 WAR

Up until last season, Romine had not contributed a positive WAR in his career. Over the last 2 years, he has kept a slightly below average bat and decent defense giving him 1.3 and 0.9 WAR seasons. Romine is one of the younger Free Agent catchers and has actually hit for average but has been Yuli-esque in his reluctance to take a walk limiting his value.

2019 World Series Game 7 - Washington Nationals v. Houston Astros Photo by Rob Tringali/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Yan Gomes (32 years old, 0.8 WAR)

2019: .223/.316/.389, 79 wRC+, .298 wOBA
Statcast: xWOBA: .304 | Framing (RES): -1 | ARM: 80.6 | Exchange: 0.67 | POP: 1.96
2020 Steamer Projection: .231/.300/.406, 82 wRC+, 1.2 WAR

Gomes’ wRC+ is rather unimpressive with most of the WAR he gained coming through the defensive side of his game. In 2013/14 Gomes had shown some star power with a 4.3 and 5.1 WAR seasons. Unfortunately, this past season wasn’t an anomaly from previous years as he has only had 1 season above average offensively since 2015 coming in at 101 in 2018. His statcast numbers don’t reflect any significant luck at play, although his defensive metrics slipped a bit from career averages across the board.

Gomes pairs his poor batting and framing with stronger baserunning and blocking scores. His 39 overall score ranks just above Maldonado’s.

MLB: Houston Astros at Cleveland Indians Scott R. Galvin-USA TODAY Sports

Martín Maldonado (33 years old , 0.8 WAR) - 1 Year - $3 Mil

2019: .213/.293/.378, 76 wRC+, .288 wOBA
Statcast: xWOBA: .302 | Framing (RES): -1 | ARM: 87.1 | Exchange: 0.77 | POP: 1.96
2020 Steamer Projection:.225/.292/.379, 76 wRC+, 1.2 WAR

Another backstop the Astros are extremely familiar with. Machete maintains a strong defensive reputation and the Astros clearly value it. It appears that the Astros attempted to sign him to a 2 year - $12 Million dollar contract after last year, but there were some gaps in communication ultimately resulting in Maldonado terminating his agent. 2019 wasn’t particularly kind to Maldonado playing across three teams and ultimately re-uniting with the Astros. His statcast numbers show he was very slightly unlucky but he’d still appear to be a well below average hitter even with that change. Defensively, this past year he had the worst statcast numbers of his career basically across the board, this could be an early sign of aging or simply a product of switching teams multiple times within the year.

Maldonado drew his defensive value largely through his ability to block a pitch. This past year was a down one for his defense and he ranks 26th overall in Hatter’s rankings (7th worst in the list). Even with that said, I still the Astros pursuing him as a potential target.

I would not be surprised if the Astros pursued Maldonado especially as they were willing to pay far more than the 1-year $2.5 Million dollar contract he signed last year.

MLB: Atlanta Braves at Philadelphia Phillies Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Francisco Cervelli (34 years old, 0.1 WAR)

2019: .213/.302/.348, 73 wRC+
2020 Steamer Projection:.238/.337/.376, 91 wRC+, 0.8 WAR

Once a great catcher pumping out 116 wRC+ seasons out on a regular basis (2012-116, 2013-144, 2014-130, 2015- 117), Cervelli reached his peak with a 5.9 WAR season in 2015. He was involved in a Biogenesis scandal and numerous concussions have de-railed him from those glory days. He will be an interesting player to watch in Free Agency as he was able to perform well above average in 2018 to the tune of .259/.378/.431 - 124 wRC+ and 2.6 WAR.

Chicago Cubs v Pittsburgh Pirates Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Jonathan Lucroy (34 years old, -0.5 WAR)

2019: .232/.305/.355, 77 wRC+, .286 wOBA
Statcast: xwOBA: .306 | Framing (RES): -4 | ARM: 80.1 | Exchange: 0.69 | POP: 2.01
2020 Steamer Projection: .254/.320/.394, 87 wRC+, 0.6 WAR

Once a dreamed about target, Lucroy has fallen from grace. His career from the start of his major league career until 2014 was an absolute thing of beauty, we watched as he improved year after year. Coming into the league as a Rookie he produced a 3.6 WAR season in 75 games. The next year? 5.8 WAR. The year after? 6.0 WAR. And the next? 7.0 and the following? 8.2 WAR!! It was simply an amazing thing to watch - but unfortunately, that’s not the player we’ve seen over the past 3 years. His last three years came in at a 0.0, 0.6, and this year’s -0.5. Lucroy’s xwOBA shows he was slightly unlucky but not enough to get him to the point of a league average bat. His defensive metrics held steady with only a mild slip compared to the years before.

It’s sad to see Lucroy on the Catcher Spectrum Scores, coming in 2nd to last in all of baseball.

The Also-Rans

These players did not have a WAR over 0.0 last year, and are not projected to have over .5 WAR next year.

René Rivera (36 years old, 0.0 WAR)

2019: .235/.350/.412, 108 wRC+
2020 Steamer Projection: .221/.277/..399, 74 wRC+, 0.4 WAR

Nick Hundley (36 years old , -0.3 WAR)

2019: .200/.233/.357, 53 wRC+
2020 Steamer Projection:.219/.269/.375, 65 wRC+, -0.3 WAR

Matt Wieters (34 years old , -0.3 WAR)

2019: .214/.268/.435, 81 wRC+
2020 Steamer Projection:.232/.299/.403, 82 wRC+, 0.0 WAR

Bryan Holaday (32 years old, -0.3 WAR)

2019: .278/.344/.435, 104 wRC+
2020 Steamer Projection:.251/.314/.396, 84 wRC+, 0.1 WAR

Drew Butera (36 years old , -0.5 WAR)

2019: .163/.229/.233 7 wRC+
2020 Steamer Projection:.221/.290/.352, 68 wRC+, -0.1 WAR

Chris Iannetta (37 years old , -0.5 WAR)

2019: .222/.311/.417, 70 wRC+
2020 Steamer Projection:.221/.316/.398, 86 wRC+, 0.2 WAR

Welington Castillo (33 years old , -1.0 WAR)

2019: .209/.267/.417, 78 wRC+
2020 Steamer Projection: .238/.290/.420, 83 wRC+, 0.0 WAR

We will dig more into some of the topic candidates to get a better feel for the players themselves and a deeper dive into the analytics.

Tell us your thoughts. Who do you think the Astros’ top targets should be?

Hatter’s Commentary

(This final section is written by mhatter106.)

Hebrew Hammah (Brian Cohn) has done an excellent job providing an overview of the free agent catcher market. The Houston Astros have only one catcher currently in their organization with any major league experience, and that is Garrett Stubbs with all of 35 career big league plate appearances.

But as you can see, what’s out there falls into one of three categories: old, expensive, or ineffective.

Already up against the luxury tax threshold, Yasmani Grandal, the prize free agent catcher, just isn’t an option for the Astros. On top of this, Grandal will likely command a multi-year contract, but the landscape of catching will change dramatically whenever electronic strike zones are institutred. If that’s in 2022, and Grandal is on a 4 year contract, that’s half the contract where a team isn’t getting the benefit of his framing.

The Astros need to sign a catcher who can handle a workhorse load if need be. The Astros may have something in Stubbs, and he deserves a shot to start his major league career as the 2020 backup catcher. Here are his 2019 skill spectrum scores, if his AAA performance were translated to the major leagues:

While Stubbs still needs to find himself at the plate, his defensive skills should translate to the bigs. But if he should falter where A.J. Hinch just doesn’t feel comfortable giving him every third game, the primary catcher is going to need to shoulder a larger load. That was the case with Chirinos in 2019, until Maldonado came back and Hinch felt more comfortable lessening Chirinos’ load. So guys like Cervelli who temporarily announced retirement from catching due to concussion issues are out.

Chirinos is an attractive candidate due to his rapport with Justin Verlander, who preferred Chirinos over even the return of Maldanado. But at 36, 110 games may not be in the cards for him.

I agree with Hammah that the Astros are sure to show interest again in Maldonado, but he would be an innings eater at best. Always a liability at the plate, last year he also failed to exhibit defensive prowess. Gerrit Cole is also gone, so retention of Maldonado for any chemistry he had with Cole is a non-issue.

Jason Castro (33) may be a sound choice for a one to two year deal, although for hopefully less than the projected 2 years/$10 million. He is a known quantity defensively, and last year showed some productivity at the plate as well. His offense may regress from 2019, but with the Astros’ loaded lineup, they are one team that can withstand an offensive hole in the 8 or 9 spot.

d’Arnaud (31) and Avila (33) are intriguing candidates as well. Neither are superstar level, but again, the Astros are full of superstars, and both ought to be able to hold their value well enough at catcher, while still being young enough to handle a lion’s share of starts behind the plate.

It should also be noted that the Astros have not used less then 4 catchers in a season since 2016. They may be in the market for more than one catcher, with the second one possibly on a minor league deal as insurance for injury or if Stubbs requires being sent down to AAA.

Lastly, it has been reported that the Cubs may be shopping Willson Contreras:

A big name, and just 1 year older than Stubbs at 27, Contreras has 3 years of arbitration control left. However, his admirable offense is continually offset by his poor defense. This weakness would be alleviated by implementation of an electronic strike zone, but what year that will happen is anybody’s guess. With that question mark, it is not worth the Astros emptying coffers any further to acquire Contreras.