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Braves free agent targets: Catchers

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The Braves will be in the market for a catcher, and there are four free agent catchers who could be a nice fit.

Milwaukee Brewers v Miami Marlins
Yasmani Grandal is an elite catcher and in line for a big payday.
Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

After Brian McCann’s retirement, the Braves have a void to fill at the catcher position. The Braves have used a platoon of two veteran catchers for the past several years, and it’s a formula that has worked well. Braves’ catchers as a group have ranked in the top-eight in baseball in fWAR each of the past three seasons without being in the top-eight in spending on the position. I expect this trend to continue.

Picking up Tyler Flowers’ option should be a fairly easy decision. Simply put, the Braves won’t be able to get better value for $4 million ($6 million option minus the $2 million buyout) than Flowers, who ranked 11th in fWAR (2.1) for catchers in 2019, is an elite framer, and hit slightly better than the average catcher last year (Flowers had 88 wRC+, whereas the average catcher had 86). Ideally, Flowers would be used as a backup or platoon, though. Therefore, I am working under the assumption that the Braves will continue their trend of pairing two veterans, thus needing one more veteran to pair with Flowers. Ideally, the Braves would platoon Flowers with a left-handed hitter who is better offensively.

Before talking about the value of certain catchers, though, a discussion of the landscape of today’s catcher position is important. First, the catcher position is the most difficult in baseball defensively. This is in part due to the numerous responsibilities of a catcher – receiving/blocking, framing, base runner management, game calling, etc. This is why it is given the highest value as a position in sabermetrics.

Second, because catchers have so many responsibilities, it is very rare to find a catcher good at all of them. There are only two to three elite catchers in the game right now, and the rest have noticeable flaws in some part of their game. If a catcher is a good hitter, for instance, then he is often poor in some other area like receiving or framing. This is part of the reason why catchers had the lowest wRC+ of any position in 2019 at 86. So unless a team is willing to pay high-dollar to get one of the few elite catchers, they will probably have to deal with a deficiency or two.

Here are the four free agent catchers that I think the Braves are most likely to target in the offseason:

Yasmani Grandal

Age on Opening Day 2020: 31

Bats: Switch

2019 stats: 5.2 fWAR, 121 wRC+, 28 HR, .246/.380/.468, 153 games

Grandal is one of the best all-around catchers in the game. He ranked second in fWAR among catchers this season, behind only JT Realmuto. He surprisingly signed a one-year, $18.25 million contract last offseason with the Brewers and does have a $16 million mutual option for 2020. Since mutual option are almost never exercised and Grandal will likely do much better than that in free agency after a 5-WAR season, I will assume he hits free agency this offseason.

There simply aren’t many flaws in Grandal’s game as a good switch-hitter who plays very good defense. He ranked third in FanGraph’s Def metric among catchers in 2019. Grandal allowed only eight passed balls in 1095.2 innings behind the dish, indicating he is a very good receiver. He is also a solid framer with a 51.1% Strike Rate, per Statcast, for pitches called strikes in the “Shadow Zone,” which is essentially the borderline area of the ball/strike zone. Grandal’s only flaw defensively is in throwing out base stealers. His poptime to second base is 2.07 seconds (the league average being 2.01 seconds), and he only threw out 27% of potential base stealers this season.

Offensively, Grandal is the total package. He compensates for a lukewarm .246 batting average with a .380 on-base percentage and hits for plenty of power from both sides of the plate. He hits left-handed pitchers better than right-handers but has a 114 wRC+ against righties making it hardly a weakness. His 121 wRC+ standing alone is impressive, but when compared to other catchers, it becomes even more so. With the average catcher this season having an 86 wRC+, this means Grandal created 35% more runs than the average catcher this season.

Because of his success in 2019 at a position so difficult to find such production, Grandal will have plenty of potential suitors and can expect a lucrative multi-year deal. How many years he will get will be limited by the fact that he is a catcher over 30 years old. My best estimate on Grandal’s contract is that someone will pay him for three years, possibly with a fourth option year with a buyout, with an average annual value of $20-$25 million.

For the Braves, Grandal would be an excellent addition. Assuming that the Braves will not pay what it will cost to bring back Josh Donaldson, sign Grandal, and fill other holes on the roster, Grandal would fit in nicely as a cleanup hitter and give the lineup flexibility by having two switch hitters - along with Ozzie Albies - at the top of the order. It is also a luxury having a good hitter at the catcher position because it is easier to find good hitters at other positions like right field or third base without paying an arm and a leg.

My one concern about the Braves and Grandal is whether it makes sense to give a big contract to a catcher over 30 years old to play enough games in the Atlanta summer heat to justify the big investment. While Grandal has been very durable to this point and played in 140+ games each of the last two seasons, he has played his whole career for teams playing at least half of their seasons in mild climates - San Diego, Los Angeles, and Milwaukee. One has to wonder how many games one catcher can play in a season for Atlanta and whether the Braves would be more prudent to invest a big contract in a position that can be played 155+ games per season (assuming health). Also, from Grandal’s position as a free agent able to sign wherever he wants, he might prefer to catch in a milder climate in the American League where he can take days off from catching but still contribute at the plate. Such a role might prolong his career and be a priority for him in free agency.

Jason Castro

Age on Opening Day 2020: 32

Bats: L

2019 stats: 1.6 fWAR, 103 wRC+, 13 HR, .232/.332/.435, 79 games

Cleveland Indians v Minnesota Twins
Castro would provide a good left-handed hitter for his half of a platoon, but his defense is lacking.
Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn/Minnesota Twins/Getty Images

Castro had a nice 2019 campaign with the Twins despite ceding playing time to Mitch Garver, which is nothing to be ashamed of considering Garver had 31 home runs and a 155 wRC+ this season. Offensively, Castro is a good hitter, especially for a catcher, who strikes out a lot (32% of plate appearances in 2019) but also walks often (12% in 2019). His .362 xwOBA ranked third among catchers with at least 200 plate appearances. Castro is an ideal platoon player, as he holds a career 106 wRC+ versus right-handed pitchers but only a 53 wRC+ against lefties. Overall, a 103 wRC+ and 1.6 fWAR in just 79 games is the kind of production any team would covet in a backup/platoon catcher.

Defensively, Castro was slightly above average as a framer (49.7% Strike Rate) in 2019 but was otherwise poor defensively in 2019 as his -7 Defensive Runs Saved can attest. He had an average poptime of 2.01 to second base per Statcast, which was exactly the league average. He only threw out 7 of 36 potential base stealers (19.4%) in 2019, which is not good but puts Castro right between McCann’s (20%) and Flower’s (19.1%) rates from last season.

For the Braves, Castro would be an ideal platoon-mate with Flowers if the Braves choose to invest most of their available funds in other roster spots. Castro is the yin to Flowers’ yang; Castro is an offensive-minded left-handed hitter who lacks a bit defensively, whereas Flowers is an excellent framer who bats right-handed but not very well. Castro fits squarely into the formula of platooning two veteran catchers that has worked well for the team in the last few seasons. If the Braves bring back Flowers and spend a big chunk of their available funds (i.e. what Terry McGuirk tells Alex Anthopoulos he can spend) on re-signing Donaldson, for example, I would expect the team to pursue a veteran like Castro to pair with Flowers on the cheap.

Alex Avila

Age on Opening Day 2020: 33

Bats: L

2019 stats: 1.3 fWAR, 97 wRC+, .207/.353/.421, 63 games

Arizona Diamondbacks v Washington Nationals
Avila has played well, both offensively and defensively, and likely will not cost much on a short-term contract.
Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images

Avila played the role of veteran backup and mentor to young Carson Kelly for the Diamondbacks this season and did so admirably. Avila, who has a career 105 wRC+, showed that he can still hit well as a catcher. Avila’s xwOBA of .352 ranked fifth among catchers with at least 200 plate appearances this season, ahead of names like Willson Contreras and JT Realmuto.

Although Avila has not always been noted for his defense, it has improved significantly over the past two seasons. He recorded 13 Defensive Runs Saved and allowed just five passed balls in 919 innings over the past two seasons. His framing has also improved, ranking sixth in baseball in Strike Rate (52.5%) in 2019. His average poptime to second base was 2.01, which was exactly the league average, but was good enough to throw out 11 of 21 attempted base stealers (52.4%) in 2019.

Much like Castro, Avila provides a good platoon option for the Braves. He has been better defensively than Castro and might be a good bargain. Given his age, Avila might also be more open to a one-year deal than some other free agent catchers. If the Braves want a solid hitter who also won’t hurt them defensively or cost too much, Avila would be a good choice to pursue.

Robinson Chirinos

Age on Opening Day 2020: 35

Bats: R

2019 stats: 2.3 fWAR, 113 wRC+, 17 HR, .238/.347/.443, 114 games

World Series - Houston Astros v Washington Nationals - Game Four
Chirinos has been a backup for most of his career but had his best all-around season in 2019 at the age of 35.
Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Chirinos had his best season as a professional in 2019 for the Astros despite him ending the season 35 years young. Chirinos played in a career high 114 games and accordingly accumulated a career high 2.3 fWAR. As a 105 wRC+ career hitter, he has always hit well, and that is where his value lies.

Chirinos is not a good overall defender, though. He was one of the worst framers in in 2019 with a Strike Rate of 47.5% and -9 Runs Extra Strikes (Statcast’s conversion of framing strikes to runs), which was 2nd worst in MLB. He also had a below-average poptime of 2.03 seconds to second base and threw out 21.1% of would-be base stealers. However, he caught the Astros’ All-Star roster of a rotation all season and would bring valuable experience as a game manager.

Chirinos is worth mentioning as a potential target for the Braves due to his strong offensive output in 2019 and the fact that he will likely be available on a cheap, short-term deal. However, I’m not sure what to expect out of a catcher who never compiled a 2-fWAR season until age 35. He never played in more than 100 games before 2018 and has essentially been a career backup. Is his 2019 success replicable outside of the analytics powerhouse that is the Astros? Who knows, but I’d like to feel more confident in his abilities to handle primary catching duties if Flowers is the alternative. The other free agents listed above have a better track record competently handling such duties.

Other options:

Travis d’Arnaud: Much like his career, d’Arnaud’s 2019 was a roller coaster. He was designated for assignment by the Mets, picked up by the Dodgers, and then traded to the Rays for cash. Despite the turbulence, d’Arnaud mustered a decent season with 1.6 fWAR and 98 wRC+. d’Arnaud has shown he can perform well over at points in his career but has been pretty awful at times, as well (hence receiving a DFA from the Mets despite their terrible catching performances this season). To cut to the chase, having d’Arnaud and Flowers as your primary backstops going into the season would only be acceptable if the Braves needed to save money because they used the rest on Gerrit Cole, Anthony Rendon, and Mookie Betts.

Francisco Cervelli: The Braves’ signing of Cervelli in August made good sense when McCann was battling injury and the trade deadline had passed. And while he performed well in limited action in Atlanta, Cervelli only hit to a 73 wRC+ on the season. He has also unfortunately had so many concussions in his career that one has to wonder whether it is best for him or any team to rely on him as even a platoon player at this point.