Hot Commodities: Catching Up on the Free Agent Catcher Market
Image courtesy of Denny Medley-USA TODAY SportsWhen putting together the Offseason Handbook, our presumption was that a crowded and relatively undifferentiated free agent catcher class would suppress salaries at the position, creating a buyer-friendly market. Early developments throw this premise into doubt.
Untethered to draft pick compensation, Grandal quickly found a home this time around, agreeing with Chicago on a hefty deal that exceeded our Handbook projection (4 years, $60M). That said, it was always clear Grandal was gonna get paid. Atlanta's contract with d'Arnaud is more eyebrow-raising.
On the surface, there wasn't much to separate d'Arnaud from any number of other middling backstops in free agency. He turns 31 in February, has generally been a part-time player, and hasn't posted an fWAR higher than 1.6 since 2015.
The 2019 season alone saw him designated for assignment and released by the Mets, then signed by the Dodgers, and promptly traded to Tampa for cash. These aren't transactions that scream "valued commodity."
Yet, here we are. Six months after being cast aside by the Mets, d'Arnaud has secured a $16 million payday. His contract is noteworthy because it is basically the same one a much more accomplished Jason Castro signed with the Twins back in 2017, minus one year.
Castro, now back on the open market, is another from the mid-tier group with d'Arnaud, seemingly not in a position of leverage. He's 32, coming off an unspectacular campaign following a lost one. But then again, he's a good defender, and a veteran with a strong rep. If the early deals are any indication, Castro's probably going to require more than the one-year, $6 million commitment we guessed in the Handbook.
(From the Offseason Handbook. Get your copy.)
If early free agency action is indeed indicative of heightened demand at catcher, Castro could price himself out of the Twins' comfort zone. As a natural platoon fit with Mitch Garver, and a solid game caller familiar to the pitching staff, Castro is appealing as a reunion candidate – but only up to a certain point. There are many other interesting names on the market, including: Robinson Chirinos, Austin Romine, Stephen Vogt, Martin Maldonado, Yan Gomes, and Alex Avila.
The decision here bears more importance than your standard backup catcher pickup, because the Twins appear committed to a balanced timeshare. Dan Hayes of The Athletic wrote a story for the Handbook detailing the strategy behind Garver's limited usage this year, and it doesn't sound as though the team intends to change course. While I suspect we'll see more of Garver in 2020 as a first baseman or DH, with the 26th roster spot making it easier to carry three catchers, there are still going to be at least 70-80 starts up for grabs at catcher.
Willians Astudillo could take some of them. But he was sadly none too inspiring this year. The Twins have a real opportunity to upgrade what was already a stellar position player corps. If they feel Castro is the best available option, they can afford him, even in a seller's market. But is he?
The other key question at play is whether the Twins feel they're in need of a stopgap or a longer-term solution. Garver is under control for four more seasons, but the system is otherwise thin at the top levels. That is, until you get to Ryan Jeffers, who may be closer than we realize.
Added in the second round of the 2018 draft, Jeffers has raked since joining the pro ranks, with a .296/.383/.453 slash line in his first 167 games. By the end of his first full season, he'd already reached Double-A, posting an .856 OPS in 24 games there. Clearly, the 22-year-old can hit. But what really intrigues me is his defensive tool kit. Hayes noted in his Handbook article that "Jeffers is an outstanding pitch framer – some within the organization think he’s among the top 15 in pro ball right now." High praise.
If the Twins are especially high on Jeffers, they may prefer to avoid a multi-year deal in free agency. Would that rule out Castro? Possibly. The best path for the front office might be a high-dollar one-year contract to sew up the only clear gap in their 2020 roster with some short-term quality.
And if they want it to be one of their preferred options, they might need to claim him soon.
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