Twins 2020 Position Analysis: Catcher
Image courtesy of Jordan Johnson-USA TODAY SportsProjected Starter: Mitch Garver
Likely Backup: Alex Avila
Depth: Willians Astudillo, Tomas Telis
Prospects: Ryan Jeffers, Ben Rortvedt
When analyzing this position last spring, I called Twins catchers a collection of "promising question marks." Then, the backup Garver went on to enjoy a breakout year of epic proportions. This spring, in the words of MLB.com's Mike Petriello, "there's only one question Twins fans are interested in: Can he do it again?"
Petriello's article notes that Garver's emergence in 2019, while out-of-nowhere, carried plenty of legitimizing traits: he ranked sixth among MLB hitters in hard-hit rate, seventh in average exit velocity, 14th in barrels per batted ball, and rated as one of the best fastball hitters in recent history. There was nothing misleading about Garver's spectacular results last year – he took terrific ABs and hit the ball hard consistently, thus he did tons of damage.
Not only that, but Garver made massive strides defensively, implementing changes in technique to go from a 5th-percentile pitch framer to the 80th percentile (per Baseball Prospectus) in a one-year span.
There isn't much, other than the ingrained skepticism from watching many isolated "breakouts" come and go, to suggest Garver is due for overwhelming regression in 2020. He figures to be a solidly above-average starter at the very least. But even if he doesn't lose a step, the Twins have made clear they are going to limit his game reps in efforts to preserve his body for the long haul. So a quality timeshare partner is needed, and it appears the front office identified a good one.
Avila could be viewed as a question mark I suppose, in the sense that he's a newcomer, but he's about as established and reliable a commodity you could ask for in this role. He's played in the majors for more than a decade, has a good rep as a receiver, and is accustomed to learning new staffs, having played for four teams in the past four years.
As a part-time backstop facing mostly right-handed pitching, Avila will be an asset. He's one of the league's more patient hitters and a fine producer at the dish. He's only here for one year, but that's by design.
Jeffers has solidified his standing as Twins catcher of the future. He finished at Double-A last year and could very well get a look in the big leagues this summer. All signs are very encouraging with the 22-year-old at this time. ("I think he's getting to the point where he becomes an option for our Major League team if we need him at some point in the near future," Rocco Baldelli said recently.)
The Twins suddenly find themselves quite dependent on Garver. They have the offensive firepower to succeed in his absence, but he's certainly become a key part of their lineup. The drop-off at catcher is immense from starter to backup, in a way that is probably unmatched across the rest of the roster.
That's almost always going to be the case when you have an elite starting catcher, but depth is a bit of a murky issue. Avila would be palatable but stretched as a starter. Astudillo lost much of his luster in 2019, posting a sub-700 OPS as pitchers began to routinely exploit his extreme lack of discipline. Telis is next in line and while he's played in the big leagues a fair amount, he has hit .230/.267/.298 there.
It's not that the Twins have especially shallow depth at catcher. There's just not much to get excited about after Garver until Jeffers is ready, which is probably a ways off. And while the incumbent enters this season in good health, his history reminds us how dangerous his position can be.
In 2018, Garver missed most of September after suffering a concussion on a foul-tip. And last summer, he suffered a high ankle sprain on a scary home-plate collision. In both cases he was fortunate enough to avoid more serious trauma, and the Twins do an admirable job of protecting him to the extent they can, but there's only so much to be done. Playing catcher in the major leagues might be the most dangerous job in pro sports this side of the NFL.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The Twins have a top-tier starter, a qualified and complementary veteran backup, and a high-caliber prospect nearing readiness in the pipeline. There's not much more you an ask for. Minnesota is poised to have an advantage over virtually every opponent at catcher.
Much hinges on people staying healthy. And as we know all too well, that can never be assumed at this position. So with fingers crossed (and mitt perfectly positioned to receive a pitch on the edge of the strike zone), we proceed with the best laid plans.
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