The Indians are in first place in the American League Central, yet they possess one of the most glaring weaknesses of any contender in the game. Cleveland catchers this season — Yan Gomes (currently injured), Roberto Perez and Chris Gimenez — have combined to bat a staggering .172/.225/.296 in 457 plate appearances. The company line has been that they’re high on the defensive capabilities of each backstop, but no club in all of Major League Baseball has received worse production out of its catchers. How best to remedy that situation — or whether they even need to — is up for debate.
Obvious Trade Candidates
Paul Hoynes of the Cleveland Plain Dealer writes today that Cleveland has had some discussions with the division-rival Twins about Kurt Suzuki in the past, but “there’s nothing happening at the moment.” Suzuki cleared trade waivers yesterday, making him a logical candidate for any club in need of catching help. The main sticking point for Cleveland, it seems, is that Suzuki isn’t regarded as a strong defender, and he would obviously be tasked with learning an entirely new pitching staff in a short amount of time in the event that the Indians made a move. That’s a tall order for any catcher, and it could conceivably lead to further difficulty in framing/blocking pitches if he’s not fully familiar with the full arsenal of each pitcher he’s catching. Then again, Suzuki is affordable (owed $1.5MM through season’s end) and hitting .281/.321/.435 — an enormous upgrade over the offensive deficiencies that have plagued Cleveland catchers in 2016.
Another obvious candidate for Cleveland would be the only other catcher that is known at this time to have cleared trade waivers: Brian McCann. The defensive question marks that surround Suzuki aren’t as prevalent with McCann. While the Yankee backstop is admittedly having a down season in terms of throwing out runners, his 23 percent is still better than Suzuki’s 19 percent, and he’s traditionally been more adept at controlling the running game. Likewise, McCann routinely posts above-average framing marks, per Baseball Prospectus, while Suzuki perennially ranks as one of the worst in the game at stealing extra strikes for his pitchers. It’s probably a surprise to some that haven’t paid close attention to see that Suzuki, though, has actually been the better hitter of the two this season in terms of both average and slugging percentage.
The difficulty with regards to McCann, however, is that he’s owed $34MM beyond this season, and there’s almost certainly no way the Indians would be willing to take on that type of coin. The Yankees would have to eat a substantial amount of McCann’s remaining salary for any type of serious consideration, and they’d accordingly ask for a greater return in terms of prospects if they continue to shoulder the bulk of McCann’s contract. On a speculative note, though, McCann would seem to be a good fit for the rotating catcher/first base/designated hitter role that prompted Jonathan Lucroy to veto a deal to Cleveland. And, speaking of no-trade clauses, McCann does have full no-trade rights under his deal with the Yankees, so he’d have to approve of the move.
Names That Could Become Available
Derek Norris could (and perhaps should) be listed in the previous category, but there’s no official word that he’s cleared waivers yet so I kept him in this bucket for now. At any rate, the Padres’ catcher has seen his bat go ice cold again in recent weeks after showing promise from May through mid-July. Norris got off to one of the worst starts of any big league hitter this year but largely righted the ship and looked to be hitting his way back into trade candidacy. But, in 80 plate appearances since the All-Star break, he’s hitting .113/.213/.127, making him look more like a non-tender candidate than a trade candidate.
Digging a bit deeper, I looked at the trade market for catchers last month and listed a number of names that were rentals and some that were controllable beyond the current season. The latter group is probably off limits now (with the exception of the aforementioned McCann and Norris), but a number of potential rentals figure to be available.
Carlos Ruiz still draws plenty of walks for the rebuilding Phillies and could at the very least provide some OBP from behind the plate. The Rockies have wilted as of late, falling to 9.5 games back in their division and 6.5 games back of the second Wild Card spot. If Nick Hundley hasn’t already been placed on trade waivers, he very well could be in the near future. It’s no certainty that he’d clear, but he’s another affordable rental piece that could theoretically help Cleveland if he makes it to them unclaimed. Geovany Soto of the Angels represents another option that figures to land on trade waivers and could make his way to Cleveland, if he’s not first blocked by a club like Detroit in an effort to prevent Cleveland from adding any sort of alternative to their incumbent options. [Editor’s Note: Soto was placed on the 15-day DL after this post was published.] Likewise, Mariners catcher Chris Iannetta could hit the wire now that Mike Zunino is hitting well, but Iannetta is in a Norris-esque free fall at the moment himself.
The Case for Staying the Course
For all of their offensive woes behind the plate, the fact of the matter is that Cleveland is six games up on the AL Central. They’re 10th in the Majors in terms of caught-stealing percentage from their catchers, having halted exactly one third of the attempts against them, and more impressively, the Indians have had the fewest steals attempted against them of any MLB team — just 57 tries. It’s still possible that Gomes returns from a separated shoulder next month and brings his strong framing skills and rocket arm with him, further increasing the club’s defensive prowess. Any addition, at this point, would likely be made for the purposes of adding some punch to the postseason roster, but framing extra strikes (or simply ensuring that actual strikes on the fringe of the zone are called) and preventing stolen bases are of magnified importance in the playoffs. Cleveland could simply elect to prioritize those elements over adding another solid, but unspectacular bat to a lineup that has already scored the fourth-most runs in baseball even with a dearth of offensive production from behind the plate.
All of that said, I’ll open this one up to our readers for debate in the comments and in the following poll (link to poll for Trade Rumors app users)…