Pittsburgh is among the teams that will be looking for help behind the plate during the upcoming offseason. The problem for the Pirates and others is that there’s a pittance of slam-dunk starters who are scheduled to reach the open market. With just over a month left in the regular season, here’s a rundown of how the game’s soon-to-be free-agent backstops have performed this year…
The Gold Standard:
- Yasmani Grandal, Brewers: It was a strange offseason last winter for Grandal. Even though the Dodgers issued him a qualifying offer, he still landed a proposal in the four-year, $60MM range from the Mets. But Grandal passed, which forced him to eventually settle for the Brewers’ one-year, $18.25MM guarantee. The deal includes a $16MM mutual option for 2020, but Grandal’s sure to decline his half of it on the heels of another quality season. The switch-hitting 30-year-old has yet again paired easily above-average offense with well-regarded work behind the plate. Grandal’s .253/.380/.460 line with 20 home runs in 503 plate appearances has kept him among the game’s premier offensive catchers, while he’s near the top of the league in Baseball Prospectus’ Fielding Runs Above Average metric. The Brewers won’t be able to issue Grandal a qualifying offer after the season, which only makes it more likely that he’ll reel in a lucrative multiyear deal over the winter.
- Jason Castro, Twins: Castro’s closing out a three-year, $24MM with Minnesota, which – aside from an injury-ruined 2018 – has gotten decent overall production from the former Astro. This year’s version is showing more power than ever, with a career-high .228 ISO. Castro, 32, also boasts a .244/.327/.472 line with 12 HRs through 224 PA. Known primarily for his defensive prowess, Castro’s having another fine season in that realm. A return to Minnesota in 2020 seems unlikely, though, as fellow Twins catcher Mitch Garver has emerged as one of baseball’s supreme breakout players this season.
- Travis d’Arnaud, Rays: The Mets released d’Arnaud, a former star prospect, early in the season. Their loss has been an enormous gain for the Rays, who had been counting on offseason pickup Mike Zunino to perform respectably as their No. 1 catcher. Zunino has been awful, however, which has allowed d’Arnaud to put himself back on the map in Tampa Bay. The 30-year-old has batted a sturdy .261/.328/.469 with 13 homers in 271 attempts as a Ray, and has finally stayed healthy after multiple injury-laden seasons. Although d’Arnaud is more a middle-of-the-pack defender than a high-end one, it nonetheless appears he’s on his way to a solid offseason payday.
- Robinson Chirinos, Astros: If you’re looking for some affordable offensive pop from your catcher, Chirinos is a good choice. Just don’t expect defensive brilliance from the 35-year-old. Chirinos, whom the Rangers non-tendered last winter, has given the Astros a 373 PA of .236/.342/.428 hitting with 14 long balls. It’s the fifth straight season of above-average production at the plate from Chirinos.
On the Fringe:
- Brian McCann, Braves: Now 35, the seven-time All-Star can still play. In his return to Atlanta, the site of his greatest individual success, McCann has hit .264/.336/.423 and smacked 10 homers in 274 trips to the plate, though the lefty’s unplayable versus same-handed pitchers. Defensively, although McCann has thrown out a mere 14 percent of would-be base thieves, Baseball Prospectus has looked kindly on his overall work. McCann should get another guaranteed one-year deal in the offseason if he wants, but perhaps he’ll decide to call it quits.
- Martin Maldonado, Astros: Maldonado’s defensive skills are well-documented, but whether he hits enough to serve as a regular is debatable. The 33-year-old has batted a less-than-stellar .210/.284/.360 in 319 PA this season, but it does seem likely he’ll get a major league deal over the winter. He turned down two years and $12MM from Houston last offseason before signing with Kansas City for $2.5MM, after all, and was then in demand around this year’s trade deadline. Two teams (the Cubs and then the Astros) swung deals for him last month.
Potentially Useful 30-Somethings:
- Alex Avila, Diamondbacks: A team looking for a capable backup could do a lot worse than Avila. He has been a better-than-average defender two years running, per BP’s FRAA metric, and has yet again performed well with the bat. The walk-heavy lefty has drawn free passes just under 20 percent of the time this season en route to a .223/.377/.488 showing through 151 PA. Avila’s a soon-to-be 33-year-old who has extreme difficulty against same-handed pitchers, so he’s not going to come at a high price.
- Russell Martin, Dodgers: Martin has been one of the premier catchers in baseball for a large portion of his career, which began in 2006, but the 36-year-old’s offensive efficacy is fading. The always patient Martin has gotten on base at a .330 clip this year, though his average is barely above the Mendoza line, his slugging percentage is a point under .300 and his ISO is below .100. At the very least, though, Martin’s a still-useful defender and a well-respected teammate.
- Jonathan Lucroy, Cubs: Lucroy may be able to get a major league contract in the offseason, as he did when the Cubs signed him this month after the Angels released him, but his days as a viable starter are clearly over. Formerly an elite all-around backstop, the 33-year-old falls well short as a hitter and defender nowadays. However, Lucroy’s modest-looking line of .245/.313/368 in 300 PA does amount to an 83 wRC+, which is roughly average relative to his position.
- Matt Wieters, Cardinals: Dubbed “Mauer with Power” during his days as a super-prospect with the Orioles, Wieters has seldom lived up to the hype in the majors. Wieters was a legit starter for a while, granted, but the 33-year-old’s now amid his second straight season as a part-timer. The 33-year-old has been a usable backup at the plate, evidenced by his .219/.272/.439 line and 10 HRs through 169 PA, though his numbers are hardly great (or even good). Wieters’ defensive output – at least by the advanced metrics – has also continued to lag. He has, however, thrown out an eye-popping 44 percent of would-be base-stealers. But Wieters had to settle for a minors deal last winter after a similarly productive 2018, and he may have to do the same during the upcoming winter.
- Welington Castillo, White Sox: This season has been an utter disaster for Castillo, a normally decent hitter who currently owns a .203/.270/.368 line with minus-1.0 fWAR over 200 trips to the plate. Castillo’s technically not a surefire free agent, as the White Sox hold an $8MM club option for him for 2020, but they’ll decline it in favor of a $500K buyout. While Castillo, now 32, secured a two-year, $15MM guarantee last time he reached the open market, a major league contract may not be a lock this time around.
- Francisco Cervelli, Braves: As with Castillo, Cervelli’s a once-successful backstop who’s coming off a sizable contract (three years, $31MM). The Pirates released Cervelli from that deal last week, though he quickly landed on his feet on a majors pact with the Braves. Whether he’ll haul in another guaranteed pact in the offseason is up in the air. After all, the 33-year-old has a long history of concussion issues – a brain injury has shelved him for most of this season – and hasn’t been productive in 2019. Cervelli’s just a .220/.298/.314 hitter with a single HR in 132 trips this year.
- Stephen Vogt, Giants: The switch-hitting Vogt has somewhat quietly been one of the majors’ best comeback stories this season. A two-time All-Star with the Athletics from 2013-17, Vogt missed all of last season with the Brewers because of what looked like career-threatening shoulder problems. He didn’t give up, though, returning to the Bay Area in the offseason on a non-guaranteed deal with the Giants. They brought Vogt up May 1, and all he has done since then is slash .275/.329/.523 with eight homers and a personal-high .249 ISO in 222 PA. Between that and his highly regarded behind-the-scenes presence, the soon-to-be 35-year-old Vogt will draw offseason interest, though a major league deal could be difficult to land.
- Austin Romine, Yankees: Romine has been stuck in the shadow of Gary Sanchez in New York, but he has been a decent offensive backup twice in a row. The 30-year-old has overcome a glacial start this season to post a .268/.290/.408 line in 187 PA, though he has drawn walks at just a 3.2 percent clip. While the FRAA metric graded Romine favorably from 2017-18, he has been a minus in that category this season. Still, whether with the Yankees or another team, the 30-year-old figures to get a guaranteed contract in the winter.
Iffy Option Decisions:
- Yan Gomes, Nationals: Gomes, a former Indian, was in the throes of an abysmal season as recently as mid-July, but he’s starting to heat up. Will it be enough for the Nationals to pick up his option for $9MM and not buy him out for $1MM? We’ll see. The overall line of .219/.325/.342 with six homers in 274 PA obviously isn’t what the Nats had in mind when they acquired Gomes, nor is the mediocre defense he has given them. However, if Washington does turn down the option, it’s doubtful the 32-year-old Gomes will have much trouble finding work in the offseason.