The 2020 season is already winding down, and while more than half the players in baseball are eyeing postseason bids in this year’s expanded format, free agency looms not far beyond. It’s difficult to forecast just how the market will treat free agents in the wake of the sweeping revenue losses throughout the sport. Mookie Betts still got paid like a superstar on his extension, and there’s a general expectation that top-tier talent will still be paid. Many within the sport expect this to be a frigid winter for mid-tier free agents, however, with what is expected to be an aggressive wave of non-tenders only further saturating the market.
Let’s check in on where things stand on a position-by-position basis right now, beginning with this winter’s available catchers. (Players’ age for the 2021 season is listed in parentheses.)
Top of the Class
- J.T. Realmuto (30): As has long been apparent, Realmuto stands alone atop this year’s crop of catchers. He’s been arguably the best all-around catcher in baseball over the past several seasons, and his stock has been elevated to new heights with a .272/.355/.512 slash and 11 homers in 183 plate appearances. He was hobbled by some hip problems recently but is 4-for-12 since returning this week. Realmuto’s bat has been 32 percent better than that of a league-average hitter, per wRC+. Given that the average catcher is 13 percent worse than a league-average hitter by that same measure, his offense is particularly valuable. Realmuto is also a premier defender and even ranks in the 85th percentile of MLB players in average sprint speed, per Statcast. It’d be a surprise if he didn’t command a deal worth well north of $100MM.
Other Everyday Options (based on 2020 playing time)
- James McCann (31): McCann got out to a blistering start in 2019 before his production cratered, but he’s raking again in this year’s shortened slate. Through 107 plate appearances, McCann has batted .274/.336/.495, which brings his White Sox total to .273/.330/.466 with 24 homers in 583 plate appearances. There’s some pretty good fortune on balls in play to consider (.354 BABIP), and he’s still prone to strikeouts, but McCann has emerged as an above-average offensive backstop. His framing numbers are up this year, and he’s maintained a strong caught-stealing rate.
- Yadier Molina (38): The Cardinals icon opened some eyes earlier this year when he said he planned to continue playing whether in St. Louis or elsewhere — a departure from his previous “Cardinals or bust” mentality — but it’s hard to envision him playing anywhere else. He won’t command another $20MM salary, not with a .272/.310/.375 line through 146 plate appearances, but it sounds as though he plans to continue playing.
- Austin Romine (32): After years as a backup in the Bronx, Romine got a shot as the primary catching option in Detroit. The Tigers likely hoped that last year’s .281/.310/.439 slash was pointing to better days ahead at the plate, but Romine’s .238/.260/.317 line in 2020 fell back toward his lackluster career levels. A return to a backup role seems likelier than another starting gig.
- Mike Zunino (30): Zunino has never hit for average and probably strikes out too often to ever do so. However, he also has as much raw power as any catcher in MLB and is considered a premium defender at his position.
- Jason Castro (34): Castro’s massive strikeout rates are the trade-off for his excellent walk rate and his strong defensive skills. After batting .229/.325/.390 in three seasons with the Twins, he’s hitting .194/.310/.389 in 84 plate appearances between the Halos and Padres. Castro has some pop to go along with the OBP and glove, making his low average more tolerable. He’s been relegated to backup duty since being flipped from Anaheim to San Diego, so you could argue he belongs in the next tier of this breakdown, but he’s been a starter everywhere except his brief run with the Friars.
- Alex Avila (34): Avila has been a “three true outcomes” backup for several years, but while the walks and whiffs are still there, he’s lost the most important outcome in 2020. Avila has homered just once in 60 plate appearances with the Twins.
- Drew Butera (37): Butera seems to find his way to the Rockies or Royals every year. The veteran backup has never hit much but has carved out an 11-year MLB career on the strength of his reputation as a receiver.
- Welington Castillo (34): Castillo was looking to rebuild his stock on a minor league deal with the Nats after a dismal two-year White Sox run, but he opted out of the season at the beginning of Summer Camp.
- Francisco Cervelli (35): In a concerning trend, Cervelli missed much of the 2020 season with yet another concussion. It’s the seventh career IL trip due to concussion symptoms for Cervelli and his sixth since 2017. When healthy, Cervelli can hit, frame and throw well, but he’s been on the IL in each of the past five seasons.
- Tyler Flowers (35): Long a premium framer who has mashed lefty pitching, the right-handed-hitting Flowers has seen his production against southpaws evaporate over the past two seasons.
- Bryan Holaday (33): Holaday boasts a career 30.7 percent caught-stealing rate, but his overall track record at the plate is poor. He’s still found his way onto a big league roster each year since 2012, so clubs clearly respect the veteran as a depth/backup option.
- Erik Kratz (41): Kratz keeps landing with the Yankees — three minor league deals in four years — which makes sense as an Eastern Pennsylvania native who still resides near the club’s Scranton affiliate. He’ll be 41 next year, but Kratz is as respected as they come in clubhouses and could get another minors pact if he wants to keep playing.
- Sandy Leon (32): Leon’s huge 2016 season with the Red Sox looks like a clear outlier, as he’s hit .194/.261/.307 in four subsequent campaigns. He’s a quality defender with great caught-stealing and framing marks.
- Jeff Mathis (38): Speaking of great defenders, Mathis has as strong a reputation with the glove as any catcher in MLB. His bat has wilted to near-historic levels over the past couple seasons, but he wants to play in ’21 and is open to a limited role as a backup/mentor with the Rangers.
- Josh Phegley (33): Phegley has nabbed nearly a third of runners who have tried to run against him in his big league career. He struggles to get on base but does have good pop against lefties.
- Rene Rivera (37): Another quality defender with a limited offensive track record, Rivera hasn’t topped 100 plate appearances since the 2017 season. His defensive reputation should land him minor league offers this winter if he wants to keep going.
- Kurt Suzuki (37): Suzuki can still swing it better than your average catcher, slashing .257/.333/.385 in 116 plate appearances. He’s not regarded as a strong defender, and his longstanding issue controlling the running game has persisted in 2020 (5-for-32).
- Matt Wieters (35): Wieters has spent two seasons as a seldom-used backup to iron man Yadier Molina in St. Louis. He’s batted .209/.268/.398 with 11 dingers in 221 plate appearances for the Cards.
Players with Contractual Options
- Robinson Chirinos, $6.5MM club option with $1MM buyout: It’s all but a formality that this will be bought out. Chirinos has received just 30 plate appearances since being traded from the Rangers to the Mets and is sitting on a woeful .169/.241/.251 slash in 2020. He’ll turn 37 next June.
- Roberto Perez, $5.5MM club option with $450K buyout: Perez will be 32 next season and is having a miserable year with the bat, but he’s an all-world defender who ripped 24 home runs in 2019. Perez leads all catchers in Defensive Runs Saved over the past three seasons — it’s not close — and his glove alone arguably makes him worth this sum even if his 2019 offense was a fluke. That’s especially true considering his deal also carries a 2022 option.
- Wilson Ramos, $10MM club option with $1.5MM buyout: Ramos’ second season in Queens has been pedestrian, at best (.241/.301/.376). The Buffalo no longer resembles the force at the plate he once was, and he’s always been more of a bat-first option behind the dish.
- Stephen Vogt: The 35-year-old is actually close to seeing this vesting option kick in — he’d need to appear in each of the team’s final three games — but that seems unlikely. The D-backs have sat Vogt in all but four games this month, and while there’s probably a direct correlation between the drop in playing time and that vesting clause, the team can point to Vogt’s .147/.234/.265 slash as clear justification for sitting him.