As usual, this winter’s free agent catching market was pretty thin on viable everyday options, but there has been a fair amount of activity in general for teams looking to add new backstops.
Jacob Stallings and Tucker Barnhart were two of the more prominent trade candidates available, and both have already landed elsewhere, as the Pirates dealt Stallings to the Marlins and the Reds sent Barnhart to the Tigers. On the free agent side, Manny Pina and Yan Gomes each respectively found two-year contracts with the Braves and Cubs, while Roberto Perez signed with the Pirates, Pedro Severino signed with the Brewers, and Sandy Leon signed a minor league deal with the Guardians. In addition, Buster Posey’s retirement was the biggest catching story of them all, as the longtime Giants star decided to end his playing career in the wake of an All-Star season.
If the lockout marks the end of the offseason’s first round of catcher musical chairs, let’s look at which teams and free agents still have needs to fill, and which other clubs could step forward with more trade possibilities.
Teams With Catching Needs
- Guardians: As much as Cleveland prioritizes defense over offense from the catcher position, it’s possible the team might stand pat with the combo of Leon and Austin Hedges. Prospects Bo Naylor or Bryan Lavastida also might factor into the picture during the season. But, for a team that needs hitting upgrades in general, catcher is an obvious area for improvement, given how little Hedges and Leon have traditionally offered at the plate.
- Orioles: Superstar prospect Adley Rutschman is slated to make his MLB debut in 2022, and the O’s will certainly slide Rutschman right into everyday work. However, Baltimore doesn’t have a single catcher in the organization with any Major League experience, so some type of veteran help will be required to handle the catching duties until Rutschman arrives, and then work as a backup the rest of the season.
- Angels: Max Stassi is set to start, though the Halos are in need of a backup catcher. Since Stassi is only controlled through 2022, the Angels could surely explore extension talks post-lockout if they feel Stassi is their long-term choice, or they might look to obtain such a controllable backstop now as a hedge against Stassi leaving in free agency.
- Yankees: Gary Sanchez was tendered a contract, so the former All-Star will be given another chance to rediscover himself at the plate, and also take a long-awaited step forward with his glovework. It seems clear by this point, though, that Sanchez is running short on rope with the Yankees, and backup Kyle Higashioka is a fine defender but might be a platoon option at best at the MLB level.
- Rangers: This is something of a speculative addition, as Texas has the defensively-adept duo of Jonah Heim and Jose Trevino on hand, and top prospect Sam Huff is expected to get another crack at the majors after his 2021 season was hampered by knee surgery. Even with all of this depth, the Rangers have already been so aggressive this winter that it wouldn’t be surprising to see them make another bold win-now move for catching help.
- Red Sox: While Christian Vazquez is signed through 2022, Boston has reportedly already started looking ahead to the future, as the Sox made a strong bid to obtain Stallings before the Pirates eventually took the Marlins’ offer. It remains to be seen if the Sox were enamored with Stallings specifically, or if they might be searching in general for another long-term catcher. If the Red Sox did obtain such a catcher who ready to contribute immediately, that could make Vazquez expendable, and thus slide Boston into the next section of…
Teams With Catchers Available (Or Maybe Available)
- Blue Jays: With Gabriel Moreno close to a big league debut, any of Alejandro Kirk, Danny Jansen, or Reese McGuire could be expendable at the right price. McGuire is out of minor league options and might be more of a trade candidate for teams looking for a backup, but Jansen or Kirk could be a starter on another club. Until Moreno actually arrives in the Show, it’s possible the Blue Jays could hold onto all of their catchers, as last year’s injuries to Jansen and Kirk evidenced how quickly depth can evaporate.
- Twins: Like the Jays, Minnesota also entered the winter as a natural trade target for catcher-needy teams, given the presence of both Mitch Garver and Ryan Jeffers. And, also like the Jays’ incumbent starters, Garver spent a big chunk of 2021 on the injured list, so the Twins might prefer to stick with their current duo and Ben Rortvedt at Triple-A. The Twins already removed one depth option from the roster when they released La Tortuga himself, Willians Astudillo, in late November.
- Cubs: Questions have been swirling about Willson Contreras’ future in Wrigleyville ever since he was one of the few veterans remaining after Chicago’s trade deadline fire sale. Contreras is only under control through 2022, and in signing Gomes to a two-year deal, the Cubs may already be signaling that Contreras is still available. The Cubs have a promising minor league backstop in Miguel Amaya, though Amaya will miss a good chunk of the 2022 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery.
- Braves: Atlanta didn’t necessarily have a catching surplus entering the winter, but after signing Pina, the depth chart now sits as Pina and Travis d’Arnaud as the top two backstops on the active roster, and noted prospects Shea Langeliers and William Contreras left waiting at Triple-A. Despite all this depth, d’Arnaud has such a long injury history that the Braves might not be comfortable moving one of their catchers of the future, even though d’Arnaud and Pina are now both on guaranteed deals through 2023. Neither of the veterans is earning enough that they couldn’t themselves perhaps be trade candidates next winter should the Braves want to make room for Langeliers or Contreras.
- Padres: Another team that added to an already deep list of catchers, San Diego picked up Jorge Alfaro from the Marlins in the aftermath of the Stallings trade, putting Alfaro in a mix that already includes Austin Nola, Victor Caratini, and top prospect Luis Campusano. A.J. Preller is familiar with Alfaro from their shared time together in the Rangers organization, so this trade could amount to Preller wanting a closer look at a known quantity during Spring Training, and to see if the Padres could help Alfaro get his big league career on track. Assuming Alfaro isn’t cut loose at a fraction of his arbitration salary prior to Opening Day, another trade involving Nola, Caratini, or (maybe most likely?) Campusano can’t be ruled out, given Preller’s track record for major swaps.
- Royals: Last March, Salvador Perez was locked up to an $82MM contract extension that will keep the longtime catcher in K.C. through at least the 2025 season. Prospect MJ Melendez roared back into top-100 prospect lists after posting big numbers at both Double-A and Triple-A in 2021, and the 23-year-old Melendez seems like he is just about ready for the majors. With Perez blocking Melendez’s way, the Royals have a very intriguing trade chip on their hands.
- Athletics: Sean Murphy is under team control through the 2025 season, and yet for an A’s team looking to cut payroll, they are even reportedly open to moving a player that seems like a building block. Hypothetically, the A’s could look to trade Murphy as part of a larger deal, such as if another team also agreed to take an unfavorable contract (Elvis Andrus? Stephen Piscotty?) off of Oakland’s books. The Athletics have several other high-profile players who are both more expensive and much closer to free agency than Murphy, so while he is surely far from the top of Oakland’s list of players it would want to trade, the possibility of a move is certainly higher than zero. The A’s could certainly ask for a lot more than Pittsburgh got for Stallings, for instance, since Murphy is almost five years younger, a better hitter, and he comes with an extra year of control.
- Robinson Chirinos, Kurt Suzuki, Austin Romine, Wilson Ramos, Grayson Greiner, Austin Wynns, Chance Sisco, Jeff Mathis
This group is generally long on experience but short on recent success, as Chirinos’ 108 wRC+ ( from a .227/.324/.454 slash line in 112 PA with the Cubs) was far and away the best of a group that otherwise posted sub-replacement level hitting numbers. Also, Ramos’ recovery timeline is unclear after undergoing a third ACL surgery, and Mathis didn’t play in the majors or minors after being outrighted off the Braves’ roster back in May, so the 17-year veteran might be on the verge of retirement.
Chirinos probably offers the most upside for a team looking for a true regular or platoon candidate, considering his above-average .232/.327/.438 slash line and 90 home runs over 2147 PA since the start of the 2014 season. While Chirinos hasn’t been known for his glovework, he’d make a lot of sense for a team like the Guardians, with Hedges providing a defensive complement.
There is always a fair amount of fluidity in the catching market, as teams are forever tinkering with adding veterans as minor league depth options. As such, we’ll probably see most or all of the available free agents catch on somewhere during Spring Training, and the deck could certainly be shuffled based on a major injury to a catcher whose team isn’t listed here, or if any further trades open up other roster holes. If the Athletics did deal Murphy, for instance, that could send them pivoting towards adding a low-cost veteran to pair with Austin Allen. Or, speculatively, the A’s perhaps explore some trade possibilities with the Royals involving Melendez in order to replace Murphy with another highly-touted young backstop, since Oakland prospect Tyler Soderstrom is at least a couple of years away and might not be a long-term fit to remain at catcher.
It makes for an interesting set of storylines to watch once the transactions freeze ends and teams can once again start plotting their next moves for the catcher position, whether it be one of the clubs mentioned in these lists or perhaps a dark-horse team that was seemingly set behind the plate.