Brewers general manager Matt Arnold says that the club is looking to improve behind the plate, per Curt Hugg of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. When asked if they were more likely to pursue trades or free agents in that department, Arnold said it’s “hard to handicap.”
The Brewers used a fairly even time split behind the plate in 2022, with Victor Caratini getting 73 starts and Omar Narvaez getting 80. That’s becoming more standard practice around the league, as few teams want to wear down their best catchers by having them crouching behind the plate every day for years and years. Caratini is still on the roster but Narvaez reached free agency at the end of the 2022 season.
The club already made one move to bolster their depth at the position this offseason, acquiring Payton Henry from the Marlins. However, Henry only has 20 MLB games under his belt so far and didn’t play much in the minors this year either due to thumb surgery. He still has options and so it’s fairly sensible for the club to look for a second major league catcher to pair with Caratini and bump Henry down the depth chart and into the minors.
In terms of the free agent market, the top option is now off the board with Willson Contreras agreeing to a deal with the Cardinals for $87.5MM over five years. The Brewers were never really going to be shopping in that aisle, since they’ve been actually trying to trim costs around the edges of their payroll this winter. Their trade of Kolten Wong was a cash-neutral deal, but the Brewers have moved Hunter Renfroe and his projected $11.2MM arbitration salary and let Brent Suter and Brad Boxberger depart for some modest savings. Their payroll for 2023 currently sits at $116MM, per Roster Resource, about $16MM shy of last year’s $132MM Opening Day figure, per Cot’s Baseball Contracts.
The Brewers might want to dedicate some resources to other parts of their roster, such as their outfield or bullpen, but there should be room for a catching addition if that’s their priority. The top free agent remaining is generally considered to be Christian Vazquez, but he seems to have wide interest, having been connected to the Twins, Red Sox, Padres, Diamondbacks, Guardians, Giants and Cubs in recent weeks.
If the Brewers don’t want to go hard on Vazquez, the other options in free agency include bringing back Narvaez, as well as glove-first options like Roberto Perez, Tucker Barnhart and Austin Hedges. There’s also slugger Gary Sanchez, as well as wild card Mike Zunino who missed most of 2022 due to surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome. None of those options would break the bank but they’re also all imperfect in one way or another.
If they opt for the trade route, the most prominent candidates in that department are Sean Murphy of the A’s and Danny Jansen of the Blue Jays. Both are projected for modest arbitration salaries, with Murphy at $3.5MM and Jansen at $3.7MM. The greater cost would likely be what is required to send the other way in a trade. Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch has been writing about the catching market recently and had one executive describe the asking prices in those discussions as high “like the moon.” The A’s apparently asked for outfielder Lars Nootbaar, infielder Brendan Donovan and Gordon Graceffo in their Murphy talks. The Jays also wanted Nootbaar in the Jansen dealings and also discussed Ryan Helsley, per Goold.
Those lunar asking prices were what caused the Cardinals to turn their backs on the trade market and just spend the money required to land Contreras, though there was also the draft pick compensation since Contreras rejected a qualifying offer. The Brewers generally aren’t shy about making deals, having traded away Wong, Renfroe and Josh Hader just in the past few months.
However, meeting Oakland or Toronto on their level would likely require further subtracting from their major league roster or dipping into a farm system that isn’t especially well regarded. FanGraphs currently considers their system to be 16th, with Baseball America placing them 13th and MLB Pipeline 19th. Those are obviously middle-of-the-pack placements, but many of their top prospects seem to be in the club’s plans for 2023.
The Wong trade, for instance, was something they could consider because of the possibility of Brice Turang stepping up and taking over the second base job. Renfroe was perhaps deemed expendable because of outfield prospects like Sal Frelick and Garrett Mitchell. If the club is hoping for those players to step in and help at the major league level in 2023, that will make them reluctant to include them in trades. The system’s top prospect is generally considered to be Jackson Chourio, who is still not close to the majors but generally considered to be pretty close to untouchable since he’s shot up prospect lists and considered to be one of the best youngsters in the world. If that’s how things are viewed within the Milwaukee front office, they might also find it difficult to line up on a deal.