Fresh off his second World Series title, long-time Red Sox catcher Christian Vazquez is a free agent for the first time in his career. With Willson Contreras inking a five-year, $87.MM deal with the Cardinals, Vazquez is arguably the top free agent catcher left on the board, rivaled by Sean Murphy in the trade market. This position has left Vazquez with a lengthy list of suitors, including the Twins, Padres, D-Backs, Guardians, Diamondbacks, and Giants.
Vazquez, a career .261/.310/.386 hitter, had a two-sided 2022 season. In Boston, the righty hit .282/.327/.432 with eight homers and 20 doubles. However, after being traded to Houston, Vazquez struggled, hitting a weaker .250/.278/.308 while splitting time with Martin Maldonado. Nevertheless, from 2019-2022, the backstop hit a solid .271/.318/416 (95 wRC+). Additionally, Vazquez has been solid behind the plate, having thrown out 34% of runners since his debut in 2014, ranking in the 71st percentile pop time to second base during the 2022 season, and has drawn plus framing marks from publicly available metrics via Statcast, FanGraphs, and Baseball Prospectus. With this solid season and a strong overall career, MLBTR predicts that Vazquez will earn a contract in the three years, $27MM range.
As for Vazquez’s free agent preferences, the 32-year-old has told reporters that a starting role and contending are at the forefront when determining his next home. With those two factors in mind, along with his strong history, here are some potential landing spots for the veteran.
Beginning with one of the more active teams during this year’s free agent period: the Padres. San Diego primarily relied on a tandem of Austin Nola and Jorge Alfaro in 2022, with Friars’ backstops hitting a combined .249/.303/.350 with a middle-of-the-pack wRC+ (88). With the Padres opting to non-tender Alfaro, the club is currently projected to start the 2023 season with Nola and Luis Campusano behind the dish. Neither player should necessarily be a roadblock to surveying the market for a team as aggressively motivated to win now as San Diego.
More importantly, the Padres have not been afraid to open their wallet, most recently signing former Red Sox teammate Xander Bogaerts to a colossal 11-year, $280MM deal. San Diego also offered Aaron Judge $400MM and Trea Turner $342MM, before the two players signed with other clubs. A win-now team searching for a catching upgrade, the Padres appear a logical candidate to pique Vazquez’s interest while simultaneously outbidding competitors.
Cleveland is another potential landing spot for the veteran, with Austin Hedges reaching free agency and leaving the unproven Bryan Lavastida and Bo Naylor as the only backstops on the 40-man roster. Naylor is a highly-regarded prospect, but turning everyday reps behind the dish over to a 23-year-old could be too risky for a team looking to defend their AL Central title. The Guardians posted the second-lowest combined wRC+ for catchers last season (55), utilizing a soft-hitting duo of Austin Hedges and Luke Maile, although Hedges is regarded highly for his defensive work. Vazquez’s addition would improve offensive output while maintaining a high defensive level for the club.
The Guardians have already made one significant free agent addition this offseason, signing Josh Bell to a two-year, $33MM deal with an opt-out after the first season. The team also made an offer for first baseman Jose Abreu, but couldn’t reach the $60MM threshold that the Astros closed in on. A team known for their low budget, the Guardians are also heavily involved in the Murphy trade market but will likely remain a player for Vazquez’s services if his price is not out of their comfort zone.
A third potential (wildcard) team for the backstop is a former AL East rival, the Tampa Bay Rays. Tampa Bay primarily relied on Francisco Mejia, who was widely considered one of baseball’s top minor leaguers, ranked as high as fifth in Baseball Prospectus’ top-100 prospect ranking prior to the 2018 season, during the 2022 season. However, after a solid 2021 season (.260/.322/.417), Mejia struggled in 2022, hitting a meager .242/.264/.381. Poor performance and injuries led Tampa Bay to acquire Christian Bethancourt from Oakland in early July. Bethancourt would perform marginally better, hitting .255/.265/.436 in 151 plate appearances with the Rays.
As a team, Rays’ catchers hit a combined .224/.248/.373 with a below-average wRC+ (78). Vazquez represents an offensive upgrade to these two players, albeit with a higher price point than both Bethancourt and Mejia, who are both on their rookie deals. Nevertheless, Mejia still has one MiLB option remaining, and Vazquez and Bethancourt have experience, although limited, in the field with Bethancourt playing 249 innings at first base during the 2022 season. Admittedly, this landing spot is the least likely of the three.
While the Padres and Guardians present more logical landing spots for Vazquez, competitive teams, like the Rays, may look to shuffle their roster to add a proven veteran backstop talent. Minnesota recently offered Vazquez a contract, and there are sure to be many teams involved in free agent discussions with the catcher as the offseason continues.