November 9, 2015

Examining the Twins’ free agent options: Catchers

Kurt Suzuki signed a one-year, $3 million deal with the Twins two winters ago and then parlayed a good first half into a two-year, $12 million extension six months later only to resume being the same terrible hitter from 2010-2013. He ranked 24th among 28 regular catchers with a .610 OPS and posted poor pitch-framing numbers while throwing out 15 percent of steal attempts, which is why the Twins are in the market for catching help despite owing him $6 million in 2016.

Catching is always difficult to find and overpriced on the open market and aside from headliner Matt Wieters there aren't many appealing free agent options this offseason. Suzuki being under contract for much more than a typical backup's price tags means the Twins will likely be looking for a veteran to split time with him behind the plate and there are a handful of free agents who fit that bill depending on which flaws they're willing to overlook.

Matt Wieters headshotMatt Wieters: Coming out of college Wieters was billed as "Joe Mauer with power," but he's been merely a good regular. He does have power, averaging 20 homers per 150 games, but Wieters has hit just .258 with a .320 on-base percentage while cracking an .800 OPS once in seven seasons. He missed most of 2014 and the first two months of 2015 following Tommy John elbow surgery, but looked like his usual self in the second half while hitting .267/.319/.422 and throwing out 31 percent of steal attempts. Wieters is clearly the best free agent catcher, but through age 29 he's been good rather than great and would cost a first-round draft pick in addition to what will no doubt be a huge contract.

Jarrod Saltalamacchia: One of the Twins' pre-Suzuki free agent targets two offseasons ago, Saltalamacchia signed a three-year, $21 million deal with the Marlins and then got released a month into the second year. He latched on with the Diamondbacks and hit like he did from 2011-2013 with the Red Sox, batting .251/.332/.474 in 70 games. He has 20-homer pop and draws walks, which is enough to make him an upper-level catcher offensively with a .744 OPS during the past five years, but Saltalamacchia's defensive reputation and numbers are horrendous. As a 31-year-old switch-hitter who can't really hit lefties he'd fit reasonably well in a platoon with Suzuki.

A.J. Pierzynski headshotA.J. Pierzynski: Two years ago Pierzynski bypassed a Twins reunion to sign with the Red Sox and Boston released him in July. He bounced back well with the Braves this season, hitting .300 with nine homers and a .769 OPS in 113 games. Not much has changed about Pierzysnki's game in a decade away from Minnesota. He still swings at everything, rarely walking or striking out, and still can't run or throw. And he's still an above-average catcher. The danger is that if his contact skills decline at age 39 and his batting average dips there isn't much else to prop up his value. He's walking a thin line between useful regular (2015) and out-machine (2014), but his lefty bat would fit in a platoon with Suzuki.

Chris Iannetta: He's coming off a miserable season in which he hit .188 in 92 games, but Iannetta still managed a higher OPS than Suzuki thanks to 10 home runs and 41 walks. Despite being a career .231 hitter he's been above average offensively for a catcher in six of his eight full seasons. He has decent power and draws tons of walks, posting a .342 on-base percentage in four years with the Angels to rank sixth among catchers since 2012. Iannetta is a bounceback candidate at age 33, but a low-average, walk-heavy catcher with a mediocre arm and durability issues seems unlikely to catch the Twins' eye and as a right-handed hitter a platoon with Suzuki wouldn't make sense.

Dioner Navarro headshotDioner Navarro: He's played 11 seasons and been an above-average hitter in just three of them, but Navarro carries more name recognition than a typical journeyman catcher thanks to debuting with the Yankees as a 20-year-old top prospect in 2004. He was Toroto's starter in 2014 before being pushed aside for Russell Martin this year and hit .246/.307/.374 in a part-time role to nearly match his .255/.313/.375 career mark. Those are decent enough numbers for a catcher, but as a switch-hitter who fares better from the right side of the plate Navarro would be a poor fit platooning with Suzuki and their offensive skill sets are somewhat similar in general.

Alex Avila: Once upon a time Avila looked like a long-term building block for the Tigers, making the All-Star team in 2011 at age 24, but knee problems and multiple concussions derailed his career. He's still only 28 years old, but Avila moves like he's 50 and has hit just .216/.326/.351 in 293 games during the past three seasons. He was limited to 67 games in 2015 and parted ways with the Tigers despite his dad Al Avila taking over as Detroit's general manager. Avila has excellent plate discipline and decent power with a strong reputation defensively, but he's hit above .250 once in six years and may simply be worn out physically. As a left-handed hitter he could platoon with Suzuki.

Brayan Pena headshotBrayan Pena: After bouncing around for a decade without getting even 250 plate appearances in a season Pena signed with the Reds and topped 350 plate appearances in both 2014 and 2015. His production didn't improve any, as Pena hit .263/.313/.339 with five homers in 223 games as a regular. Pena's best skill is rarely striking out, which enables him to hit for a decent batting average, but he has very little power and swings at everything. He struggled to control the running game this season at age 33, but has a decent throw-out rate for his career. As a switch-hitter who fares better versus right-handers platooning with Suzuki makes sense, but Pena's career OPS off righties is a modest .684.

Geovany Soto headshotGeovany Soto: As a 25-year-old for the Cubs in 2008 he hit .285/.364/.504 with 23 homers on the way to Rookie of the Year honors, but Soto has hit just .231/.321/.411 in seven seasons since then and was last a starter in 2012. At age 32 he has good power, draws a fair amount of walks, and can throw out runners, but he struggles against right-handers and strikes out a lot if pressed into regular action. This season for the White Sox he hit .219/.301/.406 in 78 games splitting time with Tyler Flowers. Soto fits best as a part-time player starting a couple times per week against left-handed pitching, which is more or less true of Suzuki as well.

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December 5, 2013

Twins Notes: Morneau, Nathan, Kazmir, Pierzynski, and Saltalamacchia

joe nathan and justin morneau twins

Justin Morneau is joining Michael Cuddyer and LaTroy Hawkins in Colorado, agreeing to a two-year, $13 million deal with the Rockies. Morneau is smart to try to resurrect his career in the majors' most hitter-friendly ballpark and calling Coors Field home for half his games should lead to decent-looking raw numbers even if he doesn't actually improve any, but that's a whole lot more money than I'd feel comfortable investing in him at this point.

Joe Nathan is coming back to the AL Central, signing a two-year, $20 million contract with the Tigers that also includes a team option for 2016, when he'll be 41 years old. Nathan was brilliant in two years with the Rangers, saving 80 games with a 2.09 ERA, 10.5 strikeouts per nine innings, and a .198 opponents' batting average, and then shrewdly declined his $9 million player option for 2014 knowing that he could get a multi-year deal for similar annual money on the open market.

Scott Kazmir signed a two-year, $22 million contract with the A's, which is interesting within the context of Phil Hughes' three-year, $24 million contract with the Twins. Both signings seem reasonable to me, but as noted last month in my breakdown of free agent starters I think Kazmir has more upside than Hughes. Kazmir is perhaps also at considerably higher risk to provide zero value at some point, but there's only so much that can go wrong during a two-year commitment.

• There was quite a bit of buzz linking the Twins to free agents Jarrod Saltalamacchia and A.J. Pierzynski, but now both catchers are off the board. Pierzynski signed a one-year, $8 million deal with the Red Sox and it sounds like he passed up multi-year offers to join the defending champs. Saltalamacchia got a three-year, $21 million deal from the Marlins, which is pretty reasonable and suggests he really wanted to play in Miami and/or the Twins' reported interest was overstated.

• As expected the Twins tendered contracts to all of their arbitration-eligible players: Anthony Swarzak, Trevor Plouffe, and Brian Duensing. All three are due for raises to around $1.5 million, so there were no monetary reasons to let any of them go. Last month the Twins parted ways with another arbitration-eligible player, Josh Roenicke, because they didn't think he was worth that type of money for a low-leverage middle relief role.

Caleb Thielbar, Andrew Albers, and Chris Colabello worked out well, so the Twins dipped back into independent ball to sign right-hander Jon Velasquez. He spent a couple seasons in the Phillies' farm system before moving on to the Canadian-American Association (where Colabello was MVP) and Atlantic League. Velasquez's track record was nothing special as a starter, but in shifting to the bullpen this year at age 27 he threw 74 innings with a 1.95 ERA and 82 strikeouts.

• They also signed career minor leaguers Brandon Waring, Chris Rahl, and Matt Hoffman to minor-league deals. Waring is a 27-year-old corner infielder with lots of power and strikeouts who hit .214/.317/.449 with 25 homers and 148 strikeouts in 109 games this year. Hoffman is a lefty reliever with just 117 strikeouts in 148 innings at Triple-A. Rahl is a 30-year-old outfielder who's hit .292/.328/.445 at Triple-A. Depth for Rochester, mostly.

Ron Coomer, who does television work for FOX Sports North during Twins games and co-hosts a daily radio show on K-TWIN, is one of two finalists for the Cubs' radio analyst gig.

Adam Platt interviewed Twins owner Jim Pohlad for Twin Cities Business magazine.

This week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode might be the most baseball-focused show we've ever done, with an hour of non-stop talk about the Hughes and Ricky Nolasco signings.

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