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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November 10, 2011

Offseason shopping on a budget: Catchers

Joe Mauer's days as a full-time catcher may be over and current backup Drew Butera is one of the worst hitters in the history of baseball, which means the Twins should be in the market for help behind the plate this winter. Below are 15 free agents and possible trade targets who realistically figure to be on their catching radar along with my thoughts about how much sense it would make for the Twins to pursue each of them.

Ryan Doumit: His defense grades out horribly in every category behind the plate, but Doumit has plenty of catching experience in addition to playing right field and first base. His bat is the real asset, with a .271/.334/.442 career line and .303/.353/.477 mark this year. By comparison Michael Cuddyer has a .272/.343/.451 career line and .284/.346/.469 mark this year. Doumit has flaws, but a younger, switch-hitting poor man's Cuddyer who can catch is plenty useful.

Ryan Hanigan: With top prospect Devin Mesoraco looking MLB-ready the Reds may be willing to deal Hanigan, who's been stuck in a backup role. Hanigan is 31 years old with minimal pop, but among all catchers over the past five years his .371 on-base percentage trails only Mauer at .405. He's also hit .275 with more walks (116) than strikeouts (95) while throwing out 36 percent of steal attempts and is signed for just $1.2 million in 2012 and $2.1 million in 2013.

Ramon Hernandez: Hernandez is a free agent and coming off one of his best years at age 35, hitting .282/.341/.446 in 91 games for the Reds. He's a career .266/.330/.419 hitter, topping a .700 OPS in eight of the past nine years, and gunned down 36 percent of steal attempts since 2009. He hasn't played 100 games since 2008, but as a right-handed hitter presumably open to a one-year deal and a part-time role Hernandez would be a good fit for the Twins.

Chris Iannetta: Iannetta hasn't lived up to the promise he showed in 2008, falling out of favor in Colorado at age 28, yet despite a .235 career batting average his .788 OPS is ninth among active catchers. Coors Field inflates offense and away from home he's hit just .208/.338/.369, but that's still above average for catchers and the Coors effect tends to hurt Rockies hitters on the road. Signed for two more seasons and a total of $8.5 million, he'd be an affordable risk.

Chris Snyder: Snyder has long been a starting-caliber catcher, but missed most of this season following back surgery before the Pirates declined his $6.75 million option for 2012. Obviously back problems are bad news for catchers, but Snyder is still reasonably young at 31 and offers 15-homer power along with good plate discipline and a solid arm. His batting average won't be pretty, but if healthy Snyder can be an above-average hitter for the position.

Jesus Flores: Thanks to the Twins trading them Wilson Ramos the Nationals are set behind the plate, so they'll shop Flores now that he's healthy after missing two years with shoulder problems. He's a big question mark, but Flores is still just 27 years old, showed promise before the injury, and has played well in winter ball. If the Twins want a reliable veteran backup he's not the answer, but if they're looking for a younger catcher with some upside he's flier worthy.

Yorvit Torrealba: Texas gave Torrealba a two-year deal to be a starter and he filled that role for much of this season, but Mike Napoli's emergence benched him for the playoffs and could make him available via trade. Torrealba has never had a huge season, but he's topped a .700 OPS in three straight years with a .260/.318/.390 career line that's average for catchers. As a right-handed hitter and solid defender he'd be worth the one-year, $3.25 million commitment.

Kelly Shoppach: When pressed into extended duty Shoppach has struggled to hit above .200, but if limited to a platoon role versus left-handed pitching he's capable of being very effective. Shoppach has been useless against righties during the past three seasons, hitting just .156, but he's hit .262/.372/.488 off lefties. With the Rays declining his $3.2 million option the Twins would do well to pair Shoppach with Mauer.

Ramon Castro: An ideal backup/platoon partner for Mauer if not for the fact that he's 35 years old and missed the second half with a fractured right hand. Castro has never had a chance to start regularly, but he's been a top backup for a decade and hit .261/.336/.552 versus lefties over the past three seasons. If healthy he'd be a fine one-year, $1 million investment, but the age/injury combination is scary and Castro would be overmatched if pushed into a bigger role.

Miguel Olivo: Joe Christensen of the Minneapolis Star Tribune has mentioned Olivo a few times to make me think the 33-year-old free agent is on the Twins' radar. Olivo has 20-homer power, but he's also MLB's most undisciplined hitter, posting a putrid .279 career on-base percentage. That includes this year's 140/20 K/BB ratio and .254 OBP, which prior to 2011 was the lowest by a qualified hitter since 1989. And he's led the league in passed balls four times in six years.

Rod Barajas: Barajas is similar to Olivo in that he's a veteran with 20-homer pop whose awful on-base skills drag his value down. He had 16 homers in 98 games for the Dodgers, but also hit just .230 with a .287 on-base percentage. Barajas played this season on a one-year, $3.25 million contract and a similar deal wouldn't be the worst investment for the Twins, but at age 36 and with a .231/.275/.424 line over the past three seasons they can do better.

Ivan Rodriguez: He's one of the greatest catchers of all time and can still shut down a running game, but Rodriguez hasn't cracked a .300 on-base percentage or .700 OPS since 2008 and is so old that the Twins drafted his son, high school outfielder Dereck Rodriguez, with this year's sixth-round pick. Combined over the past three seasons Rodriguez has hit .252/.286/.360 for a .646 OPS that ranks sixth-worst among all players with at least 1,000 plate appearances.

Jason Varitek: He has more pop left in his bat than Rodriguez, but that isn't saying much and Varitek has become a major defensive liability at age 39. He's hit .216/.306/.414 over the past three seasons, which is around average for a catcher if it didn't come with a throw-out rate of 15 percent and age-related durability issues. For some teams Varitek, like Rodriguez, wouldn't be the worst choice as a cheap one-year backup, but he's not what the Twins should look for.

Jorge Posada: One of the most underrated players of his generation, but unfortunately at this stage of his career Posada is more designated hitter than catcher/designated hitter. He made zero starts behind the plate in 2011, which along with a late-career inability to hit left-handed pitching makes Posada a poor fit for the Twins, but it's worth noting that he hit .269/.348/.466 versus right-handers this season.

A.J. Pierzynski: It's tough to imagine the Twins being interested in a reunion with Pierzynski, but he's under contract for $6 million in 2012 and figures to be available as the White Sox turn to Tyler Flowers behind the plate. At age 34 he struggles to throw out runners and has never hit left-handed pitching particularly well, but Pierzynski remains durable and productive versus right-handers. Under different circumstances he might be a fit, but in reality don't count on it.