(This is the second in a series of profiles we’re going to do about potential targets for the Braves this offseason. I previously profiled Patrick Corbin and Bryce Harper.)
Typically, I do a full profile of one player for this series on free agents. But we’re going to shake things up a tad today and I want to thank Ken Hendrix of Knockahoma Nation for giving me this idea.I ‘m going to look at five catchers and try to compare them as the Braves look for an option to go with Tyler Flowers. Ken suggested Yasmani Grandal, Martin Maldonado, and Kurt Suzuki. I’m going to add Wilson Ramos and Jonathan Lucroy to that.
For other free agent profiles, I try to make the best case for and against signing a player. With today’s template, though, I want to rank each option over a variety of categories and try to find the best option for the Braves. But before we get there, let’s give a quick overview and look at the possible contracts for our targets.
2018 Overviews (briefly)
Grandal – He was about to hit free agency at the right time, but a horrendous postseason might affect his market considerably. Over the last three seasons, Grandal has smacked 73 homers with a .799 OPS and is considered one of the game’s top framers. He also leads all catchers in defensive runs saved over the last three years. Of course, you couldn’t convince anyone that his defense is a plus right now considering what’s transpired in the postseason.
Lucroy – Not long ago, Lucroy was considered one of the game’s best combinations of offense and defense from a catcher. But age is a tough thing to overcome for backstops and Lucroy’s offensive numbers have been well-below average the last two years. He remains a solid defender with a good pop time, though his framing numbers have fallen along with his offense. Nevertheless, he did help guide a young Oakland staff this season to surprising results.
Maldonado – One of the game’s better defenders, Maldonado only had a .275 wOBA this season. Of course, that’s pretty common for him after a .279 wOBA the previous season. A full-time starter for just two years, Maldonado has a solid pop time behind the plate and is a gifted framer as well.
Ramos – The former National was trying to finally put all the injury concerns behind him, but still missed time during the season. His year also included a trade to the Phillies, where he got to watch the Braves pull away. One of the better hitting catchers, Ramos posted a .361 wOBA at the plate, matching his career-best number from 2016.
Suzuki – A late season boom helped the Braves catcher avoid a much weaker season. He hit .271/.332/.444 for the year in 388 PA. That remains a big improvement over several seasons before arriving in Atlanta, but not quite up to the level he performed at in 2017. He remains a weaker defensive option than his teammate, Flowers, with nearly as poor pop times and no framing skills to bail him out.
There are two things to keep in mind here as we try to do this. One is the perceived ranking of the five catchers we’re talking about here. I say perceived because I may not actually agree with what the market might think, but the perception will impact salary. The other thing to keep in mind is recent free agent contracts dished out to catchers. Let’s focus on the latter first.
Thanks to Cot’s, I was able to look up several annual average salaries for catchers over the years. With Joe Mauer’s contract coming to a close, Yadier Molina takes over the top spot with an annual average value (or AAV) of $20 million. Up next is Buster Posey with an AAV of $18.6 million. To be fair, all of those contracts were extensions – not free agent contracts. The highest current AAV for a free agent catcher belongs to Brian McCann. Provided Brian McCann’s option is not picked up for 2019, however, Russell Martin would be next with a $16.4 million AAV. I believe that last total should provide a cap on AAV this offseason.
Other recent contracts that paid well for a catcher were Miguel Montero ($12M AAV), Matt Wieters ($10.5M one-year), Jason Castro ($8.17M), and even Suzuki ($6M AAV).
Now, as far as years go, catcher is one of those positions where it’s difficult to foresee many long-term deals. The main reason is that they mostly backfire. The Yankees’ contract to McCann has been considered a bust and the Mauer contract was a huge misstep considering he evolved into a first baseman with little power. Even the Posey deal could be problematic considering how much he broke down this year. Smaller deals like Jason Castro’s $24.5 million over three seasons also can look bad on the surface.
With that in mind, I’m pretty sure we might only see one deal dished out with a three-year promise for a catcher. The other contracts might include a third season, but as a conditional or team option. When you consider both the ages of the catchers we are profiling – all will be 30 or older in 2019 – I can’t see any team promising over than two years for all but one of them.
That one I believe will get at least three years? Grandal. He might be sacrificing a potential guaranteed fourth season with his struggles this postseason, but he’s the best option on the market and ranks very well with the best catchers in the game. And if I were to rank them in terms of what I think they’ll receive – not necessarily who I think is best – here is what their contracts might look like:
Grandal – $48M, 3 years with 4th year option
Ramos – $26M, 2 years with 3rd year option
Maldonado – $14M, 2 years
Suzuki – $6M, 1 year with a 2nd year option
Lucroy – $4M, 1 year
Health – The easiest thing to judge here is the age and relative health of these options. To that, Grandal is the runaway choice. In a little less than a month, he turns 30-years-old. He’s played in at least 125 games four of the last five years and the one year he didn’t, 2015, he still played in 115. The next youngest is Ramos. He turned 31 on August 10. In the same time frame that Grandal has played at least 125 games four times, Ramos has reached that mark twice. His 2016 season came to a close when he tore his ACL right before the playoffs. He made it back in late June of 2017 and was on his way to a healthy season in 2018 before hitting the DL with a hamstring strain. He was traded while hurt, appearing with the Phillies for the first time about two weeks after he was acquired.
Maldonado is the next youngest, celebrating his 32nd birthday just six days after Ramos’s 31st birthday. The last time Maldonado landed on the disabled list was June 26, 2010 for the Nashville Sounds. The bigger concern for Maldonado is work load. Whether it’s coincidence or not, with just two seasons as a full-time catcher, the fact that his bat disappeared completely in the second half is concerning. He’s not much of a hitter regardless, of course. Lucroy seems considerably older than he is, but he was born just two months before Maldonado. He’s been fairly durable, playing in at least 96 games every season since 2011 and passed the 120-game plateau five times in seven years. Suzuki turned 35 on October 4. Like Lucroy and Maldonado, durability was not a concern throughout his career. That said, staying healthy and fresh during your Age-35 season as a catcher is not easy.
Hitting – I’m going to use a three year sample to try to rank our five catchers here. When comparing to league-wide catchers, I used a minimum of 750 plate appearances.
Ramos has the second-best wOBA among catchers since 2016. That might surprise you. His .351 mark is better than Buster Posey, Wilson Contreras, and J.T. Realmuto. No catcher has a better average than his .298 mark. His 48 homers rank seventh and that’s only if you believe Evan Gattis is a catcher while only Gary Sanchez, who bests him in wOBA, has a better wRC+. Granted, many of his contemporaries have played in about a hundred more games, but from a hitting aspect, it’s tough to beat Ramos.
Grandal is next. He doesn’t hit for a high average – only .239 since 2016 – but he supplements it with a high walk rate of 12.1%. Only Salvador Perez has more homers in that time frame among catchers and his .342 wOBA is good for sixth-best – slightly better than Realmuto. Moving on, Suzuki is a step below. Over the last three years – which is weighed down by his before Atlanta numbers – Suzuki ranks ninth among catchers in wOBA with a .334 mark. It might surprise readers to learn that Flowers is slightly ahead. Suzuki’s .186 ISO is tied with Ramos for the 8th-best rate among catchers.
Until the last couple of seasons, Lucroy was among the top-hitting catchers in the game. Now, he ranks 18th in wOBA over the last three season. To put a bow on the idea that long-term deals for catchers rarely work out, the catcher that is just ahead of him is Russell Martin. The next catcher on the list is Brian McCann. Both had contract with an AAV of at least $16.4 million.
As for Maldonado, 33 catchers over the last three seasons have at least 750 PA. Only James McCann and Christian Vazquez have worse wRC+. If you sign Maldonado, you understand that the chances he gives you anything offensively is poor. That said – we probably said that about Flowers when the Braves signed him after the 2015 season.
Defense – There are multiple ways to look at defense. I could probably write an entire article on comparing these five catchers defensively and my two readers that are keeping up with this article would probably still read that. So, to simplify things here, let’s look at how these five catchers ranked last season in pitch framing via Statcorner and Baseball Prospectus, defensive runs saved, pop time (min. 10 attempts at second base), arm strength (in mph), and caught stealing (via the rSB stat. I understand that a three-year sample, like I used with hitting, would be better here. It’s just much more difficult to put that together for defense, though. Also, for pitch framing, it’s easier to set sample sizes for Statcorner, but harder to read where a player finished. That last part is easier for BP, but harder to affect sample sizes.
Pitch-Framing via Statcorner: Grandal (2nd overall), Maldonado (about 13th), Ramos, Lucroy, Suzuki (4th-worst)
Pitch-Framing via BP: Grandal (1st), Maldonado (18th), Ramos (48th), Lucroy (99th), Suzuki (108th of 117)
DRS: Grandal (9th), Maldonado (22nd), Ramos (42nd), Suzuki (47th), Lucroy (54th)
Pop Time: Maldonado (14th), Ramos (21st), Lucroy (27th), Grandal (47th), Suzuki (60th)
Arm: Maldonado (3rd), Ramos (25th), Grandal (41st), Lucroy (42nd), Suzuki (47th)
Caught Stealing: Maldonado (5th), Lucroy (8th), Grandal (23rd), Ramos (40th), Suzuki (49th)
With all of that in mind, I think a proper ranking in defensive ability would be Maldonado, Grandal, Ramos, Lucroy, and Suzuki.
Partner with Flowers – The Braves have already extended Tyler Flowers through the 2019 season so, theoretically, they don’t necessarily need a full-time catcher if they want to platoon. The last two seasons, it’s been more of a time share rather than a strict platoon. The big reason for that was, prior to 2018, Tyler Flowers hit righties just as well as he did lefties while a Brave. While we can assume that Flowers will get back on track against right-hand pitching after struggling badly against them in 2018, it might be better to focus on getting the best option against right-hand pitching the Braves can find.
Let’s go back to our three-year sample with a minimum of 750 PA. Who hit right-hand pitching the best?
This shouldn’t be surprising, but Grandal leads this list. Unlike the other four catchers, Grandal is a switch-hitter and he posted a .348 wOBA against right-hand pitching since 2016. Only Gary Sanchez and J.T. Realmuto have done better among our sample. But in fourth place is Ramos, who holds a .340 wOBA. Lucroy surprisingly ranks eighth at .324 while Suzuki is 10th. Maldonado ranks 17th. Of 19 possible options.
My Two Cents: It comes down to money and fit. The safest option is probably Maldonado. He will be cheap, provide good defense, and has been durable. But is he a great fit? Atlanta could still improve offensively in the outfield and at third base, but Maldonado’s bat is a black hole. It’s the kind of thing an AL team with a DH might be able to deal with a little better than an NL team with a pitcher’s spot already an easy out in the order.
Suzuki and Lucroy both have had their moments, but both are now defensive liabilities. And neither seem like perfect fits for a real platoon with Flowers even though they each have some recent success against right-hand pitching.
So, it comes down to Grandal and Ramos. The latter might be a better hitter, but Grandal is the best combination of offense and defense available on the free agent market. However, there may be one more factor to keep in mind. The Braves will definitely not lose a draft choice for signing Ramos and will get him on a shorter contract in all likelihood. Ramos is not Grandal’s equal defensively, but he’s also better than Suzuki and Lucroy and any other catcher on the market.
Furthermore, Grandal is the most likely option to receive three, possibly four, guaranteed seasons. This can be a dicey proposition for catchers, especially over the age of 30, when Father Time can slap you around pretty hard.
With all of that in mind, I prefer Wilson Ramos. He’s comfortable with the NL East, gives the Braves another dynamic hitter, and I believe he could be had on a two-year contract with a third-year option. There are injury concerns, definitely, but part of the reason I’m not anxious to hand out more than a two-year deal is that you can be worried about injuries with every catcher.
What do you think? Should the Braves just ignore the free agent market and work their magic via a trade for J.T. Realmuto or a better platoon option? Or should they save the prospects for another trade and go after one of these catchers? For that matter, do you think Brian McCann or Matt Weiters makes sense? Spoiler alert: they really don’t.