Much has been written about how the catcher position has become one of depth in the organization recently and it’s for good reason. Here’s a quick rundown of the highlights:
- Danny Jansen has turned himself into a masher
- Reese McGuire has turned himself into a masher
- Max Pentecost has turned back into a catcher
- Two of the Blue Jays’ first four selections in the 2017 draft were catchers: Hagen Danner (2nd round) and Riley Adams (3rd round)
This is very good news. Catcher is in the conversation for the most important position on the field, and having depth there provides the team with a variety of potential starting and backup options while also giving them some attractive trade assets. The fact that the position is now such a strength for the Blue Jays, however, is quite shocking. Prior to 2017, scouts, front office personnel, and pundits alike would’ve called it a position of weakness for Toronto. But a lot can change when every development at the position is a positive.
Yet, for many, it being a position of strength is largely in contrast to the Blue Jays’ history of poor development at the position. The term ‘Catcher of the Future’ was oft-used throughout both of the teams’ two previous management eras. But now few, if any, are still making an impact anywhere in the majors. This is what brings me caution.
For Reese McGuire, it’s a 15.4% bump in his HR/FB rate that’s pushed his success, with seemingly no other changes. For Max Pentecost, leaving the friendly confines of the designated hitter role for one behind the plate is welcome, but he caught fewer than 20 games at A-Level Dunedin. For Hagen Danner, it’s poor peripherals that have come along with moderate contact success. For Riley Adams, it’s a 6’4 height that’s going to make it very hard to frame the lower part of the strike zone. For Danny Jansen, it’s an inability to add value by framing pitches in the upper minors.
Together, in the long run, the combined depth will likely produce an amicable major league result. In the short term, however, there’s no help immediately coming and there’s a lot of help needed. In his age 34 season, Russell Martin’s bat has held up okay, but injuries have plagued him more and more and that may hurt his already falling framing numbers. In order to combat likely increasing time lost due to injury, the Blue Jays will begin to seriously need a backup capable of handling the starting job for a quarter of the season.
Currently, the Blue Jays have two non-Russell, technically major-league catchers under contract for next season: Luke Maile and Raffy Lopez . Luckily, neither one of them is up for arbitration, because if they were, they’d be non-tendered immediately.
Of the two of them, Raffy Lopez is the better candidate currently. This comes on the back of what is essentially one number: Luke Maile’s TAv of .146, which has resulted in him being worth -7.9 VORP. For Luke Maile to be replacement level, his defense would have to be equivalent to 32 runs as a regular. Granted, his .146 TAv probably isn’t indicative of his true talent, but it also likely isn’t far off. He’s a ground ball hitter who makes a ton of weak contact, strikes out in more than a quarter of his plate appearances, and has only three walks on the season.
In Raffy Lopez, I see a mediocre defender, who has some offensive upside. His 37% current strikeout rate is buoyed by an extremely low swing rate, which should come up as he becomes more comfortable. In contrast to Maile, Raffy has shown a propensity to walk more and hit fly balls. There was a period from 2014 to 2016 where things were not working out for him, but before that he’d hit extremely well for a catcher. If his defense were where his bat is, I’d say that he’d almost be perfect for this job, but there’s always risk in a player who spent time in Indy ball with sub-par receiving and throwing.
Given all that, I’d say that there are two ways to view the upcoming season. Either you call up Danny Jansen half way through next year, which means that you use Martin as much as ever in the first half with Lopez behind him. Or you sign a high quality back up for the full 2018 season. Luckily for the Blue Jays, there are a trio of such players available as free agents this coming off-season.
Kurt Suzuki, Chris Iannetta, and Alex Avila all bumped their fly-ball numbers and saw a dramatic increase in their respective offensive outputs this season. Of the bunch, Iannetta represents the best receiver. He’s been worth about three runs above average on the defensive front, but there’s a tremendous amount of instability there. He’s historically been quite a bad framer, but shot up to 13 runs above average, before falling to 14 below average last year. Meanwhile, Suzuki and Avila have been a couple runs below average over the course of their respective careers, which is tolerable with their ability to hit.
If promised 70 games as a starter, Suzuki or Iannetta might get swayed to come up North for a little extra money. Alex Avila is a more difficult sell, though. He’s been a starter this season, so he will be looking for a team to be able to offer him that same role. He’s played innings at first base, which might be a way to get him the extra innings, not to mention some DH time, but there’s a Kendrys Morales sized blockage there.
The Jays have been gifted with some organizational depth at catcher, but none of them are quite the polished pieces we’d want to bring up to open next year. While options exist both within the organization and in free agency, affirming a successful 2018 at the season will be difficult. The Blue Jays’ in house options are promising, but either far away or with their issues. The free agent options are interesting, but the Jays will be competing with a number of other suitors, some of which may be able to offer a better chance at playoff and World Series baseball. In other words, compared to previous seasons, the Blue Jays are on the right track in the long term at the catcher position, but that track isn’t quite straight heading in to this offseason.
Lead Photo: Dan Hamilton, USA TODAY Sports