Kurt Suzuki Returns to the AL West, Now As an Angel

The Angels added some catching depth over the weekend, signing Kurt Suzuki to a one-year contract worth $1.5 million. This will be the 15th season of Suzuki’s career, his longevity the result of an unusually late offensive peak in his mid-30s that has largely compensated for his defensive shortcomings. In 129 plate appearances in 2020, Suzuki hit .270/.349/.396, a respectable triple-slash but also amounting to his lowest wRC+ since 2016, his final season with the Twins.

As I showed through projections last week, the Angels look like they’re in that zone where each additional win or loss has a larger-than-average effect on a team’s playoff destiny. Add in the general desire for a team with a $180 million luxury tax number — more than half from just four players — not to have that payroll go to waste, and you have a formula for being aggressive in adding plausible Plans B to the roster. And really, $1.5 million is just about peanuts, no matter how MLB will suggest otherwise.

For the Angels, their choice of a Plan B catcher is an essential one. Max Stassi, who would likely have gotten the lion’s share of the playing time after Jason Castro’s departure, recently underwent hip surgery for the second consecutive offseason. The timetable for his recovery is right around the start of the 2021 campaign, but even if everything goes smoothly, the Angels are unlikely to give 120 starts to a catcher coming off hip surgery and a limited spring, and who isn’t one of the key offensive talents in the lineup.

Suzuki hit pretty well even in a down season for him offensively, but the defensive hit the Angels take with him behind the plate is real. Measurements for catcher framing tend to be volatile, but we have a large sample size for Suzuki at this point, and he’s managed the impressively unimpressive feat of finishing in the negative for 12 consecutive seasons.

Catcher Framing Trailers, 2008-2020
Name FRM
Ryan Doumit -166
Gerald Laird -106
Kurt Suzuki -101
Chris Iannetta -100
Nick Hundley -89
Carlos Santana -78
Salvador Perez -74
Welington Castillo -74
Carlos Ruiz -70
Dioner Navarro -63
A.J. Ellis -60
John Jaso -51
Lou Marson -51
Robinson Chirinos -48
John Buck -46
Mike Napoli -45
Rob Johnson -44
Jorge Posada -44
Miguel Olivo -44
Koyie Hill -38

It took far more innings for Suzuki to rank that low, so this chart possibly exaggerates the degree to which he’s a problem. But knocking 10 runs a year off your value is significant and is likely why he wasn’t getting any larger contract offers. Suzuki has to punch above his weight with the bat to have a significant role on a team, and 38-year-old catchers are not known for having a particularly optimistic decline phase offensively. Because of that age, both ZiPS and Steamer — I’m speculating in the latter case as I don’t physically run that system — have a relatively narrow gap between Suzuki and Stassi offensively, with both pegging the former at a 94 wRC+ and the latter at 92 (ZiPS) and 88 (Steamer). And while Stassi hit extremely well in 31 games in 2020 (.278/.352/.533), he also hit like a pitcher the year before.

Given this set of facts, I think I much rather have signed Yadier Molina or brought back Castro for another season, even if you had to offer them a more generous timeshare. While the team’s not going to outright confirm it, Los Angeles’ pursuit of Trevor Bauer likely had something to do with the thrifty Suzuki signing. While Castro would not have been particularly expensive, the rumors regarding Molina indicated that he was looking for something along the lines of $10 million per year, and I doubt that James McCann getting a similar annual salary from the Mets will do anything to alter such a calculation.

As noted above, we have the Angels with a luxury tax number at a skosh under $180 million, putting the team about $30 million under the penalty threshold in 2021. We can implore teams to act as if that’s not a salary cap and point to the fact that first-time “offenders” face a modest 12% tax on the amount over that line, and we can remind the Angels that Albert Pujols comes off the books after 2021 and Justin Upton after 2022 and that they shouldn’t continue to waste Mike Trout’s prime. But if they won’t go over the threshold — and new GM Perry Minasian would likely be less tight-lipped if they were — then prioritizing the larger needs does make sense in this context. A Suzuki/Stassi tandem with a sprinkling of Anthony Bemboom currently ranks ninth in baseball in our depth charts, with only a single team having more than a win on the Angels here (the White Sox at 4.4).

Assuming that the luxury tax is being treated as a soft cap and that the Angels are happy with their catching situation, there are more than enough places to spend $30 million with a major impact. They could use another starting pitcher, another reliever, a right fielder more certain in the short-term than Jo Adell, and a better fallback option at first than Pujols if Jared Walsh proves as unimpressive as the projection systems think. If Los Angeles lands Bauer or George Springer, nobody will bemoan the lack of Jason Castro in the lineup.

While the best way for the Angels to improve behind the plate would have been to outbid the Phillies for J.T. Realmuto and start 2021 with a top-two catcher, Suzuki is a fine signing for what the Angels are trying to do. But at some point, Los Angeles is going to have to overcome its recent lack of ambition if it wants to make the Astros or Athletics worry.

Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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1 year ago

The move is to help wait out Stassi’s hip recovery (I’m certain it’ll impact him more than is currently being projected). As shown, it isn’t going to be foolproof, but the Angels were looking for offense to pair with Bemboom.