Rangers Add Blocker, Unblock Pirates’ Prospects

Austin Hedges
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

There are 2,841 players who have received at least 2,000 major-league plate appearances in baseball history. Only 13 of them — including two Hall-of-Fame pitchers, Cy Young and Warren Spahn — have had a lower wRC+ than Austin Hedges. This year, he’s turned in one of his worst lines yet, a .180/.237/.230 slash good for a 28 wRC+. So what do the first-place Rangers want with him?

There are 473 players have appeared at catcher since the advent of Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) in 2003. Only four — Yadier Molina, Russell Martin, Buster Posey, and Jeff Mathis — have a higher DRS than Hedges. This year, he’s tied for fifth among backstops in DRS and tops in our framing runs metric.

Thus far, the Rangers have the majors’ second-best offense by wRC+ with a 120 mark. Their defense hasn’t been shabby — they’re tied for fifth in DRS — but I suppose it’s more in need of an upgrade than their offense. Then again, it’s not as if the Rangers had much of a choice: aside from Alex Jackson and Korey Lee, who have all of 211 major league plate appearances between them, no other backstops were traded this deadline. And Texas needs a known commodity to serve as depth behind the plate right now; incumbent Jonah Heim was placed on the IL Friday, destabilizing the position.

The Rangers have a pair of in-house catching options in Mitch Garver and Sam Huff. But the former has typically been below average defensively, with a -18 DRS in his career, and he’s only started 28 games behind the plate with Texas since coming over from the Twins prior to the 2022 season. Huff is similarly bat-first, with a -3 DRS in limited major-league action. Both he and Garver have a career wRC+ north of 100, and adding offense always has a cumulative effect, but the Rangers’ emphasis in this deadline has been on pitching, and Hedges has routinely graded out as one of the best defensive catchers and framers in the league. He’ll pair nicely with Max Scherzer, Jordan Montgomery, and Aroldis Chapman to round out Texas’ trade haul. Beyond the glove-first profile, Hedges’ cheap price (just some international bonus money) likely drew the Rangers to him over other options.

Speaking of his profile, the other reason to add Hedges is for the stretch run. The Rangers already have “bat-first catching option” checked off their postseason wishlist; they don’t have enticing options for the glove-first side of a catching timeshare yet. Heim checked both boxes this year, but if he can’t tolerate the pain from his wrist tendon strain after a few weeks of rest, he’s likely headed under the knife and out for the playoffs.

Let’s consider some scenarios. In the very least, Hedges provides insurance in the event that Heim remains injured and one of Garver/Huff finds himself on the shelf as well; the former has been especially injury-prone in recent years. If Heim can’t play in October but both Huff and Garver are available, I’m not even sure the latter two would be the best catching tandem; they’d both be options to pinch-hit on days when they aren’t starting, but Hedges would be a clear upgrade as a late-game replacement in order to safeguard a lead.

If Heim can return at 100%, even with his defensive acumen, Hedges would still be a late-game upgrade behind the plate. If Heim can play but not at full health, Hedges would be the ideal candidate to give him some rest late in games. In any event, the Rangers would also probably roster Garver to use at DH and occasionally start at catcher; he’s hit to a 128 wRC+ there in his career compared to just a 91 mark as a DH and a 68 (albeit in a small sample) as a pinch-hitter thanks to the DH/pinch-hitter penalty. On days when Garver starts, Hedges would again represent a clear late-inning improvement.

Whatever happens, especially after upgrading their rotation, the Rangers were a pretty complete team heading into deadline day, and their remaining moves were bound to be aimed at improvements around the margins. This one accomplishes just that.

As for the Pirates’ side of the deal, as their hot start to the season cooled off, they reverted back into rebuild-mode and began selling off their rentals. With Carlos Santana, Ji Man Choi, and Rich Hill already gone, it was only a matter of time before their last tradeable free-agent-to-be in Hedges departed the Steel City as well; their only remaining rentals are the popular Andrew McCutchen and the injured Vince Velasquez.

For Hedges, Pittsburgh was only able to secure some extra international bonus space, but he wasn’t doing the flagging team any favors beyond serving as a veteran presence, a role which McCutchen should be able to manage in his stead. In fact, Hedges was actively blocking talented youngsters Endy Rodríguez and Henry Davis behind the plate; Davis in particular has been forced to take most of his major league reps in right field. While Hedges may have helped a young pitching staff develop, they’ll get more chances to pair with the catchers they came up throwing to. All in all, this was a win-win deal.





Alex is a FanGraphs contributor. His work has also appeared at Pinstripe Alley, Pitcher List, and Sports Info Solutions. He is especially interested in how and why players make decisions, something he struggles with in daily life. You can find him on Twitter @Mind_OverBatter.

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Ivan_Grushenkomember
9 months ago

Hedges gives rise to the question whether the Rangers are allowed to let the pitcher bat and DH for the catcher

tz
9 months ago
Reply to  Ivan_Grushenko

I was already stoked for the possibility of a Scherzer/Verlander showdown when the Rangers and Astros meet next. It would even be cooler if they got to hit as well, with Hedges and Maldonado working behind the plate 🙂

Doug Lampertmember
9 months ago
Reply to  Ivan_Grushenko

Sadly, you can only DH for the pitcher. It’s always struck me as a senseless restriction, but it’s in the rules.