The 2022 Replacement-Level Killers: Catcher

Martin Maldonado
Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports

While still focusing upon teams that meet the loose definition of contenders (a .500 record or Playoff Odds of at least 10%), and that have gotten about 0.6 WAR or less thus far — which prorates to 1.0 WAR over a full season — this year I have incorporated our Depth Charts’ rest-of-season WAR projections into the equation for an additional perspective. Sometimes that may suggest that the team will clear the bar by a significant margin, but even so, I’ve included them here because the team’s performance at that spot is worth a look.

As noted previously, some of these situations are more dire than others, particularly when taken in the context of the rest of their roster. I don’t expect every team to go out and track down an upgrade before the August 2 deadline, and in this batch in particular, I don’t get the sense that any of these teams have these positions atop their shopping lists. With catchers, framing and the less-quantifiable aspects of knowing a pitching staff make it easier for teams to talk themselves out of changing things up unless an injury situation has compromised their depth.

All statistics in this article are through July 26, though team won-loss records and Playoff Odds are through July 27.

2022 Replacement-Level Killers: Catcher
Team AVG OBP SLG wRC+ Bat BsR Fld WAR ROS WAR Tot WAR
Cardinals .195 .251 .252 47 -22.2 -3.5 -1.8 -0.8 0.7 -0.1
Astros .166 .235 .312 57 -17.2 -2.3 -4.0 -0.5 0.6 0.1
Guardians .176 .267 .267 55 -17.4 -2.7 2.7 0.1 0.8 0.9
Mets .199 .245 .266 50 -20.3 -3.7 6.4 0.2 0.9 1.1
Red Sox .251 .307 .373 89 -5.0 -8.6 -1.9 0.4 1.1 1.5
Rays .205 .226 .346 63 -15.2 -0.6 0.9 0.4 1.3 1.7
Statistics through July 26. ROS = Rest-of-season WAR, via our Depth Charts.

Cardinals

Yadier Molina may be a future Hall of Famer, but his final major league season hasn’t gone smoothly. The 39-year-old backstop reported late to spring training due to personal reasons, then hit just .213/.225/.294 (46 wRC+) in 138 plate appearances before landing on the injured list with right knee inflammation in mid-June. With the team’s permission, he soon returned to his native Puerto Rico, a move that did not escape the notice of his teammates, who value his presence and leadership even when he’s not able to play up to his previous standards. Molina finally began a rehab assignment on Monday.

In Molina’s absence, the Cardinals have started Andrew Knizner behind the plate 51 times, and he’s reminded them that even by the standards of backup catchers, he leaves something to be desired. The 27-year-old has hit .199/.291/.248 (64 wRC+) and is 5.5 runs below average in our framing metric; his WARs have now been in the red for all four of his major league seasons, with a total of -1.7 in just 443 PA. Baseball Prospectus’ comprehensive defensive metrics put him 5.2 runs below average for his framing, blocking, and throwing as well. His backup, Austin Romine, owns a 47 wRC+ while catching for four teams over the past three seasons; his most notable accomplishment as a Cardinal is in joining Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado among the ranks of unvaccinated players who were unable to travel to Canada for this week’s two-game series against the Blue Jays.

Back in June, St. Louis gave a look to Molina’s heir apparent, Iván Herrera, who entered the season at no. 75 on our Top 100 Prospects list and has hit .295/.385/.432 at Triple-A. The 22-year-old Panamanian has a plus arm and potentially a plus hit tool as well as average raw power; his framing is below average and his receiving average. He was called up to replace Romine for the Toronto series but did not play.

With the trade market not offering a lot of obvious solutions (an intradivision trade for Willson Contreras probably isn’t an option), the Cardinals, who have gone just 24–26 in June and July but are still entrenched in the second Wild Card spot, would probably be better off pairing Molina with Herrera than Knizner or Romine. One possible option is Oakland’s Sean Murphy, who will be arbitration eligible for the first time this winter and who placed 37th on our Trade Value list; he could pair with Herrera for the next year or two and still be dealt while having club control remaining.

Astros

The Astros love them some Martín Maldonado, so much so that he’s on his second go-round with the team and has started 71 times despite hitting an unfathomably low .172/.238/.344 (66 wRC+) in 251 PA. Revered for his game-calling and his handling of young pitchers, he’s nonetheless 1.7 runs below average by our framing numbers en route to zero WAR; by BP’s numbers, he’s 2.8 runs above average for all of his defense, good for 0.2 WARP.

One reason why Maldonado is playing so much is that Jason Castro, who’s also on his second stint with the Astros, hit just .115/.205/.179 in 34 PA before landing on the IL with left knee inflammation, and he apparently isn’t progressing as expected. In his absence, the team has gotten its first look at 2019 first-round pick Korey Lee, who placed 97th on our Top 100 list in the spring but hasn’t blown anyone away with his offensive performance at Triple-A Sugar Land (.226/.285/.419, 69 wRC+). Lee has a 70-grade arm and plus raw power, but his hit tool is suspect (30/35), as is his receiving and blocking due to his low setup.

The Astros are among the teams that has checked in on Contreras, but they could opt for a lower-cost depth piece. If they go that route, one name to keep an eye on is that of Robinson Chirinos, who has hit for just a 47 wRC+ this year with the Orioles but who spent 2019 with the Astros, putting up big numbers (17 HR, 112 wRC+, 2.3 WAR) in helping them reach the World Series.

Guardians

Cleveland is here for the third straight year and second straight with Austin Hedges as the regular, which tells you that the team almost certainly won’t do anything about it. Hedges is hitting .177/.237/.286 for a 48 wRC+, which with his above-average framing (3.1 runs) gets him back to 0.0 WAR by our measures. BP, meanwhile, credits him with 7.9 framing runs (third in the majors), 7.6 defensive runs overall, and a full 1.0 WARP, so it’s fair to say there’s enough difference in the metrics to cast doubt about whether he truly belongs here, even given his lack of offense. On that note, Luke Maile has been a bit more productive (.191/.297/.277, 68 wRC+) in far less playing time (111 PA versus 194 for Hedges) because he walks twice as often and has a higher BABIP, but he’s not on Hedges’ level as a defender.

The team does have a couple of upper-level catching prospects of note. Bryan Lavastida is a 23-year-old converted shortstop who has risen quickly thanks to the strides he’s made defensively and is considered a 45+ FV prospect. He’s a viable receiver who has picked up the mechanics of catching quickly, and at the plate he has average raw power and controls the strike zone well. He hasn’t been able to replicate last year’s breakout at the plate, hitting .225/.320/.372 (88 wRC+) at Triple-A Columbus, and in a brief big league look in April, he went 1-for-12 with three walks.

Meanwhile, 2018 first-round pick Bo Naylor (younger brother of Josh) is a 50 FV prospect who has rebounded from a rough 2021 at Double-A Akron to hit a combined .283/.434/.510 with 10 homers in 220 PA split between Akron and Columbus. The 22-year-old Naylor lacks defensive polish but has plus raw power and is developing so quickly on the offensive side that he might be on a path to becoming a multipositional player who can catch and play third base and an outfield corner. It wouldn’t be a surprise if he or Lavastida gets a longer look from the Guardians down the stretch.

Mets

James McCann has been limited to 30 games due to a fractured hamate and an oblique strain, and he’s struggled when available, hitting .183/.250/.293 (60 wRC+). Tomás Nido has done the bulk of the work with McCann out, starting 54 games and batting .217/.258/.246 (49 wRC+), with Patrick Mazeika serving as his backup, starting 17 times and hitting .169/.197/.288 (38 wRC+). Nido’s defense measures out at 7.6 runs above average via BP, with his framing 3.2 runs above average via our measures.

McCann is expected to begin a rehab assignment on Thursday and to return later next week. Given his contract (he’s in the second year of a four-year, $40.6 million deal), he figures to return to regular duty. The question is whether he’l be joined by Francisco Álvarez, who was seventh on our Top 100 list this spring and thanks to graduations currently tops THE BOARD. Alvarez is just 20 years old but possesses an approach at the plate that’s mature beyond his years as well as plus-plus raw power. While he’s got a strong arm, he’s more of a work in progress behind the plate. After hitting .277/.368/.553 (146 wRC+) with 18 homers in 296 PA at Double-A Binghamton, he’s struggled in his first taste of Triple-A (.118/.333/.265 in 48 PA). Long story short, he’s not ready to help yet, and a trade for Contreras, whom the Mets are reportedly pursuing, seems more likely than his call-up. As fallbacks go, Curt Casali might be an option if the Giants (who have fallen to 48–50 with 22.8% Playoff Odds) sell; he’s been out since July 4 due to an oblique strain but began a rehab assignment with Triple-A Sacramento on Wednesday.

Red Sox

After dipping to a 77 wRC+ and 0.4 WAR last year, Christian Vázquez has rebounded, hitting .277/.323/.431 (108 wRC+), which in Boston’s spotty lineup makes him a decent choice to fill in at first base on days he’s not catching; he’s made four starts there. No longer a framing star, his defensive work is trending closer to average, and his 1.0 WAR ranks 19th among players who have spent more than 50% of their time as catchers.

The Red Sox’s problem here isn’t Vázquez so much as it is his backups, as Kevin Plawecki and Connor Wong have combined for -0.4 WAR at the position. Nearly all of that is on the former, who in 104 PA has hit .187/.286/.264 (58 wRC+), pretty much canceling out the meager gain from Vázquez filling in for the unproductive tandem of Bobby Dalbec and Franchy Cordero at first. The 26-year-old Wong, who’s made just nine trips to the plate this year, projects to provide more offense (.238/.285/.406 via our Depth Charts) and can play solid defense, a combination that at least merits a longer look.

Amid a 2–11 skid and a 6–17 July, the Red Sox have fallen below .500 (49–50), five games out of the third AL Wild Card spot but still with a 22% chance of making the playoffs. Their slide makes it increasingly likely that they’ll be sellers at the deadline. If they go that route, Vázquez, a pending free agent, would have plenty of potential landing spots, as you can see from this list.

Rays

Mike Zunino played in just 36 games this year, hitting .148/.195/.304 before landing on the injured list on June 10 with what was described as left shoulder inflammation. Soon after, he was diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome, and earlier this week, the Rays revealed that he would undergo season-ending surgery to alleviate the condition. He’s not the only Rays catcher who’s injured, either; Francisco Mejía, who has started 42 games and hit .258/.265/.423, landed on the IL this week due to right shoulder impingement.

That leaves 25-year-old rookie René Pinto, who’s started 16 times, and 30-year-old journeyman Christian Bethancourt, who’s started five times since being acquired from Oakland, as the team’s current catching tandem. Pinto, who placed 20th on the team’s prospect list in March, is a 40+ FV prospect who has an above-average arm and average raw power and projects as a bat-first backup. Bethancourt, whose journey has included an experiment as a pitcher and a detour to the KBO, has hit .242/.291/.382 (95 wRC+) with average-ish framing and 0.6 WAR, making him a perfectly cromulent stopgap to pair with Mejia, whom the team hopes will return in two weeks. Still, it wouldn’t be a surprise if the Rays were the team to land Contreras given the depth of their farm system, or Casali given his 2014–17 run in the organization.





Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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EonADS
2 months ago

I just want the Guardians to trade for Sean Murphy. I don’t care about Soto; they’d never sign him anyway. But Murphy and a guy who can play an everyday 1B (pushing Naylor to DH so he can stop putting so much strain on his knee and dropping the ice cold Reyes for a six pack of beer) should absolutely be within their grasp given their prospect capital. They can keep Hedges as a backup if they love his defense that much.

sadtrombonemember
2 months ago
Reply to  EonADS

I am not sure the Guardians are going to be buyers, and if they are it doesn’t seem likely that they’re likely to part with the prospects needed to get Murphy. But it sure does make a lot of sense.

I’m bad with estimating arb numbers but it looks like he’d have just under $50M in surplus value. Assuming that Espino, Logan Allen, and Nolan Jones aren’t involved for various reasons, that leaves Rocchio, Naylor, Valera, and Freeman as possible 50s going back.

I would assume the Guardians would prefer trading Freeman, plus a bunch of other middle below that top tier like Angel Martinez, Jose Tena, and Gabriel Arias rather than Freeman + one of the other 50s. If it’s a package of Freeman plus a bunch of FV 45 infielders, they should absolutely do it because they need to clear out space anyway and they might as well get someone good. If Rocchio, Naylor, or Valera get involved it’s not as obvious what to do.

fjtorres
2 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

If Cleveland is to make a (relatively) big deal, they’re more likely to move Rosario rather than the top young’uns. That way they can move Gimenez to SS where he belongs.

He’s about to get pricey and he is more valuable to the Marlins or even Reds than to Cleveland.

Last edited 2 months ago by fjtorres
fjtorres
2 months ago
Reply to  EonADS

Doubtful they’ll trade for a catcher at this point in the season, with Naylor already in AAA.

If they weren’t satisfied with their catching they would’ve done it in the off-season. They knew exactly what they had and went with it.

The ‘Dians DNA is to trade for bullpen help at the deadline, if anything, and with the way Morgan and Shaw have been blowing up sporadically they need help there. An innings eating lefty arm wouldn’t hurt, given how offten they’re playing Pilkington. Big trades aren’t in the Dolan playbook.

Of course, if they were serious about a run they’d go for Lopez or Castillo to team with Bieber and McKenzie.

Last edited 2 months ago by fjtorres
Left of Centerfield
2 months ago
Reply to  EonADS

Seems like they should trade Franmil Reyes, even if they got next to nothing for him. That opens up DH for Naylor. Nolan Jones moves to first. Then you have several options for Jones´ OF spot – Oscar Gonzalez, Will Benson, Will Bradley. Though the long-term answer is likely Valera.

fjtorres
2 months ago

It has been discussed.
And his (dead cat?) bounce in July means they might get something other than a pizza and a sixpack.

Left of Centerfield
2 months ago
Reply to  fjtorres

Not much of a bounce though. Reyes is hitting .250/.264/.476 with a 2/29 W/K rate in July.

fjtorres
2 months ago

No, not enough to play above Miller or Gonzalez when he returns but it raises his trade value from zero to…something… depending on how optimistic the other team might be. A bargain buy…

Left of Centerfield
2 months ago
Reply to  fjtorres

Problem is that he’s a full time DH which isn’t something most teams want nowadays. They want to rotate players through the position. And even peak Reyes is only a 1.5-2,0 WAR player. Just not much value there.