With Manny Piña Signed, the Thin Catching Market Withers Further

On Monday, the Braves announced the signing of a backup backstop, adding catcher Manny Piña on two-year, $8 million contact. Also included in the agreement is a club option for 2024 valued at $4 million that comes without a buyout. Piña will slide in behind Travis d’Arnaud — who is also signed through 2023 — on Atlanta’s depth chart.

On the surface, the move is a relatively minor one. Piña, the Brewers’ longest-tenured player at the time of his departure, appeared in 75 games last season, making just 52 starts behind the dish as the backup to Omar Narváez. In that time, he was relatively productive, slashing .189/.293/.439 in 208 plate appearances, good for a 95 wRC+. He was also quite solid behind the plate, throwing out 30% of attempted base stealers, notably above the league-average of 25%. This is not a new trait, either: Piña has boasted an above-average ability to control the running game throughout his career, with a 35% caught-stealing rate. He’s also a solid framer, with his numbers really taking a step forward in recent seasons. Since 2019, Piña has been worth +11.6 framing runs above-average, ranking ninth in baseball despite not even catching 1,000 innings in that time. (Tyler Flowers is the only other catcher in the top 10 with fewer than 1,000 innings caught.)

So, yes, there’s not too much to this agreement. Piña is a perfectly capable backup catcher, the sort of below-average hitter and solid defender teams often roster in that role. But the fact that Piña’s 1.5 WAR in 2021 ranked second among all free agent catchers is sort of astounding, and a testament to the scant options available behind the plate. With Piña off the board, this is what remains of the free agent catchers, via our RosterResource Free Agent Tracker:

Remaining Free Agent Catchers
Name 2021 Team Age 2021 WAR Projected WAR
Yan Gomes OAK 34 1.6 1.5
Robinson Chirinos CHC 38 0.5 0.2
Luke Maile MIL 31 0.3 0.2
Stephen Vogt ATL 37 0.1 0.6
Pedro Severino BAL 28 -0.1 0.3
Tony Wolters CHC 30 -0.2 0.1
Roberto Pérez CLE 33 -0.3 1.2
Jose Lobaton CHC 37 -0.3 0.0
Austin Romine CHC 33 -0.4 0.1
Wilson Ramos CLE 34 -0.4 0.6
Kurt Suzuki LAA 38 -0.4 0.1
Sandy León MIA 33 -0.6 0.1
Drew Butera LAA 38 -0.7 -0.2
Andrew Knapp PHI 30 -1.1 0.1

That is, in a word, bad. Incredibly, the remaining 14 catchers combined for negative WAR (!) in 2021 and only project to produce a total of 4.7 WAR next year. Some of that is due to most of these players projecting to be backups, but even among the rate-based Steamer600 projections, where all catchers receive exactly 125 games played and 450 plate appearances, this group is projected for just 8.8 WAR, or an average of 0.6 WAR per player.

Look at how the top 14 catchers compare to the top 14 unsigned players at all the other position groups. For the purposes of this exercise, I selected each player’s primary 2021 position since some players are listed at multiple positions. It’s not perfect — Marcus Semien could certainly play shortstop for his new team in 2022, not second base — but it will do:

There are caveats to be had here, but it’s clear that the catching market stands alone for its negative value. It’s also worth noting that while 40 WAR sounds like a lot for the starting pitcher group, there are quite a few solid depth starters on the market in addition to the headline names. The top eight starters that remain on this market (since Eduardo Rodriguez is now signed) produced at least 3 WAR last year and totaled 31.5 WAR as a group. Seventeen of our top 50 free agents published last week were starting pitchers; there was only one catcher on that list, Yan Gomes.

The dearth of available catching could yield some interesting decisions for teams that have a plethora of talented backstops, as the return price in a trade could be high. The Tigers already struck in the catcher trade market, acquiring Tucker Barnhart from the Reds on November 3 and promptly picking up his $7.75 million option for 2022. That could mean that the Cubs move Willson Contrares if they’re unable to strike a long-term deal; that the Diamondbacks move Carson Kelly if they deem Daulton Varsho to be the future at the position; or that the Blue Jays send Alejandro Kirk somewhere with Danny Jansen and Reese McGuire in the fold and Gabriel Moreno knocking on the door.

That’s not to say that there’s no value left on the catching market. Gomes, who came in at No. 26 on our top 50, was projected for a one-year, $12 million contract by Ben Clemens and a one-year, $6 million deal by the median FanGraphs reader. With Piña getting $4 million per season in each of the next two, it’s hard to think that Gomes’ final figure won’t come closer to Clemens’ estimate than the readers’ given that, as a legitimate starting option, Gomes is probably a step up. Obviously, the final figure will depend on the structure and length of the deal, but Gomes hit well with the Nationals last year (104 wRC+, 1.4 WAR) before being traded to the Athletics and cooling off (74 wRC+, 0.2 WAR).

At this point, he’s established his game as a below-average hitter overall and a solid defender — not too dissimilar from Piña — but with considerably more starting experience under his belt. He also fares far better against left-handed pitchers than right-handed ones, with a 136 wRC+ against southpaws in 2021 vs. just a 71 wRC+ against righties. Gomes isn’t the flashiest of options behind the plate, especially for a contender, but he’s not going to be a black hole back there either.

There’s also Roberto Pérez, the only other catcher on this list projected to produce at least 1 WAR next season. As recently as 2019, Pérez was worth 3 WAR, mainly due to his outstanding defense and his tick-above-league-average offense. But his proficiency with the bat has all but disappeared over the last two years: in 76 games and 271 plate appearances since the beginning of 2020, Pérez has hit just .155/.253/.277 with a 49 wRC+, producing -0.1 WAR. It’s particularly telling that, even in a market with so few catchers, the Guardians opted to decline Pérez’s $7 million option for 2022. And that’s without noting his issues staying healthy: Pérez missed time in 2021 season after undergoing surgery on his right ring finger and because of shoulder soreness, with the latter likely being more of a concern going forward. If Pérez can’t stay healthy enough to stick behind the plate, his bat isn’t anywhere close to being good enough to make him worth playing elsewhere. There’s considerable risk here, but given the scarcity at the position, he could still land a big-league deal.

The player who may still have some remaining upside is Pedro Severino, who elected free agency after being outrighted to Triple-A by the Orioles on November 5. Because he’s been so bad behind the dish — Severino was worth -9.8 framing runs in 2021 and -22.1 so far in his career — he will need to make massive changes to his game to even be remotely productive, and it’s not like he’s been a great hitter, either, with his career .235/.305/.372 slash line. That’s not really a ringing endorsement. You’d hope that your catcher is good at at least one of those two traits, preferably being a decent receiver and defender.

But Severino does have the distinction of being the youngest of the options, perhaps making him the most malleable. Plus, he’s had decent quality-of-contact statistics in years past, and could potentially make the necessary adjustments as a receiver to improve that part of his game. Some teams have been particularly adept at developing framing. If you’re a contender, though, he’s probably not a player you target, and that’s worrisome for teams that want to win but are also in desperate need of a catcher.

Beyond those names, there isn’t a whole lot out there. Mostly, it’s just a list full of backups, which was pretty much the case even before Piña agreed to terms with the Braves. After six seasons in Milwaukee, he has a new home, and the rest of the catcher-needy teams in baseball have to continue to scramble to find viable options. To the trade market they go.

Devan Fink is a Contributor at FanGraphs. You can follow him on Twitter @DevanFink.

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2 years ago

Have to think the Braves dangle William Contreras now?

2 years ago
Reply to  dl80

Maybe dangle, but I’d hesitate to move him considering that he’s still young and it’s not like you can expect an injury prone d’Arnaud and a 34 year old Pina to be available for all 162. Depth is a good thing.

2 years ago
Reply to  dl80

Why would signing a backup catcher on a 2 year deal mean it’s time to trade a top 10 prospect. Contreras got enough time in 2021 to show he’s not ready to be an MLB catcher. He needs at least another year.

2 years ago
Reply to  Cam78

Because the starter and backup are each signed for the next 2 years