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Offseason Preview: Catcher breakdown

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The Red Sox are set with their starting catcher, but everything else is pretty weak.

Boston Red Sox v Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

With the offseason really getting underway this week as free agents can start to sign with other teams, we are going to spend the next five days looking at where the Red Sox stand with each positional group. We’ll look at catchers, infielders, outfielders, starting pitchers and relief pitchers. For each group, we’ll highlight the current projected starters, the projected depth, the prospects, the free agents with an emphasis on those who best fit as well as some trade candidates. Then at the end I’ll pick what I think the most likely scenario is. Today we will go over the catchers.

Starter

Christian Vázquez

There may not be a more difficult position to fill in today’s baseball than catcher given the importance of defense behind the plate and our growing understanding of defensive value back there. When you find a catcher with whom you (and your pitchers) are comfortable with, you ride that as long as you can. The Red Sox are in a position to do just that with Vázquez. It’s fair to wonder just how much of his offense can be sustained moving forward, particularly with the question of what kind of baseballs will be used in 2020, but he has a long way to fall to be less than adequate. His floor is high with his defense and we saw signs of life from his bat that make him a near-sure thing to be the starting catcher for years to come. It also doesn’t hurt that he is signed to a team-friendly contract through 2022.

Depth

Sandy León

This one is tentative. León is on the roster for now and is arbitration-eligible this winter, but he is a clear non-tender candidate. MLB Trade Rumors projects him to make $2.8 million this year, and the Red Sox have until December 2 to make a decision here. The pros and cons for keeping León are pretty clear. On the pro side, his defense grades out very well and his ability to work with the pitching staff is held in even higher regard. As for the cons, his offense is nonexistent (we’ll always have that run in 2016, Sandy) and the Red Sox self-imposed payroll issues make that $2.8 million a factor even if it is a relatively small number. I would expect him to be non-tendered, but for now he is their projected backup.

Juan Centeno

Centeno is still on the roster for 2019, though he is out of options. So, the Red Sox can keep him through spring training, but from there he either has to make the roster as their backup or put him through waivers. (Or they could carry three catchers, but I super don’t see that happening.) It’s entirely possible that he could be kept as the backup, but that would be strictly a money-saving move as there’s no reason to expect him to be a real upgrade over León.

Boston Red Sox Spring Training Fishing Trip
Juan Centeno, holding a fish, which is in our picture archive for some reason
Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

Prospects

Kole Cottam

The Red Sox don’t have much in the way of catching prospects, but Cottam is probably at the top of that list. Taken in the fourth round of the 2018 draft, the former Kentucky Wildcat had a good first full season at the plate, hitting .255/.377/.411 in 76 games with Greenville. There are questions about his defense and if he does reach his ceiling and carve out a major-league career it will be on the back of his bat more so than his glove. Cottam is ranked 51st on Sox Prospects’ list.

Jonathan Diaz

Diaz is far down in the system and has a long way to go, but is a name to watch for as he moves up the ladder. The 2017 international signee out of the Dominican Republic spent last season in Lowell and performed solidly, hitting .243/.310/.408 over 29 games. He has the tools to be a solid defensive catcher, too, but again the tools are a little raw. Diaz is ranked 57th on Sox Prospects’ list.

Jaxx Groshans

Groshans is another recent draftee, being taken out of Kansas University this past summer with a fifth round selection. Groshans was put on the Spinners roster upon being drafted and hit .216/.314/.345 in 44 games. The Sox Prospects scouting report indicates there is work to be done defensively, but says he could develop into a solid bat-first player if all goes well. He is not ranked in Sox Prospects’ top 60.

Free Agents

This list is from MLB Trade Rumors.

  • Alex Avila (33)
  • Welington Castillo (33)
  • Jason Castro (33)
  • Francisco Cervelli (34)
  • Robinson Chirinos (36)
  • Travis d’Arnaud (31)
  • Tyler Flowers (34) — $6MM club option with a $2MM buyout*
  • Dustin Garneau (32)
  • Yan Gomes (32)
  • Yasmani Grandal (31)
  • John Hicks (30)
  • Bryan Holaday (32)
  • Nick Hundley (36)
  • Chris Iannetta (37)
  • Jonathan Lucroy (34)
  • Martin Maldonado (33)
  • Russell Martin (37)
  • Austin Romine (31)
  • Jesus Sucre (32)
  • Blake Swihart (28)
  • Stephen Vogt (35)
  • Matt Wieters (34)

*As of this writing, the decision on whether or not to execute the option on Tyler Flowers has not been made.

Best Fits: Martin Maldonado, Austin Romine

The Red Sox, as mentioned above, are really only going to be in the market for depth here, and I’m not going to delve into the third catcher market. I like you guys but not that much. As for the potential opening on the major-league roster, there aren’t a ton of options. They obviously aren’t going after the top tier here, which in this case means Yasmani Grandal, a big gap then guys like Yan Gomes and Travis d’Arnaud. I also don’t see them going after some of the bat-first guys like Stephen Vogt or Chris Ianetta.

To me, Maldonado and Romine make the most sense. The former is probably the best-case scenario as a plus defensive who can hit better than León. High bar, I know. The biggest issue here, beyond compensation at least, could be playing time. Vázquez did show he can move around the diamond a bit, though, so there is a path to still getting Maldonado some extra playing time if Vázquez is hitting as well as he did in 2019.

Romine is a solid backup plan, and someone Red Sox fans should be familiar with after serving as the backup for the Yankees over the last four years. He has been a near-league-average hitter for two years in a row with good defensive numbers as well. I don’t see the Red Sox really saving money if they look to replace León in free agency, but they should be able to get a real upgrade.

Trade Candidates

This is always the hardest category to fill out because it’s hard to get a good feel for what other teams are thinking with their rosters. These names are just based on who I think could be available. I am sure I have missed some names and I am sure some names will not actually be on the block. I’m doing my best!

  • Max Stassi, LAA
  • Josh Phegley, OAK
  • Luke Maile, TOR
  • Austin Barnes, LAD
  • Andrew Knapp, PHI
  • Elias Diaz, PIT
  • Austin Hedges, SD
  • Austin Allen, SD

So, I’ll start with the biggest names on this list in Barnes and Hedges. The former is not far removed from being regarded as the catcher of the future in L.A., but he’s taken a steep step back in each of the last two years. He could be a buy-low for Bosotn, and he also has some versatility beyond catching. The Dodgers have Will Smith as their starter and prospect Keibert Ruiz coming up. If they decide to keep both, Barnes doesn’t really have a clear role on the roster.

Hedges may be the biggest long shot here, but the Padres could get aggressive. The bat isn’t much to write home about, but he is one of the very best defensive catchers in baseball and has shown some flashes at the plate. Former top prospect Francisco Mejia is ready to take over in San Diego, and Allen could come up as the backup. Or, the Padres could look to trade Allen instead. He’s a bat-first guy who has done nothing but hit in the minors.

Diaz is an interesting name, but I have no idea what the Pirates are doing in any aspect of roster building right now. They could do literally anything this offseason and I wouldn’t be surprised. Anyway, Díaz was outstanding in 2018 before taking a step back last year with Jacob Stallings surpassing him as the starter.

Knapp is the least intriguing name on the list, and I only have him included because the Phillies don’t really need him anymore. I’d rather keep León than trade for Knapp, though.

That leaves those top three, which to me are the best mix of intriguing and realistic. Stassi has been a backup his entire career and is a buy-low candidate. He was one of the worst hitters in baseball in 2019, but he’s been much better at earlier points of his career. If the Angels go after a starting catcher in free agency or via trade, that could push Stassi off the depth chart.

Phegley is due for a raise in Oakland and they have a guy in Triple-A in Jonah Heim who could be ready to come up to the majors. If they want to move on the Red Sox could get Phegley for relatively cheap. He’s a been a steady backup presence for years now.

Maile is less likely as an in-division candidate, but the Blue Jays have young catchers in Danny Jansen and Reese McGuire ready to split duties in the majors. Maile is an underwhelming candidate, but he’s good defensively and is only one year removed from putting up a 95 wRC+.

Of these names, Stassi is the one that intrigues me the most, but ultimately there are flaws — either in the player or in the likeliness of a trade happening — for all of them.

Most Likely

Ultimately, like I said above I think they will non-tender León. If that does happen, that leaves them with two options. They can either roll with Centeno as their backup and look at some candidates on minor-league deals to fill the third catcher role, or they can look for a more established and, frankly, better backup. I know what I would do, but with all of the payroll talk this winter I can very easily see them opting to save a couple million bucks and keeping Centeno is the backup to Vázquez for 2020.