Yesterday, the Red Sox designated catcher A.J. Pierzynski for assignment, and it caught my interest. It shouldn’t have — Pierzynski is 37 and hitting .254/.286/.348 for a last-place club — but it did. It got me thinking that A.J. Ellis is 33, has had two disabling lower-body injuries this year (knee surgery, ankle sprain), and that neither Drew Butera nor Tim Federowicz are acceptable alternatives should Ellis get injured again. If we thought the rotation had some depth concerns, well, just look at the catchers. Adding Johnny Monell was not the solution. So as we all think about new starting pitchers or an infielder who can cover Hanley Ramirez at shortstop, might we not think about adding some depth behind the plate?
To be clear: I’m not advocating replacing Ellis as the starter, largely because it’s so hard to find a quality catcher that if you do have one, you aren’t giving him up. It’s extremely difficult to see a catcher markedly better than Ellis being available, and the value he brings as another pitching coach on the field almost outweighs what he can do with the bat. No one should be talking about Jason Castro or Yan Gomes here. This is about complementing him, and ensuring the Dodgers against an October with Butera behind the plate, which none of us want to see in the same way that we wish we never had to see Skip Schumaker starting in the NLCS last year.
So, uh, who? Let’s start with the obvious name:
I can see you rolling your eyes already, I think, because as I said, he’s old, has been terrible, and just got cut loose. He’s also got a reputation as something of a “villain.” This is all accurate. But now think about all the reasons this would make sense:
- He’d be essentially free, given that he was DFA’d, so you either wait out him becoming a free agent or toss the Red Sox some low-level non-prospect you’ll never miss, like a James Baldwin.
- He was a Giant when Ned Colletti worked there, which we all know the GM loves.
- He’s been linked to the Dodgers in the past, both prior to 2013, and prior to 2011, when the Dodgers reportedly had a contract offer out to him.
He has, of course, been lousy this year, and the sinking Red Sox would rather look at young Christian Vazquez than him for the rest of the season. But then, maybe we shouldn’t overthink a 69 wRC+. As a lefty hitter, he’s unplayable against lefty pitchers, yet he still had 92 plate appearances against them this year. Against righties, his wRC+ is 93. Last year, it was 89. For his career, it’s 98. That’s all basically league-average, which is all you care about from a backup catcher. If you care about playoff performance — and you shouldn’t, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the team did — he’s hit .300/.372/.520 in 114 plate appearances. He’s generally considered a decent pitch framer, though he’s been viewed as subpar this year, and probably shouldn’t be considered an asset behind the plate.
Of course, just look at how happy Red Sox fans were to see him leave. On the other hand, he was expected to come in and be a starting catcher, which he failed miserably at. In Los Angeles, he’d be a backup. Lord, I think I’ve talked myself into this.
Pierzynski, by the way, is the first name on this list. This is going to get ugly quick.
Molina has stuck around in the game for so many years entirely because of his defensive skills, not because he’s ever really been of much value with the bat. Of course, even viewed through that lens, .184/.217/.191 is pretty awful. He’s 39 years old. He’s actually under contract for 2015. Geez, at least Butera can pitch. Hard to see this happening, unless there’s a larger Tampa Bay deal for David Price or Ben Zobrist, and even then it doesn’t seem worth the effort.
Suzuki was traded in the middle of 2012, going from the A’s to the Nationals. He was traded in the middle of 2013, going back to Oakland. Now with Minnesota, might he be traded for the third season in a row? Suzuki will be 31 in October and a free agent at the same time, so the last-place Twins should be looking to move him. He’s actually playing quite well, turning a .300/.356/.392 into a 111 wRC+ and his first All-Star appearance. They may yet re-sign him, but it also appears clear that Josmil Pinto is the future there.
Of course, Suzuki’s line is a bit BABIP-inflated, and after years of heavy use in Oakland, his previous two seasons (64 wRC+ and 68 wRC+) were both pretty bad, so if the Twins are valuing him as an “All-Star,” then it’s not a price worth paying. It doesn’t help, either, that his pitch framing (in a small sample) has been seen as atrocious this year.
He is Hawaiian, however, which means both Chad and Dustin want him.
The Yankees were in trouble even with Masahiro Tanaka, and now that he’s on the shelf, they’re totally screwed. They’ll never be a full-scale “sell” team, but you could easily see them begin to dispense with minor assets. Cervelli is pretty minor, although — believe it or not — he is one of the longest-tenured Yankees, having debuted way back in 2008 on a team that had Jason Giambi, Hideki Matsui, Jorge Posada, and Mike Mussina. Due to a hamstring injury (see, he feels like a Dodger already) that cost him two months, he’s had only 40 plate appearances this year, and with J.R. Murphy and Austin Romine around, plus Gary Sanchez coming, the Yankees have plenty of catching depth to back up Brian McCann.
Despite the fact that this is his seventh partial season in the bigs, 2014 was only his first year of arbitration eligibility, so there’s a few years of team control here, and would mean he wouldn’t be a total giveaway. (He’s on the Jason Repko plan, for the few of you who remember that.) Of course, he’s out of options, and there’s a reason that he’s had only just over three years of service time in seven seasons, so it’s not like he’d be costly, either. Health is a concern; in addition to the hamstring, he’s had concussion problems and has broken his wrist, foot, and hand. In 663 plate appearances, or about a full season, he’s hit .271/.342/.368, which is a not-at-all-terrible 94 wRC+, he’s considered to be a solid backstop with a good arm, and he can play a bit of first base too. If the test is “do you want him more than Butera,” well, probably, yeah.
He is almost universally considered one of the two or three best pitch-framers in baseball. Padres pitchers swear by him. He can’t hit (.214/.257/.336 career). He actually spent the 2008 season in the Dodgers minor league system, an event I have absolutely no recollection of. The Padres, who already traded Nick Hundley, would have to be committing themselves to Yasmani Grandal until Austin Hedges arrives, and they may just prefer to deal Grandal. Not particularly likely, but intriguing.
Castillo — his nickname is “Beef,” for obvious reasons, which I love — is only 27 and has hit a roughly league-average .260/.327/.398 in his career, so the Cubs probably aren’t dying to move him. But that could change if any of their future deals in the next few weeks (they could still move James Russell — who I would love — or Travis Wood, or even something crazy with Starlin Castro) brings back a young, nearly-ready catcher to pair with 2014 draftee Kyle Schwarber. Castillo has had injury concerns as well, missing time this year with a rib injury and undergoing knee surgery last year, and it may not make sense to relegate him to a backup role at this point in his career. But if the Dodgers want someone they can hang onto for a few years to keep Ellis fresh, he’s not a bad choice.
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There’s other guys, I guess — John Buck, Carlos Ruiz, Chris Gimenez, George Kottaras if you must, etc. — but really, this is a very tough market to improve in. And remember, no one here is going to make a huge impact if Ellis is healthy, but that’s the point. If Ellis is healthy, you can live with Butera or Federowicz. It’s if he’s not that’s the concern, and you can’t just assume he will be. As the Dodgers look at other positions, please don’t forget about the catchers, too.