The Dodgers could be in a short-term bind at catcher this coming season. Yasmani Grandal is a free agent and unlikely to accept the qualifying offer. So, unless you believe Austin Barnes is going to turn things around, the Dodgers will be in the market for a catcher this winter.
Despite today’s report that the Dodgers might stay under the luxury tax for the next four years, I’m going to not let that factor into my analysis to follow.
Let’s look at the potential options to be the Dodgers’ primary catcher in 2019.
I’ve already touched on Barnes, whose 2017 may have been a fluke. He stopped hitting the ball hard in 2018, but he’s still a good blocker/framer behind the plate. He has value, but not as a primary catcher. Farmer has caught all of nine innings in the majors, so it’s clear the Dodgers don’t trust him enough behind the plate. Gale was a 40-man roster addition late in the season and is expendable.
And now we get to the reason the Dodgers will need to look outside the org: Ruiz and Smith are not ready. Ruiz is only 20 years old, so it’d be presumptuous to expect him to be ready now. He had a better second half in Tulsa than first, and has been solid in the Arizona Fall League, but he could use at least another season in the minors — and likely two. Smith hit well for Tulsa and showed why he’s the best defensive catcher in the system, but a disastrous showing in a late-season promotion to Triple-A (.136/.206/.218) shows that, even going into his age-24 season, he needs a little more seasoning.
A quick note on Grandal: It’d be ideal for the Dodgers if he were to accept the qualifying offer, but that just isn’t going to happen. He’ll get a multi-year, multi-million deal on the open market, and it probably won’t be from the Dodgers.
External Options – Free Agents
Yeah, this is sad. The state of offensive production from catchers in 2018 was one of the lowest in the last 50 years, and this free agent class (sans Grandal) about sums it up.
Chirinos was a surprising addition to the free agent market after the Rangers declined his $4.5 million option. He’s a decent enough offensive catcher, but he was the 4th-worst framer in baseball last season, and that doesn’t fly with this front office. Lucroy used to be a premium offensive and defensive catcher, but he has fallen off a cliff and wouldn’t be an upgrade over Barnes. Kratz is 40, but he was a top-10 framer last season. Still, he doesn’t have the bat to be the primary catcher. Maldonado is the opposite of Chirinos: Good framer (No. 18 of 117 ranked catchers), but doesn’t hit (72 wRC+ in his career). McCann and Wieters are a lot like Lucroy. All used to be threats with the bat, but only Lucroy used to be a good framer. Mesoraco hit well enough to be a starter (92 wRC+), but he was near the bottom of the framing leader board.
The best free agent options are Ramos and Suzuki. Both are solid offensive catchers (Ramos is far superior to Suzuki), but both have issues with framing. Ramos was about middle of the pack last season, while Suzuki was also near the bottom. Ramos is sure to get a multi-year, multi-million deal, which doesn’t really fit what the Dodgers are looking for right now. Suzuki could be in play, if the Dodgers are OK with his framing and/or think they can get him to be better.
External Options – Trades
All of these guys are going into the final year of their contracts/team control. Castro missed most of 2018 with a knee injury, which is a bit of a red flag. Oh, and the fact he has one above-average season (by wRC+) for his career. Still, if he’s around 90 wRC+ with his top-30 framing, that might be good enough for a year. d’Arnaud also missed most of the 2018 season, but this was due to Tommy John surgery. He should be ready for opening day and, in his only extended look at a starter (2017), he had a 92 wRC+ and was a top-15 framer. If he’s healthy, he might be worth a look. Then again, is he any different than Barnes if he regains any of his 2017 form? Martin is here mostly for nostalgia. He’s still a great framer, but he hit just .194 last season (91 wRC+) in 90 games. He’s not a 120-game catcher anymore. Oh, and he’s set to make $20 million.
The guy I’m eyeing here is Cervelli. While his framing has fallen hard in the last couple years, he was once an elite framer — as recently as the 2015-16 seasons. So, there’s hope he can turn things around. And after a couple down seasons offensively, he bounced back in 2018 to produce a 125 wRC+ and a career-high 12 home runs. He walks a lot (10.4 percent), doesn’t strike out a lot (18.8 percent) and is under contract for one more season at $11.5 million. There’s a decent chance he’s as productive offensively as Grandal in 2019, which is all that would matter for LA. He’s not great at framing, but he’s OK at blocking and throwing.
It’s unclear if the Pirates would entertain trading him, but they’ve been known to move some of their pricier veterans, and Cervelli is just that. They also have 27-year-old Elias Diaz, who hit almost as well as Cervelli (114 wRC+) and was a better framer than him. Maybe they’d rather turn the catching reigns over to the younger catcher.
No matter what happens this offseason, the Dodgers are going to bring in a catcher. If I had to choose my preference of the realistic guys listed above, I’d go in this order:
If the Dodgers miss out on Realmuto (as almost every team will want him), Cervelli would be a nice fallback option. d’Arnaud could be a sneaky good pickup, if he’s healthy. The rest wouldn’t move the needle much, but also wouldn’t cost a lot to acquire.
They just need to get a stopgap in there for a year or two until their premium prospects are truly ready.