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Examining the free agent catching market

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MLB: World Series-Houston Astros at Washington Nationals Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The catcher position was a major weakness for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2019. As a whole, the position produced an fWAR of -0.4 last season, fifth worst in baseball.

Not all was bad. Jacob Stallings showed promise in 71 games producing an fWAR of 1.3. He was solid behind the dish both at framing and blocking. Stallings was fine enough with the bat hitting .262/.325/.382 with a wRC+ of 82. With a defense first catcher, you could certainly do worse. Towards the end of the season, I pondered whether or not Stallings could be the everyday catcher in 2020. It may very well end up being his job to lose.

That in itself is a problem. No offense to Stallings, but he was never supposed to be in this position in the first place. After a 2018 season in which Elias Diaz had an fWAR of 1.8 in 82 games, it looked as though he would hold down the position for the foreseeable future once Francisco Cervelli inevitably moved on. That is no longer the case as 2019 was a disaster. Diaz is eligible for arbitration this winter. More than likely, he will be non-tendered. The Pirates will need to add a catcher.

Aside from Yasmani Grandal (because money), there is a plethora of free agent catchers that the Pirates could potentially add. Some could be starters. Some could split time with Stallings.

Starters

Robinson Chirinos - (2019 fWAR: 2.3). This past year, Chirinos put together his best season to date as a member of the Houston Astros (take that as you will). The 35-year-old registered career highs in games played (114) and fWAR (2.3). With the bat, Chirinos strikes out a lot (28.6 percent in 2019) but walks a decent amount too (11.7 percent). He would also provide some badly needed pop as he’s hit at least 17 home runs over the past three seasons. Behind the dish, Chirinos struggles with pitch flaming and throwing out runners but his blocking skills are elite. Overall, he is below average defensively. MLB Trade Rumors predicts that Chirinos will receive a two-year deal worth $10 million. This is an affordable figure for Pirates if they choose to make catcher a priority this offseason.

Jason Castro - (fWAR: 1.6). As a hitter, Castro profiled somewhat similarly to Chirinos in 2019. He too struck out a ton (32 percent) while also walking a decent amount (12 percent). In a backup role to Mitch Garver, Castro provided respectable thump, hitting 13 home runs in 275 plate appearances. His hard hit contact of 51.7 percent was a career high. That said, last season was the first time Castro had a wRC+ of over 100 since 2013. Perhaps he discovered something as hitter in his age 32 season. Perhaps it was just one good year. Behind the plate, Castro has always provided above average defense which can be attributed to very good pitch framing. His blocking skills are bad and his ability to throw out runners is average at best. Castro played 79 games this past season after missing most of 2018 with a torn meniscus. MLB Trade Rumors also predicts that he’ll receive a two-year deal worth $10 million.

Travis d’Arnaud - (fWAR: 1.6). Pirates fans should be somewhat aware of Travis d’Arnaud being that he is the younger brother of former Pirate Chase d’Arnaud. Travis had a roller coaster ride of a 2019 season. The New York Mets let him go after he was hitting .087/.160/.087 at the end of April. He then got one at bat with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Then released again. Travis finally found a home with the Tampa Bay Rays in the middle of May. He would soon catch fire. In June and July, d’Arnaud hit .312/.377/.645 with 13 home runs in 154 plate appearances. He was a top hitter in baseball over that stretch before cooling off again. In total, d’Arnaud played 103 games with a 98 wRC+ and 16 home runs in 391 plate appearances. At 31 years old (when the 2020 season starts), d’Arnaud is one of the younger catchers on the market. His defense is average all around and he’s always been injury prone. Because of his upside though, MLB Trade Rumors projects a two-year, $14 million deal.

Timeshare options

Russell Martin - (fWAR: 1.2). It’s hard to believe that it’s been five years since Martin was on the Pirates. The best days of this former fan favorite are over. That said, at age 37 (in February), Martin is still a capable big league catcher. Although his defense isn’t elite as it once was, he is still a great pitch framer. He still gets on base. Martin would be a nice add for the Pirates. He will be cheaper than the options listed above and fans would welcome his return in what will most likely be a rebuilding year. If playing time is what Martin wants, Pittsburgh is a logical fit. If he still wants to compete for a championship, it’s obviously not.

Alex Avila - (fWAR: 1.3). Avila is like most catchers on this list. He defends well (his defensive value comes from blocking), has some power and gets on base. His average isn’t high. Last season, Avila was a solid backup to Carson Kelly in Arizona. Like Jason Castro, Avila recored a new career high in hard hit percentage at 53.1 percent.

Yan Gomes - (fWAR: 0.8). Gomes struggled with the bat this past season in Washington. In 358 plate appearances, he had wRC+ of 79, his worst total since 2015. Gomes has always been solid with the glove, excelling at blocking and throwing out runners. At this point in his career (age 32), Gomes would be a nice buy low option for one year.

Other cheap options

Austin Romine (0.9)

Stephen Vogt (0.9)

Martin Maldonaldo (0.8)

And hey, there’s always a small percent chance of a reunion with the great Francisco Cervelli (0.8). How fun would that be?