Catchers are like toothbrushes. They are necessary and do an important job, but aside from the really expensive ones that do special stuff, there’s really nothing exciting about acquiring one. Even the ones you spend a lot of money on often make you question if it was really worth it.
Coming out of 2015, the Detroit Tigers had their catching position pretty well figured out. James McCann had supplanted Alex Avila in the number one spot on the depth chart as Avila departed via free agency. McCann started the 2016 season off with a trip to the disabled list in early April, and got off to a horrid start once he returned from injury. Practically all of his offensive numbers decline across the board from 2015 to 2016.
McCann is 26 years old and has only played his second full season with the major league club, so it’s difficult to say if this was a down year or if this is the James McCann we should expect to see going forward. There are many who have faith. He’s certainly capable behind the plate, and many people (looking at you, Jim Price) believe he’s a future All-Star. McCann's second half showed improvement over the first, but hit just .234/.284/.392. While this is fine for a catcher, it isn’t really setting the world on fire.
For the sake of argument, let’s assume that the McCann of the second half is, at minimum, what we can expect going forward. Whether the Tigers look for a new starter or a low-cost backup for McCann, there are a variety of free agent options hitting the market in 2017. Let’s start by kicking some tires on that used car lot. Here’s what we’re working with:
*Contract options for 2017
There are some pretty sexy names on that list, and you can start by crossing them right off. Lucroy has a team option that is going to be picked up by the Texas Rangers. Wieters may receive a qualifying offer from the Orioles, but in the case that he doesn’t, the questions surrounding Wilson Ramos and his recent surgery to repair a royally jacked up knee make ol’ Wiets the most attractive free agent on the market. Behind Wieters is Castro, who, despite his ever-decreasing average still maintains a respectable on base percentage, and is all the rage with the pitch framing crowd. The Astros seem pretty intent on bringing him back, and if they don't they will at least drive up the price.
I'll go on a limb here and guess that part of the new plan in Detroit isn’t going to involve dropping any significant amount of money on a catcher. With the cream of the crop removed, the next step is to look at who is left. Some have options that will probably be picked up (Carlos Ruiz), and some will be roughly equal to or better than what is already in place for the price.
I’ve selected those guys because they have equal to or better offensive numbers than McCann and won’t cost a ton of money. That, so far, is the only criteria. We’re basically looking at Drew Butera, Geovany Soto, Kurt Suzuki, and Nick Hundley as potential complements (or replacements) for McCann. That taste in the back of your mouth is vomit.
Let’s start off with Butera. He’s a 33-year-old who has spent parts of six seasons in the majors with several different teams. Don’t let his 2016 batting average fool you, though. This is the first year he has been anywhere north of the Mendoza line and a .373 BABIP leads me to believe his odds of keeping it there are somewhere in the realm of slim to none.
Geovany Soto is also on the older side of things which is unfortunate when you’re good at what you do. On the other hand, when you’re Soto and the last time you were the primary backstop was in 2011 when you pimped a .228 batting average, being 33 is even less appetizing. He’ll slug pretty well, but without more than that I’m not sure he’s much better than what the Tigers already have.
Kurt Suzuki turned 33 two days after the season ended. He had a bit of a bounce-back year in 2016, batting .258 with an OPS just over .700. His preferred location, if he even decides to play next year, works against the Tigers, but when he went unclaimed on waivers in August it seemed a pretty clear indication he could probably be had for pretty cheap in the offseason.
Lastly, we have Nick Hundley. Age aside, Hundley is the first guy numbers-wise who doesn’t make me immediately say no. He hit over .300 in 2015, and when he wasn’t injured he had a pretty good year in 2016, hitting .260 with a .759 OPS. His caught stealing percentage was pretty terrible last year, though, and calling him average defensively is generous.
The long and the short of the free agent situation is this: of the guys in the affordable range, the only one who was even remotely close to McCann defensively (David Ross) has decided to stop playing baseball next year. The other four are old, will all cost more to retain than McCann, and fall somewhere between trash fire and mediocre on the defensive spectrum. The only names who even remotely makes sense are Suzuki and Hundley, and someone should slap me for even saying that. Up to this point, I’m still firmly in the "McCann for Starter" camp.
We should probably discuss Wilson Ramos. He was having himself quite the year for the Washington Nationals in 2016, batting over .300 with 22 homers and an .850 OPS. His defense was above average as well. It was all looking great for him until his ACL decided the party was over. Now, it’s looking like when he does come back it’s most likely with an American League team so he can DH out of the gate before he tries catching again. He’s still in his 20s and the team that signs him would be getting a discount because of the injury, but that would still be a sizable gamble.
Detroit’s other option is to try going the trade route. I did feel some obligation to find at least one potential trade target, and the guy I landed on is Cameron Rupp of the Phillies. He’s young, dirt cheap, and seems to have figured a few things out in 2016 that helped him to a .252 average with a .750 OPS and 16 home runs. While he’s not awesome defensively, he’s not terrible either. With Jorge Alfaro waiting in the wings as the Phillies' catcher of the future, it’s one spot where the team has some depth to trade. The big question is what it would take to get a guy who brings a little more pop offensively, and whether the Tigers are interested in paying that price.
After looking at available free agents and potential trade targets, it’s difficult to see how a wholesale change at the position would be the right move. McCann is young and only costs the team roughly $500,000 in 2017. He is a solid defender and has hit at an acceptable level for a catcher. Let’s also not forget that he’s one of the few homegrown guys to come up through the system in recent years which, right or wrong, is probably extending the amount of leeway he’s going to get.
The stronger likelihood is a platoon situation with someone who can beat up on right-handed hitters because McCann has no trouble with lefties (.864 OPS). There’s at least one available free agent who can do that -- and you’re either going to love him or hate him because there doesn’t seem to be another option with this fanbase. The Tigers should look into bringing Alex Avila back to Detroit, and ask him to bring that sweet on-base percentage with him.