There are plenty of places the Detroit Tigers need to look to bolster themselves for the future. Part of that begins this offseason, as they must look to the free agent market to see how they can steer their rebuilding ship towards future success. While areas like relief pitching and competent infield help will be major focuses for the team, there’s one other area they will want to consider: catcher.
General manager Al Avila wasn’t willing to verbally commit to the Tigers continuing their relationship with catcher James McCann, and it seems this year might be a golden opportunity for the team to try something new. With young guys like Grayson Greiner and Jake Rogers nearing readiness — Greiner even took to third-string duties with some success in 2018 — what the Tigers must focus on now is getting the youth on target with the aid of a talented veteran at the helm.
The Tigers need someone different from McCann in their everyday catcher role, not only because he doesn’t offer any particular offensive or defensive benefit to the team, but because he’s also not the established career catcher to help mold a new generation of Tigers. If ever there was a time to lean on an aging veteran, this is it.
The in-system guys
The 26-year-old catcher split his 2018 season between Toledo and Detroit, which was a big climb for a guy who spent most of 2017 in Erie at the Double-A level. He was serviceable in the bigs, hitting .219/.328/.281 in 30 games. He only managed a 23 percent caught stealing rate. But with such a small sample size it’s hard to use that data against him, especially since he had a solid 37 percent in Toledo over 44 games. Greiner is still young, though, and while he may do solid backup work, he’s not likely to be the Tigers future starting catcher.
We got our first real look at Jake Rogers during 2018 spring training. Though his efforts there didn’t land the 23-year-old a spot with the big club, he definitely made a mark for those keeping their eye on the future. He struggled a little early on in Erie last season, and hit only .219/.305/.412 for the year, but he also mashed 17 home runs and 56 RBIs. His caught stealing rate climbed from the lower minors and he ended the year with 56 percent on 98 games. Yes. 56 percent. Rogers is likely headed to Toledo in 2019, and could even see his major league debut next season if his offense improves. There’s a lot to be excited about here.
The free agents
Suzuki has been a consistent producer for his entire major league career, and when other players might start declining at age 35, Suzuki still posted some solid numbers in his most recent season with the Atlanta Braves. For a 35-year-old to still make 93 starts behind the plate is impressive enough, though his 19 percent caught stealing is... well, it’s not great, Bob. That he hit .271/.332/.444 is all the better. Suzuki would be a great fit for a team hunting for veteran presence to help guide the youth movement. His defense leaves something to be desired, though.
Offensively, Wieters doesn’t have the most exciting production. He hit .238/.330/.374 this past season, which was actually an improvement over 2017. But since he only had 76 plate appearances, his run production was way down, with only eight home runs and 30 RBI. His defense, though, deserves notice. His caught stealing rocketed upwards from 25 percent in 2017 to a reaaaally pretty 37 percent in 2018 putting him fifth in the NL, and one percentage point higher than McCann. Weiters has spent the bulk of his 10-year career in Baltimore, and the 32-year-old is still young enough to have some good seasons left behind the dish.
The youngest of the free agent catchers on this abbreviated list, Grandal is only 30 years old. He is a fine batter by catcher standards, hitting .241/.349/.466 in 2018 with 24 home runs and 68 RBI. His caught stealing is at 28 percent, solid enough to keep him competitive in the catcher role, and he served in that position for 135 games last season. Where he excelled was his pitch framing, which at 15.7, ranked highest in all of baseball. He’s the only player on this list in the top 30. He also has experience covering first base, which could prove useful with Miguel Cabrera taking reps at DH. His youth and fewer years of experience might not make him the most ideal candidate as a mentor, but his postseason experience would certainly be a nice bonus.
Chirinos has spent the bulk of his career with the Texas Rangers, and had the busiest season of his career in 2018, playing in 113 games, the most ever in seven seasons. He hit .222/.338/.419 and knocked in a career-high 18 home runs and 65 RBI. Pretty good production. His caught stealing is... yeesh, 10 percent. This from a player who once managed a 40 percent CS percentage in 2014. The downward trend on his defense coupled with the only so-so offense means he wouldn’t be a huge step up from McCann. The Tigers might want to look elsewhere.
Others: Martin Maldonado, Nick Hundley, A.J. Ellis, Jonathan Lucroy, Brian McCann
Now seems like the ideal time for the Tigers to part ways with James McCann, who only offers minimal benefit offensively, and hasn’t proven to be the best catching partner for the Tigers pitchers. Adding a veteran catcher to help offer guidance to guys like John Hicks, Grayson Greiner, and even Jake Rogers would be a smart move for the team, and there’s no shortage of guys available on the free agent market to meet those needs.