With a pair of pitchers already inked to free agent deals, our man in Las Vegas, Detroit Tigers general manager, Al Avila, will likely have a quiet end to his week at the Winter Meetings. However, that doesn’t mean his work is done.
The middle infield needs help, and Avila specifically guaranteed the Tigers would move to shore up the shortstop position in his comments on Tuesday. But whether it happens this week, or deep into January, the Tigers would like to pounce on an inexpensive free agent catcher as well. Martín Maldonado may prove the best combination of ability and price the organization can find on the free agent market.
The 32-year-old Maldonado hails from Puerto Rico, and was initially drafted by the Anaheim Angels. He was released quite early in his minor league career and signed by the Milwaukee Brewers, where he eventually debuted as Jonathan Lucroy’s understudy beginning in 2012. There he remained as the weak side of the platoon, until the Angels traded for him prior to the 2017 season.
He thrived in L.A. in his first starting opportunity, posting stellar defensive numbers and taking home a Gold Glove in 2017. Unfortunately, things didn’t work out for the Angels in 2018. Instead, the Houston Astros acquired Maldonado in July to take over from the injured Brian McCann. He handled much of the load in the second half of the year and was the Astros’ starting catcher in the postseason.
Maldonado’s bat never developed into a major league caliber weapon. He holds a career wRC+ of just 72, meaning he has been 28 percent worse than a league average hitter in that time. Projection systems don’t expect to see improvement in that area at this point in his career. While he is probably a slightly more consistent hitter than James McCann, they are projected for similarly brutal numbers at the plate in 2019.
However, Maldonado’s blocking, throwing, receiving, and game-calling draw consistently strong reviews around the league. By reputation as much as the metrics available, Maldonado is regarded as one of the better defensive catchers in the game.
Maldonado’s calling card is a Gold Glove
Maldonado has posted plus marks every season of his career per Defensive Runs Saved (DRS). He threw out 17 of 35 would-be base stealers in 2018, the highest percentage of his career by a substantial margin. Typically he has been roughly average in that regard over the years. Maldonado also graded as the 18th best receiving catcher in the game per Baseball Prospectus, posting 5.9 framing runs last season. His blocking was slightly below average at negative 1.1 runs, also per Baseball Prospectus. Both FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus credit him with 0.9 wins above replacement for 2018, which is roughly a win better than McCann provided.
You get the idea. Maldonado doesn’t supply much offense, but he is highly regarded behind the plate. All of his value as a player is tied up in his catching ability. There’s a reason a smart organization like the Astros turned to him to handle the likes of Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole when Brian McCann went down with knee issues last summer. The question is whether Maldonado really fits the Tigers’ needs and tight budget.
On the latter score, things may add up. Maldonado should have suitors, but MLB Trade Rumors projected him to go to Colorado for two years, and $8 million total. That’s only a bit more than James McCann would have made in arbitration on a yearly basis. And there really aren’t any Maldonado rumors to report yet. The problem, of course, is that the Tigers appear in no mood to compete monetarily for any particular player’s services this winter. If a better team wants him, the Tigers aren’t going to put up a fuss.
Teaching runs above average?
While the two parties seem like a decent fit in terms of dollars and ability behind the plate, there is one final element the Tigers will be looking for that is particularly difficult to judge from the outside. With young catchers like Grayson Greiner and eventually Jake Rogers reaching the major league level, the organization presumably would like a veteran catcher with strong leadership qualities, and a willingness to take younger players under his wing. Maldonado generally seems to draw good marks as a field general and as a teammate, but whether he fits the bill is beyond the scope of statistical inquiries.
Does Maldonado have a realistic sense of his career as he edges toward his mid-30s? Is he open to schooling young catchers soon to replace him? Are the personalities a fit? These are the kind of questions that can only be answered by the Tigers front office after doing their homework and talking to people who have worked with him.
It’s a given that Maldonado offers a lot behind the plate. The Tigers are in the process of trying to develop young pitchers, and having a skilled veteran guiding them would help. The same is true for the Tigers young catchers. However, Maldonado’s inability to produce offensively means that his defensive and mentoring abilities are going to constitute the whole of his value. Al Avila and his staff have to decide how much that upgrade is worth to the Tigers organization.