As we head into the winter meetings this week, the Jays appear ready to be major movers. Ross Atkins suggested this past week that moves on free agents are probably closer than trades, and the team has previously insisted that they don’t feel the need to trade on of their three starting calibre catchers. GMs aren’t known for telling the whole truth in press conferences, though, and dealing from strength to help with the needs in the outfield and the rotation just makes too much sense to foreclose on. Because of that, I decided to put together a brief survey of what the catching market might look like this winter.
The Jays’ Trio
Toronto could theoretically move any of Danny Jansen, Alejandro Kirk, or Gabriel Moreno, in order of most likely (and least expensive) to least likely (and most). Jansen, the team’s primary catcher for four seasons, has always been a solid defender with good hands, a strong arm, and athleticism, and he broke out offensively in 2022 with a line 40% better than league average. His value is limited by having only two years of control and a history of nagging injuries, but he’s still an above average regular with big upside if 2022 reflects his future.
Kirk is probably in the middle. He was one of just seven players in MLB last year to walk more often than he struck out, and Fangraphs projects him as the best offensive catcher in baseball for 2023. He’s also under team control through 2026. Concerns about his body’s ability to hold up to catching full time, plus his slowness and relatively weak arm are the knocks against him. It’s an unconventional package, one that probably works best if he can get half his PAs at DH, but he’s a star, and the Jays would need a ransom to give him up.
Moreno is a right handed hitter with at least average power and elite pure hitting ability. He’s a superior athlete with feel for catching that should make him a plus defender in time. The ‘problem’ is that his potential is so great that with six years of team control it’d be extremely hard to get fair value in trade. Any player who could anchor a fair package is a cornerstone his team isn’t looking to trade.
The Free Agents
There’s a big free agent crop at catcher this winter, but only two really profile as guys who might be handed the starting job by a competitive team. The big name is Willson Contreras, late of the Cubs. Contreras boasts huge raw power and he’s been durable in his career, but he’s a lousy defender so some reps in left field or at DH might be in order. He’ll be expensive, projected for 4 years and $70m by Fangraphs, and he carries the Qualifying Offer so the team that signs him will forfeit draft picks. Still, he’ll find a home with a contender who might have been a Jays trade partner. His counterpart on the free agent market is his stylistic opposite, Christian Vázquez, who makes his money with excellent defence and a punch-less but high contact approach at the plate. He’s more solid than star at this stage of his career, but a team with a strong pitching staff will be drawn to his glove, and he’ll be cheap (Fangraphs forecasts $16m over two years).
The depth options are a couple bounce back candidates in Omar Narváez and Mike Zunino, and the usual slew of competent high end backup types (Austin Hedges, Kevin Plawecki, Roberto Perez, etc.), none of whom should really be competing for the same opportunities as the Jays’ guys.
The Trade Alternative
Oakland’s Sean Murphy is the other big fish in the catcher trade market. Murphy is a star, a plus defender with a terrific power bat that made him the third most valuable catcher in baseball in 2022. He’s also controllable for three years, making him more valuable than Jansen or probably Kirk. The A’s are heading into yet another rebuilding cycle, and Murphy is the major chip they have to reload their farm system. That’s one potential silver lining: the A’s won’t be focused on 2022 pieces in their return for Murphy, while the Jays would be in any trade for one of their catchers, so the markets might not totally overlap.
Beyond that, some teams might try to move expensive older catchers to clear money (the Mets with James McCann, for example), and there will be some backup types available, but none who would move the needle for a contender unless there are major surprises brewing.
Here are the teams that seem likely to be trying in 2023 who need help:
San Francisco Giants: they finished a disappointing .500 in ‘22, and at least part of that was due to Joey Bart’s continued inability to come close to filling Buster Posey’s shoes. They probably don’t match up well with the Jays, though, lacking expendable MLB level talent or prospects ready to contribute in 2022.
Houston Astros: the Jays have done a lot of business with Houston over the years. The defending champs have two lower end catching prospects breaking into the majors in Korey Lee and Yainer Diaz and Martín Maldonado providing veteran backup, but would probably jump at the chance to upgrade. As with the Giants, though, it’s hard to see who off their current roster they could afford to part with, and the farm is barren.
St. Louis Cardinals: this is the obvious fit. Andrew Knizner is not the heir to Yadi’s throne, and while Ivan Herrera might eventually be, he’s 22 and could use more seasoning. The Cards also want to move an outfielder to make room for uber-prospect Jordan Walker, meaning one of Tyler O’Neill or Lars Nootbaar is probably on the block. I prefer Nootbaar for his left handedness and more balanced offensive approach, but O’Neill offers big power and upside and both should be fine in CF, so either would be a great return for Jansen or (with another significant piece) Kirk. Alec Burleson is another interesting lefty bat who could be available, but he’s strictly a left fielder and probably a liability there, so less of a fit.
Milwaukee Brewers: after missing the third wildcard by one game last year, the Brewers should be motivated to get better. They also don’t like to spend, though, so a cost-controlled catcher from Toronto to take over from the disappointing Victor Caratini could make a lot of sense. With 2020 first round pick Garrett Mitchell taking over the centre field job, 2021 first rounder Sal Frelick might be expendable. Frelick lacks power, but he would bring a lefty speed and OBP threat with what should be plus CF defence, and he’s ready for MLB. A package of Frelick and one of the Brewers’ depth starters like Ethan Small for Jansen could make a lot of sense for both sides.
Minnesota Twins: Ryan Jeffers has been fine, but he hasn’t really run with the job. They aren’t a great fit, but a package built around Max Kepler (average hitter but very good outfield defender with some speed) and an MLB ready pitching prospect like Ronny Henriquez or Josh Winder might be enough for Jansen.
Cleveland Guardians: Bo Naylor is an impressive hitter, but he might not have enough of a glove to catch every day. The Guardians have a deep farm system, with several near ready pitchers and outfielders who could fit in a deal. On the pitching side, Logan Allen is almost ready to step into a rotation, while in the outfield either Nolan Jones or George Valera could provide power (and in Valera’s case, defence).
There are a few other teams that have been mentioned elsewhere, but they seem like less obvious fits to me. The Cubs could build an interesting offer around Ian Happ, but I’m not sure that makes any sense for a team that looks to be a ways away. The Tigers, Padres and Sox (White and Red) could all use a catcher, but none has much to offer in return. Last night, there were splashy rumours that the Braves were making a big push in the catcher trade market (specifically targeting Murphy), but those reports have been walked back and never made much sense with Travis D’Arnaud and William Contreras already in the building.
That’s the market as I see it. It looks like there are more catcher needy teams than there are quality options available, which augurs good prices. It’s harder to come up with specific fits that make sense for the Jays, though, which might end up requiring more complicated approaches like a three team deal or taking back prospects that can then be flipped for pitching or an outfielder. It’ll be interesting to see how it all comes together, and hopefully we’re nearing the end of the news dead season. Let me know which options you like, and what I missed, in the comments.
Which Catcher Will Be Traded This Winter?
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