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Previewing The 2021-22 Free Agent Class: Catchers

There are now just two weeks remaining in the 2021 regular season, and while the immediate focus is on the playoff races, a potentially eventful offseason is waiting just over the horizon. There are a lot of unknowns at the moment, especially with the elephant in the room: the expiring collective bargaining agreement.

The current CBA expires on December 1st, and there are many questions about what will come after that, especially with regard to service time, luxury tax, qualifying offers, and many other issues.

So, which players will be navigating these uncharted waters? Let’s take a look, starting with the catchers. (Players’ age for the 2021 season is listed in parentheses.)

Everyday Options

  • Yan Gomes (34): Gomes is probably the top of the class, which should tell you how weak this year’s catching market is as a whole. That’s not to take anything away from Gomes, who is having another solid season. But there won’t be any massive catcher contracts given out this year like there were last year for J.T. Realmuto and James McCann. Gomes was last on the market after helping the Nationals win the World Series in 2019. The Nats re-signed him to a two-year, $10MM deal and then traded him to Oakland at this year’s deadline. On the season as a whole, he’s hitting .252/.295/.425, for a wRC+ of 91 and 1.2 fWAR. Gomes has been fairly reliable health-wise, having only spent about three weeks on the IL over the past five years, missing most of July 2021 with an oblique strain.
  • Manny Pina (34): Pina has been playing backup to Omar Narvaez in Milwaukee this season but has done well enough that some club could view him as an everyday option, as he’s having a solid season. In 67 games, he’s hitting .201/.312/.459, for a wRC+ of 106. His walk and strikeout rates have both improved compared to recent seasons as well, suggesting there may be something sustainable there. Combined with his quality glovework, he’s been worth 1.6 fWAR on the year. Since having his contract selected by the Brewers in August of 2016, he is hitting .248/.318/.417, for a wRC+ of 94.

Backup/Timeshare Candidates

  • Robinson Chirinos (38): Chirinos had to settle for a minor league deal with the Yankees in the most recent offseason. After being released in July, he was signed to a major league deal by the Cubs. Since then, he’s been a solid backup/bench contributor, slashing .232/.330/.463 over 100 plate appearances. Apart from an awful showing in the shortened 2020 season, Chirinos has a wRC+ over 100 every year from 2015-2021.
  • Sandy Leon (33): Leon signed a minor league deal with the Marlins in the offseason and had his contract selected April 21st. Since then, he’s appeared in 77 games, garnering 209 plate appearances with a slash line of .187/.236/.259. His wRC+ of 40 would be his fifth straight year under 70 in that department.
  • Jeff Mathis (39): Mathis has long had a reputation as a defensive specialist and has appeared in the majors in each of the past 17 years, despite never providing much with the bat. He got into three games with Atlanta this season before being designated for assignment in May and hasn’t played since.
  • Wilson Ramos (34): Ramos was signed by the Tigers in the winter to a one-year, $2MM contract. In 35 games, he put up a tepid line of .200/.238/.392, a wRC+ of 66. He was eventually released and caught on with Cleveland, where he starting hitting a little bit better. But after just nine games, he tore the ACL and sprained the MCL in his right knee, ending his season. Ramos isn’t too far removed from a 2019 season that saw him hit .288/.351/.416 for a wRC+ 105, but his health will be the major concern for him now.
  • Austin Romine (33): Romine, alongside the aforementioned Chirinos, has been backing up Willson Contreras for the Cubs. Romine missed a good chunk of the season with a wrist injury and has only gotten into 21 games this year and has barely hit in that small sample, slashing .188/.188/271. However, it hasn’t been too long since he was last productive, as he had solid seasons for the Yankees in both 2018 and 2019. Over those two years, he got into 150 games and hit .262/.302/.428, for a wRC+ of 94. But after a down year in 2020 and an injury-marred 2021, he’ll probably have to settle for a minor league deal in the coming offseason.
  • Kurt Suzuki (38): Suzuki had four straight solid years at the plate from 2017 to 2020, having his wRC+ above 100 in each of those seasons. Overall, in that timeframe, he hit .272/.337/.475 for a wRC+ of 111. But after signing a one-year, $1.5MM deal with the Angels in January, it’s been a disappointing campaign for him. He’s hitting .221/.285/.337 for a wRC+ of 73 and has largely served as a backup to Max Stassi.

Players with Contractual Options

  • Tucker Barnhart, $7.5MM club option with $500K buyout: Barnhart will be turning 31 in January and is about to finish the guaranteed portion of the extension he signed with the Reds before the 2018 season. Since that time, he has provided fairly consistent production, combining an adequate bat with solid defense. From 2018 to 2020, he hit .237/.324/.376, wRC+ of 85. In 2021, he’s taken his offense up a notch, slashing .263/.336/.397 for a wRC+ of 97, producing 1.9 fWAR. The club will now have to decide if that decent production is worth $7.5MM. (There are escalators that could take the option up to $9MM, though the thresholds aren’t publicly known.) The solid rookie season of Tyler Stephenson could lead the Reds to consider Barnhart expendable, which would add another everyday option to the market.
  • Roberto Perez, $7MM club option with $450K buyout: Perez had a $5.5MM option picked up for the 2021 season despite a down year in 2020, though it hasn’t worked out for the soon-to-be Guardians. Due to injuries, Perez has only played 36 games this year and has hit a meager .139/.250/.313. His last full season, 2019, was quite good, however, as he hit .239/.321/.452 for a wRC+ of 99. If Cleveland thinks he can get back into that form, he’d be well worth $7MM, but it’s more likely the always-frugal club just cuts him loose. The 33-year-old could make for an interesting buy-low, bounceback candidate.
  • Buster Posey, $22MM club option with $3MM buyout: In 2019, it was certainly starting to seem that this option was a lock to be bought out. Posey was 32 years old and saw his wRC+ drop below 100 for the first time, outside of a cup of coffee as a 22-year-old. However, sitting out the 2020 season seems to have done wonders for him, as he’s bounced back tremendously, hitting .299/.389/.503. His wRC+ of 142 is the highest since mark he’s had since 2014, helping the Giants outpace the most optimistic predictions for 2021, launching them ahead of the consensus favourite Dodgers to the top of the NL West. It now seems a no-brainer for the Giants to pick up the option and keep Buster around for his age-35 season.
  • Christian Vazquez (31): Vazquez is within striking distance of increasing the value of his option. Originally valued at $7MM with a buyout of $250K as part of the extension he signed in 2018, the option would increase to $8MM if Vazquez reached 502 plate appearances in each of 2020 and 2021. In the shortened 2020 campaign, Vazquez logged 189 plate appearances. Due to the shortened season, all thresholds were prorated by 2.7, meaning those 189 plate appearances counted for 510. This year, he’s at 468 for the season, meaning he’d need 34 more plate appearances in Boston’s final 11 games to get that extra million onto the option. All that said, it’s a minor difference, and Vazquez seems worth the price, despite a slightly mediocre season. He’s hitting .263/.315/.353 on the year, a wRC+ of 81. But with his solid defense, he’s still been worth 0.7 fWAR so far this year. And over 2019 and 2020, he hit .278/.327/.472, producing a wRC+ of 105 accrued 4.9 fWAR.
  • Mike Zunino, $7MM club option with $1MM buyout: When the Rays re-signed Zunino in December, the club option was valued at $4MM, with escalators based on games played. Zunino would have to play 100 games to max out the value at $7MM, something he’s already done. The reason the Rays have played him so much is because he’s been excellent. Zunino strikes out a lot and doesn’t hit for a high batting average, but more than makes up for it with his power. His 31 homers on the year have helped him produce a slash line of .201/.290/.549 for a wRC+ of 127. Combined with his quality defense, that adds up to 3.9 fWAR, which is fourth in the majors among catchers. You can never be certain of these things with a hyper-budget-conscious organization like the Rays, but Zunino’s option seems all but guaranteed to be picked up.

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