The A.L. East Catchers – A Deep Dive
By Cary Greene
January 7, 2022
Five bitter division rivals compete in the increasingly more rugged American League East. Each GM is continually trying to improve their ball clubs and also adheres to a team budget set by ownership. I’ve looked at how Brian Cashman has positioned the Yankees so far this offseason. The Catching Conundrum article appeared this past Wednesday on SSTN and in it, we examined how Brian Cashman has allocated his payroll to position the Yankees this offseason. We also examined what kind of production he’s getting for the money he’s spending.
Now we’re going to drill down by position and frame the production Cashman gets – in relation to what he spends, compared to each American League East rival and what they get. In addition, we can learn much from looking at this 30,000 foot satellite image of each franchise. We can see how well each GM has positioned their franchise not only for the 2022 season, but for the future.
Every team in baseball would love it if their farm system were able to produce productive, viable major leaguers and of course, if these players were capable of being starters – all the better because this would help keep a team’s payroll under control and give them a vast amount of financial flexibility to add needed free agents when and where it might make sense. Unfortunately, not all farm systems are created equal and that’s precisely why many teams spend money to address positions of need.
In the first installment of this ongoing project, we’ll look at how each team is set for the coming season and also for the future, position by position. A logical place to start is at catcher. Traditionally, catchers are crucial defensive players. They handle their team’s respective pitching staffs, they play a big part in controlling opponents running games with POP times and Transfer Rates, they block pitches in the dirt, they frame pitches and they save vital runs.
Using data from fangraphs.com and from sportac.com, I’ve compiled a chart that appears at the bottom of the article, that ranks each American League East team’s overall catching. The Blue Jays currently have the best overall catching in the division – based on the production Toronto GM Ross Atkins is receiving for his overall paltry $2,65 million spend at the position.
Toronto is absolutely crushing the rest of the division thanks to the Blue Jays farm system producing both the starting catcher and the backup. Toronto’s starter is 26 year-old Danny Jansen and he’s developed into a very solid defensive catcher who does enough offensively to get by.. The Blue Jays will enjoy three years of team control over Jansen, who should continue to improve as he goes along.
Toronto also has 23 year-old Alejandro Kirk as the current backup and Kirk could very well overtake Jansen and become the starter. Kirk has drawn comparisons to Benji Molina, he’s a thick, muscular two way player who absolutely hits well and he can also catch. Kirk rocketed through the Blue Jays system after being signed out of Mexico in 2017 as an international amateur Despite being only 5’7” and weighing 260 pounds, his athleticism and talent were amazing and Kirk has become a fan favorite because of his electric personality and his all out style of play.
Toronto’s tremendously talented special assignment scout Dean Decellis is credited with discovering Kirk, who was truly a diamond in the rough. Decellis carries an iron-clad reputation as a scout and the Blue Jays are taking full advantage of it as they now are threatening to win the American League East outright.
Decellis has scouted both professional and amateur, which has strengthened his perspective on what it takes to play in the majors. He’s scouted every level of the minor leagues and has comprehensive international experience, including Latin America and Asia. The reason I mention all of this about Toronto is to make a point. Scouting can play a huge role in identifying talent and if a team is over reliant on analytics, it might be very easy to overlook talent when talent shows itself. Kudos to the Blue Jays for doing things the right way here, their catching situation is a credit to their entire system.
The Rays are the next best positioned team at catcher within the division and that’s largely because of Tampa’s decision to re-up with 2020 free agent Mike Zunino, who surprisingly make the All-Star team last season. Tampa had the wherewithal to sign Zunino for two years, not one and that’s turned out to be extremely important, given how thin the market is this offseason at catcher. Zunino has tremendous raw power but he also strikes out a whopping 34.9 percent of the time. Zunino is also an excellent defensive catcher. His 7 DRS last season was excellent and he’s a superb signal caller who’s game management, strong throwing arm and overall presence make him an absolute steal considering the Rays are only paying $7 million for his services this season.
Unfortunately for Tampa, Zunio is a free agent at the end of this coming season and he may have a very strong market for his services going forward. That said, Tampa has 26 year-old switch-hitting Francisco Meja as the backup. Meja is a bat first catcher who was produced by the Rays farm system. As a prospect, Meja recorded a 50 game hitting streak, which is the fourth longest in minor league history In 2018, Mejía was not only considered a top prospect in Cleveland’s organization, but also the number one catching prospect in baseball. The same year, he was traded to the Padres. In 2020, Meja suffered a left thumb contusion, ending his season after playing only 17 games. Meja is an average defensive catcher who could break out big if his offense begins to improve. The Rays have Meja under control for three more years, so Tampa is well positioned to survive the potential loss of Zunino to free agency.
The next best positioned team in the American League East is a bit debatable. I’m going with the Orioles, who are relatively stable at catcher and who are just about ready to implement a massive internal upgrade by promoting uber prospect Adlay Rutschman for the coming season. Baltimore paid Rutschman a whopping $8 million signing bonus, so we need to keep this in mind as we evaluate his eventual contribution to the big league team.
Baltimore signed Jacob Nottingham in December and it appears his immediate role may be to start until such time as the Orioles inevitably pass the mantle to Rutschman. Nottingham spent some of 2021 in the big leagues with the Brewers and Mariners but was outrighted in June, thus making him eligible to sign a minor league deal during the ongoing lockout. Although it’s a minor league deal, it’s noteworthy for the Orioles given their catching situation. They don’t currently have any catchers on their 40-man roster. In 2021, most of the time behind the dish went to recently jettisoned Pedro Severino, who was outrighted at the end of the season and has since signed with the Brewers. Chance Sisco got some playing time in the first half of the year but was claimed on waivers by the Mets in June and both Austin Wynns and Nick Ciuffo, who were both in the mix last season, were outrighted off the roster at the end of the season.
Enter Major League Baseball’s top prospect, the switch-hitting 23 year-old Adley Rutschman, who spent the last two months of 2021 at Triple-A Norfolk and isn’t far from making his major league debut. Rutschman was the first overall draft pick in 2019 and he hit .285 with an .899 OPS between Double-A Bowie and Norfolk in his first full pro season.
At least under the current collective bargaining agreement, which expires Dec. 1, the Orioles are incentivized to keep Rutschman in Norfolk for the first few weeks of 2022 to delay his free agency a year. It’s possible they hold him in the minors longer if they want to delay him reaching salary arbitration. The changing of the guard is happening in the American League at the catcher position and the Orioles and Blue Jays have by far the most future upside at this position. Rutschman will battle for All-Star recognition in due time so keep an eye out for this extremely good prospect.
The fourth best positioned team at catcher is our own New York Yankees, who have tendered a contract to Gary Sanchez, who is in his final year of team control this season. The much maligned Sanchez is at this point an offensive liability. How far the once mighty have fallen. As I wrote in the recent “Yankees Catching Conundrum” article, the Yankees were a middle of the pack team last year when we evaluate the catching as a whole. NY gets good defensive bang for the buck believe it or not, but unfortunately, between Sanchez and Higiashioka, the offensive contributions coming from the catching position are pretty horrendous.
Brian Cashman is spending $9.675 million for Sanchez, Higashioka and third-stringer Rob Brantly this season. I’ve often said that Cashman does less with more than just about every GM in baseball, but in fairness to Cashman, I’m also usually griping about the ongoing championship drought when I’m saying this. Perhaps the Yankee catching situation as Cashman has currently positioned it, proves his shortcomings unintentionally.
If the Yankees are supposed to close the gap on their division rivals, the Catching position will not be helping them accomplish this. The Yankees also have the least amount of team control at the position out of any division rival. Unfortunately, there is no plan to succeed Sanchez, who will be a free agent at the end of the season, so Brian Cashman must pray that one of the Yankee catching prospects we discussed in the “Yankees Catching Conundrum” article winds up making the jump to the majors. Of the group, left-handed 22 year-old masher Austin Wells is best positioned to impact the big league team, but he likely won’t arrive until 2023 at the earliest, meaning NY will certainly need to sign a 2023 starter to a short term deal at the very least.
Without doubt the division rival in the worst overall shape in the catching department is the Boston Red Sox, who rely on offensively putrid Christian Vazquez as their starter. Vazquez is a complete waste of $7 million and Chaim Bloom will certainly be looking to upgrade at the position going forward. Kevin Plawecki is the defacto backup and he makes $2.25 million so Boston is squandering resources to say the least with regards to their catching. Bloom is not the type to condon this so the question is, what will the Red Sox do for the 2023 offseason as both they and the rival Yankees will both be scouring the market for solutions as Baltimore and Toronto will both be vastly better off at the position. The name of the game for Bloom will be to make up ground by constructing a better, more productive, less costly roster.