Blue Jays catcher situation: Exploring the need
By Lucas Silva
The Blue Jays starting rotation is clearly the area on this team that needs the most work, but the Blue Jays catcher position shouldn’t be overlooked amongst the other team needs.
Russell Martin is obviously the team’s starting backstop, but with Dioner Navarro hitting free agency the backup role is up in the air. The catcher position is pivotal towards a team’s success, and the Jays depth in that position is poor throughout the system, creating a large concern, especially if Martin were to miss time.
One could argue that A.J. Jimenez is ready to take over the back-up role due to his age and strong defensive capabilities, but he only received 108 AB’s last year between A and AA, and he put up a putrid .194/.261/.278/.538 line. He would be cheap, and could provide a viable option on the defensive side of things, but he clearly needs more time in the minors before he’s a capable major league backstop.
Josh Thole offers the other internal option. The knuckleball specialist is arbitration eligible for the second time, and he’s expected to receive a raise on last year’s 1.75 million dollar salary. MLB Trade Rumors is projecting a slight raise to 1.8 million, and he’s eligible for free agency in 2018.
1.8 million for a guy who only does one single job isn’t a good way to use efficiently use your money, especially when the starting catcher catcher can do the one job he’s paid for. Yes, Dickey loves throwing to Thole, and he does it very well, but Dickey’s numbers with Martin behind the plate are very good as well.
In 128.1 IP, Dickey posted a 3.44 ERA and surrendered a .693 OPS when throwing to Martin. Thole’s 867.1 IP with Dickey have netted a 3.56 ERA while allowing a .701 OPS. Martin has clearly shown he has the ability to catch the knuckler and Dickey can have success when doing so.
However, there is the question of the knuckleball effecting Martin at the plate. Kyle Matte at Capital Jays wrote a fantastic piece looking at Martin’s offensive production while catching Dickey, and the results were very concerning.
To sum up Matte’s findings, Martin hit well below the league average wOBA when catching Dickey, above league average the day after catching Dickey, and he posted a league-wide top 25 wOBA on two or more days after catching Dickey.
To maximize the offensive ability of Martin, and to use money and player assets in the best way possible, he suggested Thole should be the backup and should be catching Dickey every fifth day.
While this is a scenario that could benefit the offensive abilities of Martin, leaving the backup catcher position to a catcher who only has a job because he can catch the knuckleball is also very concerning.
If Martin were to go on the DL, having Thole catch everyday would be a nightmare. You can never assume injuries, but preparing for the potential for them to happen is important. The Jays have depth at other positions, and in many scenarios they could get by if a prominent player was to go down, but the same can’t be said for catcher, arguably the most important position on the field.
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Keeping Thole on the roster is important, he can be the third catcher in case of injury and can be brought up when he can to catch the odd Dickey start, much like he did this year. But, it shouldn’t be for 1.8 million. I’d like to see him non-tendered and re-signed to a deal that saves them some money that they can put towards a legitimate backup catcher.
The free agent catcher crop is very thin, but there are a few intriguing options the Jays could consider. Bringing Navarro back is definitely one of them. He calls a great game, knows the staff, fills in well on the offensive side of the ball, and has chemistry with teammates throughout the clubhouse. If Marco Estrada is brought back, then the idea of bringing back Navarro is even more important.
Another option I like on the market is Alex Avila. His defensive and pitch framing metrics have been inconsistent year to year, showing to both above and below average, but he’s coming off back to back years of throwing out 34% of runners and his defense is largely considered to be strong.
His days as a 4.6 WAR player are seemingly over, unless he bounces back in his 29-year-old season, but his OPS has decreased in every since that breakout season in 2011, so that looks unlikely. His offensive numbers last year dipped to .191/.339/.287/.626 and he lost the starting job to James McCann.
The offensive struggles might lead to an interesting buy low opportunity. Obviously it would be in a backup role, but if he can provide solid defense and be a tough out every time he gets a start, you’re looking at a solid backup catcher. If Martin does happen to miss time, you’d be far more comfortable with Avila in there everyday instead of Thole.
Despite the .191 average, he posted his best walk rate of his career at 18.3%, his line drive rate was strong at 27.9%, and his hard hit rate was a solid 31%. His BABIP was 29 points below his career average, and he could be due for some offensive improvement, especially in the Rogers Centre. With some luck and offensive strides, he could raise his wRC+ and wOBA to league average levels and be a valuable piece.
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Bringing in Navarro or Avila hinges on their respective price ranges and if they get offers to be starting catchers elsewhere. I can’t imagine they’ll have much interest to be a starting catcher due to their time as backups in 2015 and their below average offensive performances.
Dave Cameron of Fangraphs predicted that Navarro would sign with the Jays on a 2/$10 deal and Avila would be signed by the White Sox also on a 2/$10 deal. He added that both would be added as backups and for depth. Of course, no one can predict where free agents will land, but this acts as a good baseline as far as predictions are concerned.
Whether or not the Jays intend to sign Navarro, Avila or any other free agent catcher, I think it should be one of their priorities to address the backup catcher position. Thole needs to ultimately be on the roster in case of emergency, and to relieve Martin of catching the knuckler from time to time, but he should not be relied upon.
It occupies a valuable roster spot, and it creates a big problem if Martin needs to miss time with an injury. The concerns about Martin’s offensive struggles while catching Dickey are very much real, but the problems that can come of failing to provide sufficient depth can be much bigger and harder to solve mid-season. Using what money is available to sign a backup catcher is a worthwhile investment for the Jays.