Blue Jays and the Tempting Catcher Market
By Jim Scott
Many teams are looking to upgrade at catcher this offceason. Is now the time for the Jays to cash in on their catching strength?
In 2012. the Jays felt themselves to be in a position of strength at the catching position. J.P. Arencibia was coming off a decent rookie season in 2011, and Travis d’Arnaud, A.J. Jimenez and Yan Gomes were considered to be near-MLB ready. The Jays were so confident, they traded d’Arnaud to the Mets (in the Dickey deal), and Gomes to Cleveland.
As Rabbie said, the best laid plans of mice and men ,,,
JPA slumped badly in 2013, to a 57 wRC+ and a negative WAR. He was traded to the Rangers, and then to the Rays, but never achieved the promise. Jimenez remained in the minors until 2017, when he had a brief (and unsuccessful) seven game taste of the majors with the Rangers.
Toronto Blue Jays
Which brings us to the 2018-19 offseason.
The Jays have one more year of Russell Martin, with Danny Jansen, Reese McGuire and Luke Maile factoring into the equation as well. In addition, Max Pentecost is finally catching again, and there’s also Hagen Danner and Riley Adams, as well as Chris Bec. Clearly, the Jays are swimming in catchers and should sell a few off, right?
The case for a trade
- The market is there. As MLBTR noted, there are several teams looking for a catching upgrade. And what could be more appealing that a young catcher with plenty of team control left but who has demonstrated (insert small sample size caveat here) competence at the MLB level?
- Rule 5 is looming. The Jays would almost certainly have to protect all four of Martin, Jansen, McGuire and Maile in the Rule 5 draft. With only 40 players on the protected list, and with many players deserving of protection, it would be difficult to justify investing four spots on catchers.
- The greater need. Having extra catching depth is a good and valuable thing. But is having a good 4th catcher as important as a good young starter or reliever?
The case against a trade
- Look at 2012. Young catchers have a way of flaming out, and good ones are expensive and hard to find.
- Martin’s contract expires at the end of 2019. So, in a way, the Jays only have three catcher in play, not four.
- J.T. Realmuto had the highest WAR among catchers in 2018. But Miami did not have the highest WAR from the catcher position – Pittsburgh did, by having *two* excellent catchers in Cervelli and Diaz. Would Toronto be better served to target two starter-level catchers for 2020 and beyond?
In my view, the arguments in favour of a trade are stronger than the ones against. Which takes us to the second question – who would you trade?
Russell Martin is a known quantity with considerable “name value”. But he is coming off a relatively poor 2018, and he is owed $20m in 2019, after which he becomes a free agent. On the other hand, he is known as one of the most intelligent catchers in the game, and is the perfect teacher for some combination of Jansen/McGuire/Maile. His value to the Jays is likely higher than his value to another team.
Danny Jansen should only be available for a holy-cow-Batman package. That said, no player is (or should be) untouchable.
Reese McGuire might be the highest-value trade candidate. He is only 23, and comes with a pedigree (he has been in the top-100 prospects on all three of the Baseball America, mlb.com and Baseball Prospectus lists). He is recognized as an above-average defensive catcher, so his downside is arguably a Jeff Mathis-type backup, and he still has six full years of team control. Finally, his outstanding 146 wRC+ in a September “cup of coffee” with the Jays might give a prospective suitor grounds for optimism.
Luke Maile has many of the same advantages as Reese, but in each case to a lesser extent. He is 27 years old, comes with four years of team control, and his 95 wRC+ in 2018 (while not McGuire’s 146) was achieved over 68 games, and is still higher than the 2018 big league catcher average of 84. Like Reese, Luke is considered an above-average defensive catcher, so even if he can not fully maintain his breakout 2018 offensive performance he could still have value.
And what would a trade look like?
For most of the teams looking for catching help, J.T. Realmuto will be the ultimate prize. But, even if the Marlins trade him, there is only one JTR to go around. The losers in those sweepstakes will have to look elsewhere, and there are not many good young catchers with upside on the market. While McGuire and Maile are not in JTR’s class, they might well be the best trade-market consolation prizes available.
Atlanta recently acquired Raffy Lopez from the Pads. But Lopez is 31, and is coming off a bad year, and is likely no more than a backup (if even that). Might Atlanta be interested in a young catcher with upside – say, perhaps, one that Alex Anthopoulos traded for himself? And would they be willing to part with one of their plethora of young starting pitchers to get him?
Washington’s Matt Weiters contract has come to a merciful end. The Nats are said to be strong JTR suitors, but they have plenty of competition. If they were willing to consider moving Robles for JTR, would they offer one of their young pitchers (like a Seth Romero) for a McGuire?
Colorado received 0.2 WAR from the catching position in 2018 – 26th best (worst?) in the majors. As bad as that sounds, the Rockies were even worse in their production from first base, with -1.8 WAR and ranking 29th in the majors. If someone could trade them a quality first baseman *and* an above-average young catcher in a single package, the Rockies could well be (at least wild card) contenders in 2019. Peter Lambert, their #3 prospect, is a RHP with mid-rotation upside and a 2019 projected arrival date, and is ranked #99 on the mlb.com Top 100 Prospects list.
Houston is another team that is in need of both a catcher (with the departure of Brian McCann) and a first baseman. That Smoak’s contract only has a year to run might not bother the ‘Stros, as (a) they expect to be contenders in 2019 and (b) they have A. J. Reed, who should (?) be ready to take on the 1B role full-time in 2020. While it is fun to dream on Forrest Whitley (#8 on the mlb.com top 100 list) in exchange, it would likely take more than Smoak + McGuire to get him. But a Josh James or Cionel Perez might not be out of the question.
The bottom line
Any trade has the potential to backfire. Trading one of the Jays’ catchers carries risk, but – in the right trade – the upside could also be high.