D-backs have internal, external options to fill need at catcher
The Arizona Diamondbacks have a hole to fill behind the plate before the 2018 season begins.
Chris Iannetta became a free agent at the beginning of the offseason after one season with the D-backs, playing in 89 games. Jeff Mathis, who played in 60 games, will make $2 million in 2018, but he is the only catcher with a guaranteed contract for 2018.
As far as where to go about adding a catcher, general manager Mike Hazen has both internal and external options to complement Mathis next season.
We start internally, where the aforementioned Iannetta gets us started.
Of course, the D-backs could just re-sign Iannetta. If the price is right, Iannetta had a great first season in Arizona.
He brought the perfect blend of great defense, game calling, leadership and offense to the team in 2017. He hit 17 home runs and drove in 43 runs. More importantly, nine of Iannetta’s homers either tied or gave the D-backs the lead and he had multiple games with seven or more RBI.
Behind the dish, Iannetta ranked 20th in Fiedling Runs Above Average (3.6) and 11th in Framing Runs (6.1), per Baseball Prospectus.
The 29-year-old Herrmann has accumulated four years and one day of major league service time in six seasons with the Minnesota Twins (2012-15) and the D-backs (2016-17). Players need around two years and 130 days to become eligible for salary arbitration.
Herrmann could be non-tendered after an underwhelming 2017 season. At the plate, his 55 OPS+ was the second lowest by a D-backs hitter for a single season, behind only Nick Ahmed’s 46 OPS+ in 2016. Herrmann hit .181 with 10 HR and 27 RBI in 106 games.
He was not much better behind the plate. Of the 110 catchers tracked by Baseball Prospectus, Herrmann ranked 101st in Fielding Runs Above Average (-7.7) and he ranked 86th in Framing Runs (-3.4).
John Ryan Murphy
The D-backs acquired the 26-year-old Murphy in July from the Minnesota Twins for minor league pitcher Gabriel Moya.
Murphy is only a career .236 hitter at the big league level with a 69 OPS+ in 146 career games, but he is an elite framer.
Murphy had a +22.4 FRAA in the minors this season. He also saved 20.1 runs with his framing in 5,213 changes and got 2.6 percent more called strikes for his pitchers than the average catcher.
Hazen has made defense a priority over offense at the catching position. Murphy is under team control for 2018 and would make the minimum as a pre-arbitration eligible player. He would cost less than Herrmann and stats suggest he’s a better defensive option, assuming his sample size translates with more playing time.
Potential minor league options
Catcher is one position where the D-backs do not have a lot of depth or MLB ready talent.
Varsho (No. 16) is the highest rated catcher in the D-backs farm system, according to MLB.com.
Varsho was drafted with the 68th pick in Competitive Balance Round B last July. He played in 50 games for Class-A Short Season Hillsboro and hit .311. Here is what MLB Pipeline said about Varsho’s defense:
Agile behind the plate with solid receiving and blocking skills, questions about Varsho’s ability to stay there stem from his lack of size and below-average arm. He does make up for that with quick feet and a very quick release. If he can’t stick as a backstop, some think he’s athletic enough to handle left field if needed.
Yerzy, a Canadian and the D-backs’ second-round pick in 2016, is the other catcher in the D-backs MLB Pipeline top 30 at No. 24. He spent the 2017 season at Rookie-Level Missoula where he hit .298 in 54 games.
Here is what MLB Pipeline said about his defense:
Yerzy’s defense is a work in progress — he committed 20 passed balls during his pro debut — though he made strides during his first summer and at instructs last fall. His average arm should be playable, especially as he continues to improve his footwork and release.
In terms of ETA, the 21-year-old Varsho and the 19-year-old Yerzy are projected to arrive in the big leagues no earlier than 2020.
If the D-backs chose to look outside the organization, there are a few intriguing names on the free agent market. Trades are always a possibility as well but this piece will look at free agents.
After being traded in the middle of the season to the Chicago Cubs, Avila is an option on the free agent market.
Among players with at least 300 plate appearances in 2017, only J.D. Martinez (49.0) had a higher hard-contact rate than Avila (48.7 percent). Avila hit 19 home runs and had a 119 OPS+ in 112 games between the Detroit Tigers and the Cubs in 2017.
But advanced defensive metrics were not kind to Avila last season. He ranked 105th in FRAA (-3.6) and Framing Runs (-10.7) and 99th in CSAA (-1.6).
If Hazen decides that Mathis’ defense is enough and wants to go with an offensive-minded player as his backup, then Avila would be an option.
The 31-year-old Lucroy’s value took a turn for the worse in 2017. He used to be one of the best hitting and framing catchers in baseball. He hit 24 home runs and drove in 81 in 142 games between the Milwaukee Brewers and Texas Rangers in 2016 and finished 24th in Framing Runs (4.0).
But he hit only .265 with six home runs and 40 RBI in 123 games between the Rangers and Colorado Rockies in 2017. He did hit for a higher average with the Rockies (.310) than the Rangers (.242).
How far he plummeted defensively was more alarming. He finished last in FRAA (-19.2) and Framing Runs (-17.7) and DRS (-4) among catchers.
Given that Hazen has valued defense above anything else, Lucroy’s chances of signing with Arizona seem slim.
Of the remaining free agent catchers, the D-backs could look at Welington Castillo, who led the majors with a 49.0 caught stealing percentage last season, but Arizona recently traded him and his framing numbers are below average.
Other possibilities include A.J. Ellis, Nick Hundley, Jose Lobaton, Miguel Montero, Rene Rivera and Chris Stewart.