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MLB free agency: The market for available catchers is thinning for the Rays

If the Rays want their next Travis d’Arnaud, they need to act fast

World Series - Washington Nationals v Houston Astros - Game Six Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

The free agent market has been working at an expedited pace this 2019-20 offseason; most of the big names — the Gerrit Coles and Anthony Rendons — have already banked millions for themselves and Scott Boras, and position players are being snapped up like generators at Home Depot in during a hurricane watch.

One of the hottest commodities on the free agent market has been catchers, and it happens to be a position of need for the Tampa Bay Rays. Mike Zunino avoided arbitration in November by signing a one-year deal worth $4.5 million, but the Rays need security in the catcher position, which means they need a reliable back-up catcher to share the load with Zunino.

In short, they need another Travis d’Arnaud.

Unfortunately, d’Arnaud — whose value skyrocketed after a breakout 2019 season with the Rays — signed a two-year deal with the Braves in late November. Likewise Alex Avila was taken off the table in early December on a one-year deal with the Twins. Austin Romine, Yasmani Grandal, Martin Maldonado, and Yan Gomes were all signed as well. In the early days of 2020, Jason Castro and Kevin Plawecki were taken off the board as well.

The free agent market started with 30 available catchers, and the Rays are going to need to move soon if they want to get a quality player to split duties with Zunino. Let’s take a look at some of the remaining names that could fit nicely in the Rays lineup, including one or two who, like d’Arnaud, might be otherwise undervalued.

Robinson Chirinos

The ever-churning rumor mill has connected Chirinos to a number of different teams, the Rays among them, but the Rangers seem to be high on the list of suitors for the 35-year-old. Rays fans will be plenty familiar with Chirinos for two reasons. First, he made his major league debut with the Rays in 2011, after coming over in the Matt Garza trade, though the played a mere 20 games with the team. Second, he had a solo home run against the Rays in the 2019 ALDS when he played for the Astros.

Chirinos played in 114 games in 2019, which is a hefty load at age 35. His line was .238/.347/.443 with 17 home runs and a 21% caught stealing percentage. That’s a step down from d’Arnaud, who appeared in 92 games for the Rays, hit .263/.323/.459 and had a 28% caught stealing percentage for the team.

It’s likely that Chirinos is looking for a starting catcher role rather than shared duties or a backup deal. For that reason he might be reluctant to take a deal with the Rays.

Russell Martin

At 37, Russell Martin is certainly the oldest player on this list, but the former AL East rival is also one of the few remaining free agent catchers to have posted a positive WAR in 2019, with a 1.2.

Martin, a 4-time All-Star, and Gold Glove and Silver Slugger winner, appeared in 83 games for the Dodgers last year and hit for .220/.337/.330 with a 18% caught stealing percentage. He also had brief stints at third base, and somewhat implausibly was a pitcher in four different games.

Likely past his starting catcher years, Martin would be a good fit as a secondary catcher, but his age is certainly a knock against him, as catcher is a physically demanding position that doesn’t get easier with time. Martin is not the same catcher he was with Toronto, but he might still have a good year in him that the Rays could benefit from.

Josh Phegley

The 31-year-old Phegley is one of the younger players left, and the rumor mill has been relatively quiet about him. He had a juuuust positive WAR in 2019 at 0.3, and hit for .239/.282/.411. While his OBP obviously leaves a lot to be desired (especially in Oakland!) and his walk percentage was a grim 4.4 in the majors last year, he is still very worth a long look.

He played a career high 106 games last year after spending most of his regular seasons in a part-time catcher role. The thing that makes him so interesting is his caught stealing percentage which is an impressive 32%. He might not walk much, but he certainly keeps other batters from getting extra bases.

Also worth noting is that he was paid $1,075,000 with Oakland last year, meaning the Rays might be able to get him at a bit of a bargain if he’s overlooked by other teams.

Jonathan Lucroy

Lucroy was once one of the hottest available free agent catchers, especially after two All-Star seasons and seven years in Milwaukee. He has since been a bit of a journeyman, plating with five other teams since just 2016. In 2019 he split his time between the Angels and Cubs, and hit .232/.305/.355 with a 21% caught stealing percentage.

At only 33 years old it’s surprising to see Lucroy bounced around so much. He’s still playing over 100 games a season and has strong, consistent numbers at the plate, something that’s really just a bonus with a good catcher.

He had a -0.5 WAR in 2019, which is pretty negligible, and is the kind of player poised to have a solid year with the right team.

Matt Wieters

I championed Matt Wieters very hard as an option for the Tigers last season, but apparently they ignored me. His 2019 numbers with the Cardinals — where he served in a back up role — were not terribly inspiring, at .214/.268/.435, but he did have a 42% caught stealing percentage in 54 games.

Wieters is only 33, which means he likely still has a couple reliable seasons left in him, and considering he’s a 4-time All-Star, and 2-time Gold Glove winning catcher, he does seem like he could be an interesting undervalued selection the Rays could get at a bargain price. Wieters is a career .250/.313/.411 player, and 2019 was an uncharacteristically low year for him.

There are other interesting options still available beyond those listed above, but the popularity of catchers isn’t slowing down at all, and if the Rays want to get a good backup, they’re going to need to move soon.