The Dodgers Are Better Off Targeting Defensive Catchers
The Dodgers need a catcher. No matter how you slice it up, two things are happening in Los Angeles and neither of them presents a situation in which the Dodgers do not need a catcher. One, Austin Barnes and Kyle Farmer are not capable of heading the backstop operation after both proved in 2018 that they are not ready to be more than backups. Two, Will Smith and Keibert Ruiz are not ready for the Major Leagues.
Now, this two-headed monster of an issue does present the solution of “sign or trade for a catcher” and, more specifically, one that is looking and able to sign a one year contract. But, this is where matters get complicated. The Dodgers can sign just about any catcher they went and yes, that includes Yasmani Grandal. But the freedom of choice, including the trade market, is also a scenario with two paths.
Path one: the Dodgers sign or trade for a catcher who can play good (for a sense of reference, a 100 OPS+ is our mark of good) offense and relatively good (0 DRS is the mark for good here) defense.
Path two: the Dodgers can comb the market, avoiding catchers with “good” offensive numbers and target defense in a deal.
As off as this may sound, path two is the way to go.
For a lack of better ways to say this and with the intention of being as crystal clear as possible, the market for catchers, both by way of trade and free agency, is saturated heavily with players who fall below or well below the 100 OPS+ mark. As a matter of fact, every free agent catcher still on the open market, with the exception of Yasmani Grandal, had an OPS+ below 100 in 2018.
To take that one step further, Grandal was among a group of just five catchers who caught a minimum of 95 games in 2018 to have an OPS+ of 100 or more. The catching depth in major league baseball as a whole is weak. But, that lack of offensive firepower at the catching position creates a trade market monopoly for teams that own catchers who play well with a bat in their hands.
Take Francisco Cervelli as an example. Cervelli caught 94 games and, for the sake of argument, we will bump him into the group of catchers that caught 95 games. If we make that bump, Cervelli becomes the sixth major league catcher with an OPS+ of 100 or higher, his was 123. The Dodgers tried to trade for Cervelli during the Winter Meetings- he’s a good catcher with a good bat and well below average defense.
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So, the Dodgers came up with what they thought was a logical return, submitted a deal that would have sent Ross Stripling to Pittsburgh for Cervelli yet the trade was declined. Now, why is that? Cervelli is an above average offensive catcher. In a world with good offensive catching, Stripling for Cervelli straight up gets the job done. But, the Pirates were able to not only decline the trade but they were able to ask for more.
This situation would apply just about anywhere else. The Marlins are asking for a king’s ransom for JT Realmuto and Yan Gomes, another one of the five players with OPS+ above 100, was traded for a few decent Nationals prospects after his first decent season in a long time.
Now, let’s revolve back to my original statement and the title of this article: the Dodgers are better off looking for a defensive catcher and calling up the offense in Keibert Ruiz and Will Smith in 2020. Insert Martin Maldonado.
Maldonado knows how to get the job done. His offense is not great by any stretch of the imagination. In 2018, Maldonado hit nine home runs and bat .225 with a wRC+ of 74. With an offensive game like that, why would the Dodgers sign him? Maldonado’s defense is the hero.
In 2018, Martin Maldonado’s defense was rated as a 3 in DRS, In 2017 he led all major league catchers with a DRS of 22 and in his seven full seasons of playing catcher, the now 32-year old backstop has never had a DRS below the 3 from 2018.
Signing Maldonado or someone like him would be a financial or prospect saver. There are plenty of catchers in the big leagues with DRS’s above 0 but, as I’ve said numerous times, very few solid offensive catchers.
They should avoid the monopoly. The Dodgers should be fishing in the big pond with tons of small fish rather than the big pond with very few large ones. If the goal is to acquire a “one-year catcher” there really is no sense in overexerting assets, either financial, prospects or both, to add someone the team will not need in just a season from now.