There’s only two weeks left in the regular season, and half the league is all but officially out of postseason contention at this point. All 30 teams are assuredly looking ahead to the offseason to some extent, and that’s all the more true for the clubs that are merely playing out the string. Identifying free agent targets is a big part of that offseason prep work, so it’s worth taking an early look at the players who’ll be available on the open market.
Over the coming weeks, MLBTR will go around the diamond to preview the free agent class. We’ll begin today with the backstops, a group that seemed rather deep entering the 2022 season but has since seen most of its membership struggle through subpar years.
Top of the Class
Contreras is the unquestioned top player on this year’s catching class. He’s one of the game’s preeminent offensive backstops, eclipsing 20 home runs in each of the past three full seasons. Contreras hits a lot of ground-balls and has a fair bit of swing-and-miss to his game, but his exit velocities and hard contact rates are consistently well above average. That’s also true of his bottom-line results. Through 462 plate appearances, Contreras carries a .246/.351/.471 line that shatters the .229/.297/.370 mark compiled by catchers around the league. He’s tailed off a bit in the second half after an All-Star first few months, but he has a multi-year track record as one of the better hitting catchers in the game.
The concerns with Contreras lie on the other side of the ball. He owns a solid arm, but public pitch framing metrics have never been enamored with his work. Reports leading up to the trade deadline suggested some teams were wary of adding him midseason, questioning his ability to adapt to and manage a new pitching staff on the fly. That’s perhaps not as concerning for teams considering a free agent pursuit — Contreras would have part of the offseason and Spring Training to connect with his pitchers — but there was ostensibly enough worry about his game-calling acumen that no team met the Cubs lofty asking price this summer. How much one should read into Contreras not being traded is tough to tell, but it will have a tangible effect on his free agent market. He’s now eligible for the qualifying offer, which he’ll surely receive and reject. Any signing team will have to surrender a draft choice to bring him aboard, which wouldn’t have been the case if he were moved midseason, since players traded midseason are ineligible for a QO.
A longtime member of the Red Sox, Vázquez was dealt to the Astros midseason. He’s assumed more of a 1b/backup role there behind Martín Maldonado, but he was a regular in Boston and will likely be viewed as such by any team that signs him this offseason. Vázquez is a solid two-way catcher, an above-average defender who’s generally competent with the bat. He’s rated as a high-end pitch framer throughout his career, although his numbers have been roughly average the past two years. He’s typically solid at cutting down opposing base-stealers, and he’s drawn strong reviews for his game management and leadership in a clubhouse. Vázquez isn’t an impact hitter, but he puts the ball in play and consistently runs strong batting averages. His .275/.318/.396 line is about average overall but clearly above-average for a catcher, and he’s capable of holding his own at the bottom third of a lineup. Vázquez may not have a standout skill, but he’s a well-rounded player who’d be an upgrade for a fair number of teams.
Narváez has had an atypical career. He’s had individual seasons as a well above-average hitter, a quality left-handed bat with excellent plate discipline and strong contact skills. He earned a reputation as a bat-first player during his early days with the White Sox and Mariners, both because of his productivity at the dish and his dismal pitch framing marks behind it. Since being traded to Milwaukee heading into the 2020 season, Narváez has flipped the script. He’s rated as a dramatically better receiver — one of the sport’s best, in fact — but been a below-average hitter in two of three years. That includes 2022, where he’s stumbled to a .214/.301/.324 line with just four homers in 269 plate appearances. Narváez has shown the ability to be one of the league’s better catchers on both sides of the ball, just never at the same time.
Hedges has never hit, but he’s been a primary catcher in San Diego and Cleveland for the past half-decade based on his excellent glove. He’s an outstanding pitch framer who’s thrown out an above-average 30% of attempted basestealers for his career. The Guardians are among the league’s best teams at preventing runs, and they’ve trusted Hedges with guiding their talented pitching staffs for two-plus seasons. Among regulars, Hedges may be the least productive offensive player in MLB though. He’s hit below .180 for four straight years, not topping a .255 on-base percentage or a .315 slugging mark in any of those seasons. There’ll probably be teams willing to live with the lack of output at the plate because of Hedges’ defensive reputation, but he makes plenty of outs at the bottom of a lineup.
Acquired from the Yankees to serve a hybrid catcher/DH role in Minnesota, Sánchez has gotten a fair bit of defensive work due to a Ryan Jeffers thumb fracture. He has an excellent arm but has been much maligned for his work as a receiver. Sánchez’s pitch framing metrics this season are a hair above-average, but he’s struggled in that regard in prior years and consistently has trouble blocking balls in the dirt. While he’s been alright for Minnesota defensively, he hasn’t lived up to his reputation as a bat-first player. He’s hitting .213/.279/.382 over 420 plate appearances, connecting on 14 home runs but struggling to reach base for a third consecutive season. Sánchez’s early-career days as an impact bat in the Bronx are now well in the rearview mirror, but he still offers more pop than most catchers.
The Tigers acquired Barnhart from the Reds at the start of last winter, believing they’d solidified a position of need with a respected veteran. Unfortunately for both Barnhart and Detroit, he’s posted the worst season of his career. Over 277 trips to the plate, he has only one homer and a .209/.274/.256 slash. Barnhart has always been a below-average hitter, but this year’s on-base and slugging marks are easily career lows. He’s a good defender who’s highly regarded for his ability to handle a pitching staff, a broadly similar player to Hedges but two years older and with a more solid than elite pitch framing track record.
Zunino has shown high-end potential at his best. Consistently excellent defense gives him a high floor, but he’s also shown more offensive upside than most of the glove-first players on the market. That includes a 2021 campaign in which he blasted 33 home runs and slugged .559. Even with a strikeout rate in excess of 35%, Zunino was a quality hitter and very valuable all-around player. Had he replicated his 2021 production, he’d likely have been the #2 catcher on the market this winter, but his 2022 campaign was a disaster. He hit .148/.195/.304 in only 36 games before being diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome that required season-ending surgery. He’s expected to be ready for Spring Training, but it’s tough to know what to make of a player coming off that kind of platform year.
Pérez’s story isn’t too dissimilar from Zunino’s. A career-long regular, he was set to reprise that role in 2022 but had the year mostly wiped out by injury. In his case, it was a left hamstring strain that necessitated surgery. He played in just 21 games, his first season with the Pirates after a career spent in Cleveland. Pérez is a Gold Glove caliber defender at his best, but he’s typically been a well below-average hitter. He did connect on 24 homers in 2019, but he has a .171/.269/.295 mark in parts of three seasons since then.
Chirinos opened the season as Baltimore’s starting catcher, but he lost the job when Adley Rutschman was called up midseason. He struggled badly early on, and he carries only a .178/.266/.278 line over 204 plate appearances on the year. He’s consistently rated as a below-average receiving catcher.
Designated for assignment by the Red Sox last week, Plawecki finished his time in Boston with a disappointing .217/.287/.287 showing across 175 plate appearances. He’d hit well in limited action as Vázquez’s backup from 2020-21, but he’s been a below-average offensive player for the bulk of his career. He’s had a very tough time throwing out attempted basestealers, but he’s a capable receiver.
A career-long #2 catcher, Casali brings a decent right-handed power bat to the bench. He strikes out a lot but offers a solid blend of plate discipline and power. Casali lost a chunk of this season to an oblique strain and has a .211/.310/.331 line between the Giants and Mariners. He’s typically slightly below-average at both controlling the run game and pitch framing.
Suzuki has 15 years of big league experience, including a good run as a regular. A productive bat-first catcher in his prime, he’s struggled for two straight seasons with the Angels. He carries a .179/.263/.299 line over 152 trips to the plate this year.
Romine has split the 2022 campaign between three teams, suiting up with the Angels, Cardinals and Reds. He’s been a depth option at all three spots, and he owns just a .181/.211/.295 mark over 111 plate appearances. Romine was a productive backup for the Yankees early in his career, but he’s settled into journeyman status while struggling offensively since leaving New York.
Another glove-first journeyman, León had a very good 2016 season with the Red Sox but has otherwise been a well below-average hitter. He’s not hit above .200 or slugged north of .300 in any of the past five seasons. León has spent most of 2022 in Triple-A, but he’s appeared in 32 big league games with the Guardians and Twins.
Castro was a solid regular for a while with the Astros and Twins, compensating for high strikeout totals with excellent walk rates and pitch framing marks. He had a productive 2021 season as a backup after returning to Houston on a free agent deal, but this year has been a disaster. Castro hit .115/.205/.179 over 34 games and eventually underwent season-ending surgery on his left knee. He told reporters in Spring Training he’d consider retirement after this season (link via Brian McTaggart of MLB.com). It remains to be seen how the disappointing trajectory of his 2022 campaign plays into that decision.
The well-regarded Vogt returned to Oakland, where he’d been a productive fan favorite in the middle of the last decade, for the 2022 campaign. He’s bounced between catcher, first base and designated hitter but owns just a .168/.251/.315 line over 171 plate appearances. It’s his third consecutive well below-average season.
Note: Yadier Molina is playing on a one-year contract with the Cardinals and will technically qualify for free agency at season’s end. He’s already declared 2022 will be his final season, so he’s been excluded from this list in anticipation of his retirement.
* Listed ages are the player’s age for the 2023 season. All stats through play September 18.
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