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In 2023, the Marlins had the worst catcher tandem in baseball when it came to offensive production. Although there are not many complaints about the other side of the ball, their slash line was so bad that to stay put would be catastrophic.
Nick Fortes had a mixed bag regarding defensive metrics. Out of 63 qualified catchers, he ranks 3rd in blocking and 22nd in framing, but 50th in throwing and 70th in pop time (out of 81 C’s). That means, he is doing fine with his glove, but well below average keeping base-stealers in control. FanGraphs ranks him 15th out of 78 catchers in DEF.
However, Nick had a year to forget with the bat. Last year he showed some promise and so in early 2023, his slash line was .250/.300/.351 by June 21, which was his highest OBP for the rest of the season. Right after that day, he went into a 0-for-23 slump and his OBP never reached .600 again. He finished the season with a .204/.263/.299 with 6 homers and 26 RBIs in 323 PAs, bad for an ugly +52 OPS. Nick is pre-arbitration eligible and even has two options left, so there is no rush to cut him loose.
Jacob Stallings wasn’t good at hitting nor catching. Although he ranked 12th in Blocking, he also went 44th both in throwing value and pop time (out of 81), and 56th in Framing. His cause got even worse every time he stepped up to the plate. His final slashline was very similar to Nick’s: .191/.278./.296 with 3 homers and 20 RBIs in 276 PAs, yielding a +54 OPS. Stallings also pitched 8 innings in blowout games allowing “only” 4 runs and 1 K, but that one remarkably being over Ronald Acuña Jr.
MLB Trade Rumors projects his arbitration salary to be around $3.6M, which seems steep for his overall contributions. There is a consensus about Stallings being non-tendered, and the decision is surely not because of the sum, but purely because of the added value, or the lack thereof.
Let us explore some options for improvement.
Here is the list of pending free-agent catchers this offseason. Unfortunately, good quantity but not a lot of quality. Each of them have some type of caveat that makes one wonder if they can actually fix the current problem. The list is into three categories:
1. Best options
This group can grab the main job because of their overall profile, pushing Fortes into a backup role.
Mitch Garver: This is the best option for teams that are looking for a bat-first catching option. He does have some injury history and he is not particularly good with his mitt, but after a season hitting .270/.370/.500 with 19 HRs and 50 RBIs in 344 PAs, he should get the largest contract by AAV of his career. It is improbable that the Marlins will beat other richer teams for his services, like Texas or San Diego, for example.
Tom Murphy: Another bat-first, often injured, poor glove option, who strikes out a lot but comes with a lot of power. Over the last 4 seasons, he has accounted for an OPS+ of 128 or more in three of them, being 2021 the exception (84 OPS+), when he had a career-high 325 plate appearances. That can tell you something about his durability.
Victor Caratini: A well-rounded catcher with some mixed marks in both offense and defense. Caratini just turned 30, and he’s the youngest of the free agents here mentioned. Since he is not particularly good at anything, shouldn’t be expensive. Expect a .650-.700 OPS guy with fine pitch framing.
2. Solid if duties are shared
Not good nor terrible bats if they can split the starting role.
Yasmani Grandal: Despite a great season in 2021, his best days are well in the past. He can be a solid backup catcher with OBP skills and occasional pop. He still blocks and frames well but has one of the most ineffective arms for catchers in the MLB. Diminishing his workload can be good for him (caught 92 games), and some reps at DH will help with that.
Gary Sánchez: Surprisingly, Sánchez had good defensive marks this past season, and he has always been known for hitting the ball hard…when he hits it. Expect tons of K’s, not many walks, but also, some mammoth home runs. Sounds a lot like Jorge Alfaro with better framing/blocking.
3. Glove-first backups
They won’t produce much better than Stallings, but their defense will cover some of that. You bring them if your bet is on Fortes having a bounce-back season.
Austin Hedges: Ever since Hedges broke into the big leagues, he has been one of the best defensive catchers in the game. Despite being 31, he still ranks above average or well above average in most catching metrics. His bat, though, produced a 24 wRC+, the lowest for any batter with 200+ PAs. (Side note: On that list, Wendle is 6th, Segura 9th, Fortes 11th, and Stallings 14th. How did the Marlins even make the postseason?!)
Martin Maldonado: The Astros main catcher will be a Free Agent after the World Series, with Houston probably transfering the main catching duties to Yainer Díaz. Maldonado had a great season behind the dish (except for framing), and can be a solid mentor to both Fortes and the young pitching staff.
The free agent list is not that alluring, so let us explore some trade opportunities. As every time a trade is proposed, there should be somehow an excess of the position on the other side of the transaction. Why would a team trade his only good catcher on their roster?
Another comment here: the Marlins do not possess a lot of trading material. Top prospects or potential tradeable players are either far from reaching the big leagues or have some injury concerns. That said, let’s jump into some potential trade options:
Kyle Higashioka (NYY): The Yankees are one of the few teams with 4 catchers on their 40-man roster. José Trevino will regain his starting role, and Austin Wells held onto the role in a small sample. With Ben Rortvedt as a depth option and with nothing to prove in AAA, Higashioka seems expendable, especially entering his last year of arbitration. He is not a lot of improvement over Stallings, but at least he finished the season over .680 OPS. A swap with Stallings plus a low-key prospect, maybe?
Riley Adams (WSH): The intra-division rivals are starting to come down the rebuilding curve, but they can still sacrifice some pieces for the right price. This trade will come expensive because Adams hit very well last year and is still pre-Arb. Nevertheless, it won’t require a blue-chip prospect.
Iván Herrera (STL): The Contreras/Knizner tandem had some miscues last season, but the Cards are so desperate for pitching that they will need to do something about it, and the Fish can help with that. The Panamanian “cousin” would also require a good haul, but still doable.
Tucker Barnhart: Before this season, Barnhart was a good example of a glove-first backup catcher. Solid defensive grades, and a below-average bat. His last two seasons have been awful, and he has a $3.25 M player option to stay with the Cubbies next season. He’ll probably stay looking for redemption in a contract year, but the Cachorros will gladly trade him.
James McCann (BAL): This is another potential catcher-swap scenario, where teams can bet for a change of scenery. McCann is entering the last of an expensive 4-year contract, so the O’s will have to send some money down to 305.
Shea Langeliers (OAK): Langeliers is the perfect example of a “not happening” trade. Although Oakland is rebuilding and can trade almost any player, Langeliers is one of the few building blocks and would require a package of Cabrera, Meyer, and maybe another two top-30 prospects. Not happening, but hey, wishful thinking.
Austin Barnes (LAD): The homegrown draft pick had a terrible, terrible season, batting for 36 OPS+, but before that, he was a decent backup catcher. The Dodgers need to be creative to trade Barnes, but the Marlins can welcome him if a good prospect is attached. LAD is not trading Cartaya, and they also have Feduccia done with AAA and waiting for a big-league chance, making Barnes very much expendable.
The Minnesota Twins have a pair of catchers eligible for the Rule 5 draft in Chris Williams and Jair Camargo. Williams is more of a 1B who can catch, and Camargo is a full-time catcher who was tied for second among catchers in HRs (21) at AAA level. With Jeffers and Vazquez holding the catching duties in Minneapolis, there might be a chance to scoop one of them if they leave are left unprotected. There are more examples of good-yet-blocked AAA catchers: Johnny Pereda (CIN), Ronaldo Hernández (BOS), and Milwaukee’s Alex Jackson and Peyton Henry (kidding! they both had good seasons, though).
This is the easy part, as there is not a lot you can do. Will Banfield led the Southern League in homers (23) and needs to be added into the 40-man during this winter’s Rule 5 draft. Although not a sure thing, he did enjoy a solid season (wRC+ 100) and looks ready to play with the Jumbo Shrimp.
Paul McIntosh doesn’t have to be added to the roster in the Rule 5 draft until next year, and he can use some more defensive seasoning in JAX after missing a good chunk of the season due to injuries. The Banfield-McIntosh tandem looks like a good bat-glove combination for the future.
In case you were wondering, Austin Allen was the one who led all catchers in AAA (tied with Brian O’Keefe) with 23 round-trippers. His catching abilities are not MLB-level, and by turning 30 in January, it seems a long shot that he can get an opportunity in Miami.
There is another internal option: Just stay put. It is not crazy to expect some rebound from both Fortes and Stallings, especially after such a bad season. Can it get worse than that? Probably not. Still, this approach should not be popular, and with the many options out there, the status quo seems a bit insulting.
Thanks for reading! I know is a lot, but this subject must be addressed properly. As always, comments are much appreciated.
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