Coming into the 2012 season, it sure looked like Josh Thole had a good shot at cementing himself as the Mets' starting catcher, at least for the next couple of seasons. Unfortunately for Thole and the Mets, that didn't happen. As James Kannengieser wrote in 2012 Postmortem: Catchers, Thole took a step back this year, and his catching cohorts weren't much better, either.
Heading into 2013, then, the Mets appear to need some help behind the plate, a tough task with a very limited budget and zero everyday major league outfielders currently under team control for the upcoming season.
Most Likely Internal Candidate
If the Mets simply stand pat this winter, Thole will head into spring training with the starting gig all but wrapped up. Despite Thole's down year this year and uncertain production in the future, there just isn't any one catcher banging down the door to take over the top catching spot on the Mets' 25-man roster.
It's worth noting that Thole has made no more than 386 plate appearances in any individual season of his big league career thus far and has made a total of just 1,026 plate appearances. For comparison's sake, the Mets are still learning what Ike Davis's future will look like, and he's made 1,334.
As a hitter, Thole's strength is his ability to make contact and draw walks. He's never hit for much power, but his .357 OBP from 2010 would be acceptable if he were able to match it next year. Catchers generally just don't hit much in the big leagues right now. Whether or not that can happen, though, is in question. In 2011, Thole posted a still-decent .345 OBP, but this year he dipped to .294. He's also shown nothing to demonstrate he can hit left-handed pitching, which appears to make him a platoon player at best.
Minor Leagues: Help on the Way?
We turn to our very own Rob Castellano for a summary of the Mets' organizational depth, or the lack thereof, behind the plate:
"The Mets' internal catching situation is dire, to say the least. The club has shown very little serious interest in drafting catchers in recent memory, which, paired with the high profile bust that is Francisco Pena, has left the farm system pipeline quite dry. With very little in the way of projectable big league talent, the best they can hope for in the short term is potential bench depth in a guy like Juan Centeno. The 23-year-old has very little in the way of tools but features good defensive skills, and after batting .285 in 2012 in Double-A, he has proven a consistent, if punchless, slap hitter.
"Looking even lower, the organization's most legitimate shot at a potentially solid all-around catcher — 22-year-old Albert Cordero — flopped badly in Low-A Savannah last season. Sticking in Savannah, Long Island native Cam Maron is likely the club's top current catching prospect on paper. Yet, he features an offensive profile similar to that of Josh Thole and the sub-par defensive skills to match.
"For the time being, the most interesting internal non-Thole option is 29-year-old newcomer Anthony Recker, a former 18th round pick by the Athletics who Sandy Alderson inked to a minor league deal in October. The Allentown, Pennsylvania native has posted meager results in his brief exposure to MLB pitching thus far, and worse, his defensive ability is quite suspect. With a career .810 OPS in the minors, however, and somewhat dramatic splits, he could represent an effective and cheap, power-hitting right-handed platoon partner for Josh Thole in 2013."
As James pointed out, Kelly Shoppach is a free agent but clearly complements Thole well in a potential platoon since he's a very good hitter against left-handed pitching. In addition to Shoppach, the following catchers are free agents at the moment: Rod Barajas, Henry Blanco, Russell Martin, Mike Napoli, Miguel Olivo, Ronny Paulino, A.J. Pierzynski, Humberto Quintero, Brian Schneider, Chris Snyder, Yorvit Torrealba, and Matt Treanor.
Four of those players — Barajas, Blanco, Paulino, and Schneider — have played for the Mets at some point over the past four seasons, and there was a time that Torrealba nearly donned the orange and blue. It's hard to imagine the Mets bringing any players from this group into the fold now, though.
Napoli is, of course, the best player among the free agents at the position, but he figures to sign a contract that far exceeds the Mets' budget. After that, the most appealing options are Martin and Pierzynski. With a 118 wRC+, Pierzynski just had the best offensive season of his career, and he'll turn 36 before the 2013 season begins. Martin will turn 29 in February, but he's been unable to hit at the elite level that he did with the Dodgers between 2006 and 2008. He did hit 39 home runs over the last two years with the Yankees, though.
Until recently, backstops Gerald Laird and David Ross were on the market, too, but the former signed with the Braves and the latter — who was Brian McCann's backup in Atlanta for the past few years — signed with the Red Sox.
Best Option for 2013
It's no secret that the Mets need offensive help more than anything heading into next season and beyond, which means that — in a vacuum — Napoli would be the best option. But in the real world in which the Mets are currently operating, the years and dollars necessary to bring him to Queens are just too much for them. Even if the Mets were spending money willy-nilly this offseason, a long-term contract for a catcher on the wrong side of 30 wouldn't be a wise move, particularly for a National League team.
The most intriguing player on the market, then, is Pierzynski. He's incredibly unlikely to match his 2012 total of 27 home runs again in his career, but given his age, it is at least conceivable that he could sign a contract for something around two-years, $14 million. That still might be a stretch for the Mets, especially next year, but it doesn't seem completely out of the realm of the possible. Like Thole, he's a left-handed hitter, but there's no rule set in stone that a team can't carry two catchers who hit from the same side of the plate. And unlike Thole, Pierzynski has at least been capable against left-handed pitching.
If a reasonable deal can be struck with Pierzynski, he looks like the best option for the next season or two. Such a signing would relegate Thole to a backup role, and if he plays mostly against right-handed pitching, that could work out well. If another team throws big money at Pierzynski, however, the Mets would be best off bringing back Shoppach and employing the Thole-Shoppach duo in a strict platoon over the course of a full season.