The Mets have had more or less a revolving door situation at catcher since the time of Mike Piazza. Sure, some have stuck around for a few seasons, but none have seemed to have the makings of a sure-fire, hard-hitting everyday backstop, let alone one just being able to hit for average and stay on the field. This offseason has limited free agent catching options, but there are some improvements to be made—if the Mets are willing to take a risk.
Before delving into free agency, it’s important to take stock on what the Mets had at catcher this past season. 2017 saw Travis d’Arnaud playing in a career-best 112 games. As the primary catcher, he hit .244/.293/.443 and a 91 wRC+, certainly enough to make the front office consider looking outside the organization for other options.
Rene Rivera performed as advertised this year, being a defense-first backup hitting .230/.278/.391 over 54 games. Kevin Plawecki was patently awful during March and April, earning a demotion to Triple-A Las Vegas. His second trip to the big leagues in August and September was much more successful, as he hit .303/.411./474 with a 137 wRC+. Given Plawecki’s track record and small sample size, no one is blaming the front office for not thinking that he’s suddenly figured it all out.
Sprinkle in a few guest appearances in September from Tomas Nido, and Mets catchers combined to hit .258/.308/.408 with a .716 OPS, which was below average and underscores the need for the team to look for help outside the organization this winter.
Of the available free agent catchers, three tend to stand out from the pack: Alex Avila, Welington Castillo, and Jonathan Lucroy. Avila had a very solid year overall, splitting time between the Tigers and Cubs, where he was the backup catcher to Wilson Contreras. He hit .264/.387.447, good for a 124 wRC+ and 2.5 fWAR. His last few seasons have been dogged by injury, and he had a lackluster second half of the year, but if healthy, he would be a marked improvement over anything the Mets had last year. He is projected by MLBTR to get a two-year, $16 million deal.
Castillo profiles similar to Avila. Expected to get a deal in the range of two years, $14 million, he would represent a marked improvement over any Mets catcher. Injuries have also plagued his career, and he only played in 96 games this year with the Orioles. He had an had a slightly above-average year offensively, with a 113 wRC+.
Going into his age-32 season, it doesn’t look as if Jonathan Lucroy will have the big pay day he was once expected to have as a free agency. In his second year starting with the Rangers, he hit .242/.297/.338. A midseason trade sent him to the Rockies, where he salvaged his year, hitting .310/.429/.437 and ending the year with 1.2 fWAR. He is expected to command a deal in the range of two years, $24 million—and may well get more given his track record.
While these three represent a big improvement over the normal catching squad, the Mets would have to weigh the risk of having three older, somewhat injury-prone players on their roster. You’d think they would learn by now. The kind of deals are similar to what Matt Wieters got with the Nationals last winter, but hopefully would net a better result.
The Bad and the Ugly
After these three, there is a steep decline in the quality of players available on the market. Rene Rivera is of course a free agent, and while he has been a capable defender, it may not be enough to justify bringing him back if a better option can be had, especially if Plawecki can keep anything similar to the level of play he had towards the end of the year. Chris Iannetta had a great year, earning a 120 wRC+ and a 2.2 fWAR, but going into his age-35 season, there would be some risk in a multi-year contract.
It seems as if all of the best catchers of the late 2000s are also on the market, with players like Carlos Ruiz, Geovany Soto, and A.J. Ellis all vying for contracts. At this range and level of ability, it would probably make more sense for the Mets to stand pat with their current configuration.
The Mets likely have some bigger holes to fill this offseason and a limited budget to do so. There is some definite risk with these options, but the potential for even bigger upside, especially if the Mets are serious about contending while their young pitching core is together. If they’re not able to land one of the top-tier free agents, it would probably be more prudent to stay with some combination between d’Arnaud and Plawecki and perhaps explore any trade opportunities that might present themselves.