With the trade for Robinson Cano and Edwin Diaz, the Mets made their intentions clear: they’re all in on 2019. Unfortunately, the NL East is shaping up to be a dog fight. The Braves won the division last year and have a plethora of young talent, the Nationals have already added Yan Gomes and Patrick Corbin, and the Phillies have been linked to literally every top free agent. The Mets, meanwhile, have a limited budget and holes in both the pitching staff and the lineup.
In an ideal world, the Mets could rely on Yoenis Cespedes for a half season of his usual elite production this season, but that’s simply unrealistic given the major surgery he had on both heels this offseason. On the other hand, allocating a large chunk of resources into a player that Cespedes could make superfluous is also a tough pill to swallow. Assuming the team wants to continue giving Amed Rosario a chance to grow (and that they are unable to afford Manny Machado), that leaves catcher as the optimal place to add offense.
Catchers who can both hit and play defense are extremely rare, but the Mets are in luck: the best defensive catcher in baseball happens to be a free agent this offseason, and he’s also been a top-five hitter at the position for the last half-decade. Yes, Yasmani Grandal is that good, and he fits the Mets’ to a tee. Don’t let a couple poorly-timed passed balls in the postseason bias you, because Grandal is a star and should be the Mets’ top priority.
Stepping back for a moment, we can break down Grandal’s skill set a bit more finely. Calling him the best defensive catcher in baseball is a small embellishment; he’s certainly the best starter, but there are a handful of backups or part time catchers that are better on a per-game basis. Still, Grandal led the league in framing runs last year, was fourth in 2017, second in 2016, and first again in 2015. He’s a scratch defender in terms of blocking balls and throwing baserunners out, but framing is by far the most important part of catching, and his skills in that department have propelled him to top-5 overall defensive finishes in each of the last four seasons.
On the other side of the ball, Grandal is a switch-hitter who hits for power. That’s rare in and of itself, and that he does that as a catcher is even more unique. Since 2015, the only catchers with a higher wRC+ than Grandal are Gary Sanchez and Buster Posey, and only Salvador Perez has hit more home runs in that time frame. Last year, the only better hitting catcher was J.T. Realmuto, who edged out Grandal by all of one point of wRC+. He’s much better from the left side than the right (120 wRC+ vs 106 wRC+), but Grandal is a legitimate middle-of-the-order bat.
Using Baseball Prospectus’ WARP (which incorporates catcher framing, unlike fWAR or bWAR), Grandal has been worth between 4.6 and 6.3 wins in each of the last four seasons. Catcher’s have weird age curves, but Grandal has a skillset that isn’t extremely dependent on athleticism and should age well along with a relatively clean medical history. At 30 and with a robust skillset on both sides of the ball, one would expect the competition for Grandal in free agency to be intense.
Well, it might not be. Looking around the league, there are few contenders that need a catcher. The Yankees have Gary Sanchez, the Cubs have Wilson Contreras, the Astros signed Robinson Chirinos, the Nats added Yan Gomes and Kurt Suzuki, the Braves added Brian McCann to pair with Tyler Flowers, and the Indians traded away their starting catcher to cut salary because they believe in their internal options. The Dodgers’, Grandal’s former team, would make sense, but they’ve been fans of Austin Barnes for a long time, and have two top catching prospects in Keibert Ruiz and Will Smith. The Phillies have frequently stated their willingness to spend money, but they seem to be aiming for the tier above Grandal, and might not be willing to give up on Jorge Alfaro just yet. Finally, the Red Sox already have a bloated payroll, and the Brewers are working with unknown constraints as a small market team.
That leaves Grandal’s market a bit thin, and it could lead to a lower than expected contract. Kiley McDaniel at Fangraphs predicted a 3 year, $39 million deal, while the median crowd prediction was a bit higher at 3 years and $45 million. Both of those feel light, and I’d expect Grandal to get a four year deal in the $50-$60 million range. However, even at that price Grandal would be a steal. If he continues to post something like 4.5 or 5 wins per season, he’ll pay off the entire value of a $60 million deal halfway through 2020.
Moreover, Grandal fits what the Mets need almost perfectly. He’s another bat in a lineup that needs more length. He’s an elite defender behind the plate, one that will help the Mets’ entire pitching staff. He doesn’t block Cespedes in an ideal world where the Mets’ injured star returns in August. Most importantly for the Mets, Grandal will be affordable, and will provide a great value for the money he commands.
The other factor I’ve yet to mention is the huge drop off in the catching market after Grandal. The two next best options are Wilson Ramos, who can hit but has questionable defensive skills at this point in his career, and Martin Maldonado, who can’t hit a lick. After that, any remaining options are probably no better than sticking with Travis d’Arnaud and Kevin Plawecki. If the Mets want to make a significant upgrade at catcher, it’s essentially Grandal or bust.
In order to compete in the NL East and make their acquisition of Robinson Cano and Edwin Diaz ‘worth it’, the Mets need to continue adding. They have a hole at catcher, and there’s a free agent catcher who will provide five wins of value at a two win price. The Mets should jump at the chance to add by far the best catcher on the market and arguably the best value signing of the offseason and sign Yasmani Grandal.