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Catching options for the Mets

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With the Mets’ catching depth evaporating overnight, here are some additions that could help.

MLB: Spring Training-New York Mets at Washington Nationals Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

The Mets are off to a fast start, which of course means the baseball gods have to find a way to screw things up a bit. Travis d’Arnaud was diagnosed with a torn UCL and will undergo Tommy John surgery, ending his season. The same day that injury was announced, Kevin Plawecki was hit in the hand by a pitch that broke a bone, which will keep him out for 3-4 weeks, an optimistic estimate.

That leaves Tomas Nido as the Mets’ likely starting catcher. He is a mildly interesting prospect who is known as one of the best defensive backstops in the minors, and he has some pop. But his contact ability and approach are suspect, and there’s a good chance he just never hits for an average about .225. Elite defense and a low .200s average with an occasional bomb is enough to be a fringe starter, but a contender would ideally have a stronger option behind the plate.

Moreover, the depth behind Nido is beyond thin. Jose Lobaton is a defensive specialist who has never hit much—except against the Mets—and the Mets have re-signed 2015 backup Johnny Monell to serve as depth in Triple-A. Neither of those two are viable starters, and the depth chart behind them is essentially empty.

Thankfully, there are a plethora of options for the Mets to consider, both as potential backups or new starters. Many are available as free agents or extremely low cost trades, while others would be more high profile options that we would potentially see moved at the deadline.

Depth and Backup Types

Miguel Montero is the most prominent cheap option, as he was released by the Nationals. His once potent offense has vanished, as he hasn’t been an above-average hitter since 2015. Defensively, he’s an excellent framer, ranking as one of the best in baseball by CSAA over the last three seasons. His control of the run game is terrible, as is his skill at blocking pitches, but those are much less important than his elite ability to steal strikes. Montero also offers a left-handed-hitting complement to Nido, which makes a platoon more viable.

Ryan Hanigan is another similar option to Montero, though his bat is even worse. Since his last average offensive season (2011, 100 wRC+), Hanigan hasn’t posted a wRC+ higher than 90. He is a bit better than Montero in terms of blocking balls in the dirt and throwing out baserunners, but he’s a much, much worse framer.

Cameron Rupp would be a cheap trade option, as he’s currently hanging out in Triple-A for the Texas Rangers. Before this season, Rupp had spent his whole career with the Phillies, where his offensive profile looked very similar to what we’d hope for from Tomas Nido, albeit with a bit more plate discipline. Unlike Nido, Rupp is not a good defender, coming in as one of the worst framers in the game last year while being mediocre in the other two facets of catcher defense.

Bruce Maxwell is a more complicated option, largely because of an off-the-field incident that may result in discipline from MLB. When on the field, Maxwell is a solid left handed batter with a 100 wRC+ against righties. Similar to Montero, this makes Maxwell interesting as a platoon partner rather than pure backup. He’s been an average defender so far at the major league level, though his framing numbers were some of the best in the minors in 2015 and 2016. Maxwell would be more expensive to acquire since he’s still a pre-arb player who the A’s might view as a long term piece, which makes him a bit less appealing as an injury replacement option.

Curt Casali is another right handed option with a very similar offensive profile to Nido with a few more walks. He has a career .199 average but has 19 home runs in 466 plate appearances. On the defensive end, Casali is above average but not elite across the board. In many ways, he seems like a likely version of what Nido will be without the potential upside for more. The Rays currently have Wilson Ramos and Jesus Sucre ahead of him on the depth chart, meaning he’d be available at a pretty low cost. Given that he’s not much of an upgrade, however, the Mets might be better looking elsewhere.

Potential Starters

Jonathan Lucroy is the most controversial of the possible options. He was one of the best catchers in baseball from 2012 to 2014, was terrible in 2015, back to great in 2016, and then even worse in 2017. His wRC+ has gone from 133 to 95 back up to 123, and then down to 82. His defensive metrics haven’t been as volatile, but there’s been a definite downward trend. Lucroy was an elite framer in 2014, solid in 2015 and 2016, and then fell off a cliff to register as the worst framing catcher in baseball last year.

After sitting on the free agent market for a long time this offseason, Lucroy signed a one-year, $6.5 million contract with the A’s. The early, extremely small sample returns aren’t great. His framing doesn’t seem to have rebounded, and his power has declined even further. The A’s are also decent enough that they may not be inclined to give up on Lucroy already. Even if they were, the Mets would probably have to take on a chunk of salary, and wasting any of this team’s extremely limited budget on a player that may actually be a downgrade from what they currently have doesn’t seem like a good idea.

J.T. Realmuto is the other big name out there. He is one of only a handful of useful players left on the Marlins’ roster after their fire sale this offseason. His offense is a bit overrated, as he bats for a high average but doesn’t walk a lot or hit for notable power, but even a bat that’s slightly above league average is excellent for a catcher. On the defensive side, Realmuto improved drastically last season, going from one off the worst framers in baseball to one of the best. If you buy that most or at least some of that improvement is real and not just noise due to sample size, he’s comfortably a top-five catcher on both sides of the ball.

Realmuto is making only $3 million this year and is under control until 2021, making him an affordable, long-term upgrade. He does come with two problems, of course. First, he hasn’t played at all this season because of a back contusion, and a catcher with a back injury is concerning. Second, the Marlins’ asking price was sky high this offseason, as Derek Jeter and company reportedly asked for Victor Robles from the Nationals and Kyle Tucker from the Astros. The Mets simply do not have any prospects of that caliber, so if the Marlins are still demanding that sort of return, the Mets are simply out of luck.

Of course, that ask is entirely unreasonable, particularly given Realmuto’s injury, If the Marlins lower their price a bit, the Mets might be able to put together a reasonable package. Nido, Dominic Smith, and Justin Dunn is something that seems doable at first pass, and the Mets have other pieces they could substitute based on who the Marlins like. Realistically, this is the sort of deal that needs to happen closer to the trade deadline, and the Mets may wind up being outbid by a team with a better farm system. At a reasonable cost, however, Realmuto is the best solution.

Conclusions

Reading the lines through Sandy Alderson’s quips, it seems that the Mets aren’t interested in adding another catcher at the moment. That makes some sense, as they have a viable tandem for the moment, and it’s worth seeing what they have in Nido. If they decide to add another body in the short term, Montero appears to be the best option as a solid defender who complements Nido in terms of platooning. If the Mets are still in the thick of it down the line, Realmuto is the acquisition to dream on, even if it’s very unlikely.