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Finding catchers for the Mets in free agency

One elite option and a whole lot of yeesh.

Toronto Blue Jays v Philadelphia Phillies Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

It’s no secret that the Mets need a catcher this offseason, particularly since they’ve needed one in each of the last two offseasons as well. As usual, the market for baseball’s weakest position is very shallow, but the lone top tier option is a truly elite player, one the Mets will hopefully be in on. If not, the bottom of the market gets dicey in a hurry.

J.T. Realmuto

This shouldn’t come as a surprise, but J.T. Realmuto is a really good catcher. He averaged just under five WARP from 2017 to 2019, and his total defensive package - great framing, elite pitch blocking, solid control of the running game - has made him an elite defender. Over the last four seasons, he’s batted .276/.335/.477, an excellent line for a catcher, and has comfortably established himself as the best free agent option this season.

Those surface numbers are strong, but the advanced metrics are not quite as favorable. Per DRC, Realmuto has one season (2018) of being a well above average hitter, and he’s been closer to a hair above average before and after. wRC+ says something similar, though it was a bigger fan of Realmuto’s 2020 performance and is slightly more favorable overall.

It’s also worth noting that Realmuto probably isn’t as good as the last elite free agent catcher, that being Yasmani Grandal. Grandal was a year older than Realmuto when he signed a four year, $73 million contract with the White Sox last offseason, but he’s been better on both sides of the ball. Due to some notable gaffes in the playoffs, the perception around Grandal was very different than that around Realmuto, but smart teams shouldn’t subscribe to such narratives.

None of this is to suggest that Realmuto is a bad player - anyone who contributes five WARP year-in and year-out is a valuable piece. However, given what a slightly better player in Grandal signed for just one year ago, it’s possible Realmuto’s market might be even more depressed than we expect. MLBTR currently projects a 5-year, $125 million deal, while Fangraphs estimated he’d receive a 6-year, $140 million contract. At the same time, there appear to be more teams looking for a catcher on this year’s market, so perhaps that drives the price closer to these numbers.

Ultimately, Realmuto is nearly a perfect fit for the Mets. He’s not prime Piazza or anything with the bat, but he’s elite relative to his position and is a top tier defender with a clean injury history. Even with a five year, six figure contract, he’s a steal and arguably the top priority for the Mets this offseason.

James McCann

If things were to go awry with Realmuto, McCann is just about the only starting caliber fallback option. He has nowhere near the track record Realmuto does either offensively or defensively, but has turned himself into decent hitter (for a catcher) over the past two seasons. Defensively he’s poor, posting below average framing numbers aside from a small sample from the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. Still, a catcher who can post average offense and not be a total butcher behind the plate would be an upgrade to the current depth chart.

Fangraphs currently projects McCann for a two year, $14 million deal, while MLBTR is a bit higher at two years, $20 million. At those prices, he’s a fine consolation prize, but his being the second option on the market really emphasizes how important signing Realmuto will be.

The Rest

Simply put, the rest of the market is bleak. Yadier Molina is probably the third best option, but he’s declined significantly over the past two seasons and probably isn’t leaving St. Louis—and besides, what self-respecting Mets fan would want Yadi? Mike Zunino is a defensive specialist who can’t really hit, but he’s the only other catcher who got starter-level playing time last offseason. A variety of backups—Robinson Chirinos, Jason Castro, Tyler Flowers, Austin Romine—have somewhat recent track records of success, but none are ideal starters.

Barring extreme expenditures on the rest of the roster, it’s safe to say something has gone extremely wrong if any of these names are in the opening day lineup next season. The low-end of this market is so weak that the Mets will almost certainly need to look to trades to find a viable starter should they miss on both Realmuto and McCann.