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What should the Yankees do about their third catcher?

In light of Robinson Chirinos’ fractured wrist, the team could use a third catcher for injury insurance.

MLB: New York Yankees-Workouts Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

When spring training began, the Yankees’ catching plans seemed pretty straight forward. Gary Sánchez was the team’s starter behind the dish. Kyle Higashioka was the backup and, in light of Erik Kratz’s retirement, the Yankees brought in Robinson Chirinos as an injury replacement option. The 36-year-old veteran signed a minor league contract with the team in February.

Now that Chirinos is sidelined indefinitely due to a fractured wrist, those best-laid catching plans are now in flux. Sánchez, in particular, has a lengthy track record of soft-tissue injuries, and that means the Yankees are one pulled groin muscle away from being forced to dig into their catching reserves. Problem is, it’s slim pickings. The only other catcher at Yankees camp with MLB experience is 31-year-old Rob Brantly, who signed a minor league deal with the team over the winter.

There’s a good chance that the Yankees will look to bring in another catcher for depth and to provide a stronger injury insurance option for Gary and Higgy between now and Opening Day. Who might fit the bill?

Right now, there are three experienced catchers available on the free agent market (well, technically, there are four, depending on Russell Martin’s inclination to postpone retirement and seriously entertain offers): Matt Wieters, René Rivera and Tyler Flowers.

Let’s take a closer look at what each would bring to the table.

Matt Wieters

Wieters was a highly-touted prospect when he was drafted by the Orioles in 2007. For the last two seasons, Wieters served as backup catcher to Yadier Molina on the Cardinals.

While he never quite lived up to the hype, Wieters has had a decent career; he is a four-time All-Star with two Gold Glove Awards. Pitchers—most notably Max Scherzer—praise his game calling and ability to snatch foul tips. While his framing rates below average on the whole, Wieters excels at getting strikes called on the inside and outside edges of the plate.

If he were to get playing time, Wieters would add some flexibility to the Yankees’ lineup as a switch hitter. Because Wieters played in just 19 games last year, it’s hard to draw any firm conclusions from his offensive stats in 2020. Still, the numbers are nothing to write home about. Across 41 plate appearances he hit .200/.300/.229 and had a 57 wRC+.

Wieters doesn’t offer much offensive upside to the Yankees, but nobody expects a third-string catcher to contribute like that, anyway. He’s a serviceable option if Gary or Higgy gets hurt, pitchers seem to like him, and he has significant big-league experience. If Wieters would be up for this kind of role, there’s not much reason to ignore him.

René Rivera

Rivera, 37, has been around for a long time (he made his MLB debut in 2004). Last year, he caught in just two games for the Mets before going on the IL with a hyperextended left elbow. The injury put him out of commission for the remainder of the season, and he underwent surgery last August to remove a bone spur from his elbow. In the pair of games in which he did play last year, Rivera went 1-for-4 with three strikeouts and a single. He spent most of 2019 in Syracuse with the Mets Triple-A squad.

Considering his surgery last year and the fact that he hasn’t caught regularly in MLB since 2018, signing Rivera carries more risk for the Yankees than signing Wieters and Flowers would. Still, he’s a warm body and a seasoned veteran—which means he meets the criteria for a backup to the backup catcher, especially since might be more inclined to spend time at Triple-A or the alternate site, as he did in 2020.

Tyler Flowers

Arguably, Flowers is the most impressive catcher on the market who is still looking for work. The 35-year-old veteran has spent the last four seasons with the Braves in a role more akin to a job-share than a backup. His résumé during his tenure in Atlanta has been solid. Since 2017, he’s recorded 11.5 WAR, thanks in large part to his pitch framing, which has consistently ranked well above the league average.

Last year, Flowers batted .217/.325/.348 across 80 plate appearances. While it’s hard to put a lot of weight on a player’s performance during last year’s pandemic-shortened season, Flowers’ middling slash line and strikeout rate in 2020 are significantly worse than his offensive numbers throughout the rest of his career. Although Flowers is probably the best option on the free agent market, he’s unlikely to find a third-string role appealing. If the Yankees signed Flowers, there is a good chance that Higgy would be demoted out of his backup role. Considering he’s one of the more expensive options on the market, Flowers doesn’t quite fit the hole the Yankees are looking to fill.

MLB Catchers in Free Agency as of 03/14/21

Name Pos Bats Thr Prev Team Age Service Time 2020 WAR Proj 2021 WAR
Name Pos Bats Thr Prev Team Age Service Time 2020 WAR Proj 2021 WAR
Tyler Flowers C R R ATL 35 9.148 0.389845 0.487887
René Rivera C R R NYM 37 8.107 0.0792692 0.100935
Matt Wieters C S R STL 35 11.129 -0.0141154 -0.0396923
Russell Martin C R R LAD 38 13.15 0.00381229

Other options

It’s unusual that other MLB teams would forfeit catching depth so close to the start of the season, but there are currently a handful of veteran backstops on minor league contracts, who can exercise an opt-out before Opening Day. Jeff Mathis is one of the more attractive pieces in this group.

As Opening Day approaches, it will be interesting to see if Brian Cashman looks for an upgrade over Rob Brantly to replenish the Yankees’ catching depth. Unfortunately, injuries are always a concern for the Yanks, and that means the team needs to have a Plan B to rely on if Gary or Higgy need to miss time for any reason.