It seemed like for years, the catchers in the AL East did not change all that much. Jorge Posada and Jason Varitek dominated the division, and there didn't appear to be too much talent otherwise, save for a young Matt Wieters toward the end. These days though, there is talent throughout the division, and even Boston, the team with the most questions about the position right now, is at least offering an intriguing tandem. There probably will not be any 2013 Chris Stewart situations occurring this year, though injuries could of course lead to that happening. So which team's plan is best?
Likely starting catcher: Russell Martin
2014: 111 G, .290/.402/.430, 20 2B, 11 HR, 140 wRC+, 5.5 WAR, 39% CS%, 18.6 FR/7000*
*FR/7000, which will be cited throughout this piece is Baseball Prospectus's "Framing Runs per 7000 Chances," a metric that attempts to measure how many runs a catcher takes away with his pitch framing skills.
Although signed as a free this off-season, Martin is obviously no stranger to the division after playing two seasons with the Yankees a couple years back. He's had a fascinating career renaissance since being non-tendered by his original team, the Dodgers, in 2010. The Yankees picked him up off the cheap, and though his bat could sometimes go ice-cold, he was still pretty good on the whole. They let him sign with the Pirates on a somewhat surprisingly low-value two-year contract after the 2012 campaign, and his value has skyrocketed since then.
Martin became a real team leader on the Bucs as they snapped their two-decade playoff drought while he put up the best offensive numbers he's had since his younger Dodger days. He is unquestionably one of the top defenders in baseball, as statistics measuring pitch framing have helped show the public how many pitches he steals on a regular basis. Martin was going to get a big pay day after his 2013, and he ended up going home to Canada, as the Blue Jays surprised the market by handing the 32-year-old a five-year, $82 million deal.
I don't think anyone doubts that Martin will be superb for the Blue Jays defensively. In his first couple years with the Rays, Jose Molina demonstrated how aging catchers can still be quite useful as starters if they have legitimate defensive prowess, and Molina never had nearly the bat that Martin does. Will Martin come close to his 2013 numbers at the plate ever again though? I kinda doubt it. He's a year older, his BABIP was about 50 points higher than his career average last year, and he hadn't posted a wRC+ over 102 since 2008. He'll hit his share of dingers though, and likely produce better than league average numbers, particularly for a catcher. He stands as the class of the division... for now.
Martin will be backed up by some combination of Dioner Navarro and Josh Thole. Navarro was already a decent option at catcher--the Blue Jays just wanted to get one of the best in the business. He'll still get his share of DH at-bats if he's on the team, though it wouldn't surprise me at all if they decided to flip him to a team in need of a catcher. Even though it would be three catchers on the roster, the Blue Jays are pretty much obligated to carry Thole, because like Doug Mirabelli with Tim Wakefield, he's the designated knuckleball catcher for R.A. Dickey. The best way Mets broadcasters could describe his bat during his days in Queens was "noted singles hitter." So... yeah.
Likely starting catcher: Matt Wieters
2014: 26 G, .308/.339/.500, 5 2B, 5 HR, 134 wRC+, 0.7 WAR, 35% CS%*, -2.0 FR/7000*
*In order to get a better gauge on his catching abilities, I used 2013 numbers since the sample size was larger
There's a decent case to be made that at full health, Wieters is the best catcher in the AL East. Between 2011 and 2013, Wieters was named an All-Star twice, slugged 67 homers, notched a 102 OPS+, and earned legitimate praise for his defensive skills behind the plate. Unfortunately, his injury history cannot be ignored. Baseball just sucks sometimes, as in April of last year, the 28-year-old Wieters looked to be off to the best offensive season of his six-year career. Then, the elbow pain arrived. First, Wieters was shut down from catching. Then, he was shut down from playing altogether. The Orioles tried to put it off, but eventually, Wieters needed Tommy John surgery, which he underwent in June.
Wieters is entering his final season before free agency, and both he and agent Scott Boras really need a bounce-back year to help him fetch a deal even close to what the Yankees gave McCann and what the Blue Jays gave Martin. It's already off to a questionable start. The O's recently shut him down from catching for a week in spring training due to tendinitis in his elbow, though X-rays came back clean. It's unclear if he'll be good to go for Opening Day, and the O's will just have to cross their fingers that everything is fine. It's remarkable that they won both 96 games and the AL East without the skills of their acclaimed catcher, and I'm sure skipper Buck Showalter has little interest in trying to do it again without him.
If Wieters has to miss time, the gig will probably have to go to backup Caleb Joseph, who took most of Wieters's starts last year. The brother of former Yankees prospect Corban Joseph, Caleb was surprisingly decent for a 28-year-old rookie, as he turned out to be a hell of a defender (20.1 FR/7000 and a league-best 40% caught stealing rate). He even had a great stretch at the plate mixed in there, batting .282/.318/.500 with eight homers between mid-June and the end of August. That being said, his production for the year was a 72 wRC+, and with better scouting reports on file now, it's doubtful that he'll have such a hot streak again. Alternatives to Joseph aren't impressive either, with Steve Clevenger and non-roster invitee J.P. Arencibia also in camp. The O's really need a good, healthy year from Wieters. Can he deliver?
Likely starting catcher: Rene Rivera
2014: 103 G, .252/.319/.432, 18 2B, 11 HR, 114 wRC+, 3.1 WAR, 36% CS%, 37.6 FR/7000
The 2014 campaign was a nightmare for Tampa Bay behind the plate, as not even Jose Molina's elite defensive abilities could save him. He astoundingly had only two extra-base hits in 247 plate appearances, and Ryan Hanigan ended up getting more starts than planned. An overhaul was needed, so they let Molina go and sent Hanigan to the Padres in the Wil Myers deal. Coming back to the Rays in the trade was Rene Rivera, who could turn out to be a sneaky good acquisition.
Rivera has been playing professionally since 2001, but after playing in 53 games for the Mariners between 2004 and 2006, he was gone from the majors for six of the next seven years. While several accomplished catchers get to hone their craft in the pros during their 20s, Rivera spent most of it fighting for time with various Triple-A and Double-A affiliates, even spending some time with the Indy league Camden Riversharks in 2010. It's a testament to his perseverance that he finally made it back, and when the Padres made him the primary catcher in 2014, he took off.
Even though Rivera will be 32 in July, the 103 games he played last year were easily a career high. He took advantage of the opportunity, impressing teams with a surprisingly solid year with the bat and a remarkable amount of stolen strikes behind the plate. Adding Rivera to be their catcher was a pretty smart move by the Rays. He'll probably be backed up by light-hitting sophomore player Curt Casali, so new GM Matt Silverman will be crossing his fingers that the move pays off and that Rivera isn't a one-year wonder.
Likely starting catcher: Ryan Hanigan/
Christian Vazquez sharing time
2014 (Hanigan): 84 G, .218/.318/.324, 9 2B, 5 HR, 92 wRC+, 1.3 WAR, 21% CS%, 10.2 FR/7000
2014 (Vazquez): 55 G, .240/.308/.309, 9 2B, 1 HR, 71 wRC+, 1.1 WAR, 52% CS%, 32.3 FR/7000
The Red Sox decided to let Jarrod Saltalamacchia walk after a slumptastic 2013 post-season which saw him essentially get replaced in the lineup by backup David Ross come World Series time. Salty didn't have a standout 2014, but the Red Sox weren't exactly in a good place at catcher either. They signed A.J. Pierzynski to be their primary starter, and that went about as well as walking into a forest drenched in honey.
By year's end, Puerto Rican rookie Christian Vazquez handled the majority of the starts, and while he was quite good defensively, he didn't really hit much. Now age 24, Vazquez will return to split duties with newcomer Ryan Hanigan, who of course was just on the Rays last year. Boston acquired him from the Padres after the Wil Myers trade in exchange for Will Middlebrooks in a deal that people seemed to like for both sides. The Padres got a reclamation project, and the Red Sox received a veteran who could take some of the pressure off Vazquez.
Both Hanigan and Vazquez have acclaimed reputations as receivers, and they're a fine tandem to kill time at the big league level while top prospect Blake Swihart tackles the system's highest level. Unless he's dealt for, say, Cole Hamels, Swihart is Boston's catcher of the future. For now, Hanigan still has the potential for some pop in his bat, and Vazquez is still developing on offense as well. For 2015 however, I'd take any of the other four teams' plan at catcher over Boston.
3/29 update: Vazquez has been experiencing elbow problems and is scheduled to visit Dr. James Andrews. That... is never promising. Swihart might reach the majors sooner now, but at the start of the season anyway, Boston will have the recently-acquired Sandy Leon be the backup for Hanigan.
Likely starting catcher: Brian McCann
2014: 140 G, .232/.286/.406, 15 2B, 23 HR, 92 wRC+, 1.8 WAR, 37% CS%, 12.0 FR/7000
Yankees fans probably know the story with McCann at this point. No, he didn't hit quite as well as hoped after he was signed in November 2013. Yes, there is certainly reason for optimism. After a rough couple months to start the year as he became acclimated to American League pitching, he improved and started hitting for more power, smashing 12 of his homers over the season's final two months. McCann was also an All-Star with a 121 wRC+ as recently as 2013, so in his second season in the AL, I don't think anyone would be stunned to see him rebound.
McCann is joined at the hip with the Yankees for the next few years, and with Gary Sanchez far from major league ready (especially on defense), there's no one knocking on the door. John Ryan Murphy is a nice prospect, but for now, there's no harm using him as the backup, or at least the backup in waiting until the Yankees figure out what to do with Austin Romine. Romine is out of options, so the Yankees are probably trying to find him a new home as we speak because as last season's call-up of Murphy over Romine while Francisco Cervelli was out showed, the Yankees have more confidence in Murphy's future.
They could very well just end up cutting Romine at the end of spring training to go with Murphy, but either way, if the Yankees end up giving Romine or Murphy a lot of starts, that would be trouble. They need McCann to have a better season in order to contend; McCann's defensive skills aren't going to be enough. McCann's true talent level is above what happened in 2014, so I have faith that McCann will offer much more to the Yankees in 2015.