The acquisition of Jonathan Lucroy rescued the Colorado Rockies' offense, filling a black hole in the lineup that nearly devoured the team's entire season and playoff prospects. Now, that abyss has reopened and threatens the 2018 campaign if not addressed.
This season, the Rockies came into Spring Training confident in the young duo of Tom Murphy and Tony Wolters to produce from the position, with disastrous results. Wolters, after a strong 2016 on both sides of the ball, struggled early in his sophomore campaign before being derailed by a concussion. Murphy never recovered from a broken arm in March, collecting only one hit in 24 at-bats in the big leagues all season. After the catching core collectively posted a 44 wRC+ before the trade that brought him to Denver, Lucroy posted a 68-point improvement in that category and boosted the team to a longer lineup and eventual playoff berth.
However, Lucroy’s contract expired at the end of the season, and he was declared a free agent on Nov. 2. While both sides have publicly expressed interest in a reunion, nothing is for certain, making the catcher position one of the Rockies’ biggest question marks as the team looks to improve on their first playoff appearance since 2009. Unless the Rockies want to risk the same trainwreck they experienced last season, they cannot come away empty-handed from the catchers market this offseason. For a team that hopes to once again be October bound, it is essential that they do not take a backward step at the catcher position.
In a fairly thin free agent market, where Lucroy might be the best option, Colorado’s top options are bringing him back or pursuing a trade. Wolters and Murphy, while showing flashes of potential, have ultimately proven unreliable going into a season where the team expects and is expected to contend. Fortunately for the Rockies, there are options readily available, and sometimes the best change is none at all. These are some potential targets for the team to consider.
Lucroy is, as he should be, the Rockies’ top priority to fill the void at catcher. His 112 wRC+ in the purple pinstripes lengthened a lineup that was incredibly top heavy, and his .429 OBP constantly put a scoring opportunity on base.
Of course, there are concerns about Lucroy especially in terms of longevity. The 32-year-old saw a sharp decline in framing metrics in 2017, and his power numbers have gradually fallen over his career. As he continues to age, these could amplify out of turn with a young, competitive Rockies team that could see him potentially turn from an asset to a liability while the team’s contention window is still open should he be signed to an extended contract. As far as the eye test goes, he's still solid enough to draw praise from Rockies manager Bud Black, apparently marginalizing the team’s concerns in his receiving declines.
He will have other suitors, however, that will complicate a potential return to Denver. Lucroy, who was a top-tier catcher in baseball before 2017, will draw interest from teams hoping for that return to form that he exhibited in the second half of the season on a bargain. Some of these offers could be incredibly enticing as well, as Jon Heyman reported that the World Series champion Houston Astros had expressed interest, and contenders such as the Arizona Diamondbacks are in need of reinforcements. While the Rockies are expected to push hard to bring Lucroy back, the club has fallback options in many forms
Avila rode a hot first half, slashing .274/.394/.475 with the Detroit Tigers to a deadline trade to the Chicago Cubs. There, he fell back to a league-average hitter but was still productive. However, the season in its entirety was an outlier for his career, as he failed to play more than 67 games since 2014 and produce a batting average over .220 since 2013, until 2017. Entering his age 31 season, signing him is the inverse of Lucroy, in that his new team would be putting stock into his last season over the rest of his track record.
Avila’s role between starter and backup for the Cubs suited him well, but the Rockies are in need of a catcher who will produce over the course of 120 games. While his hard-hit rate was one of the tops in baseball, the sudden and unexpected jump in productivity will likely put his price too high in terms of what can be expected from him long term.
Castillo’s big bat and its round numbers could be enticing for the Rockies. His 20 home runs in 96 games make him, on the surface, a very intriguing commodity. His .282/.323/.490 line made him a premier hitting catcher on the season, albeit in a smaller sample size. Defensively, he gunned down 24 of 49 stolen base attempts, 5 percent higher than the next player on the leaderboard. However, he recorded -9 defensive runs saved, 2nd to last in the American League and was the worst pitch caller in baseball by BIS Catcher Pitch Calling Runs Above Average (RerC).
Castillo’s flashy numbers paired with a thin free agency class will likely inflate his price above his true value, and might not make him a worthwhile target for Colorado.
Grandal has somewhat quietly been one of the most consistent catchers in the game. For the past three seasons with the Los Angeles Dodgers, he’s posted an fWAR of at least 2.3, donning the catcher’s gear in more than 100 games in each season. In the past two seasons, he’s eclipsed 20 home runs and a .760 OPS while leading the National League in range factor behind the plate. He ranked 2nd in MLB in the percentage of pitches outside the zone called strikes per StatCorner and stole 142 more strikes than balls called in the zone. He also throws out baserunners at an above-average rate. He has struggled with passed balls, leading the National League in consecutive seasons, in no small part thanks to the top-tier repertoires of the Dodgers pitching staff.
The problem (or blessing) for the Dodgers is Austin Barnes has been just as good, ranking third in the league in stolen strike percentage. He is also under contract through at least 2022 and is two years younger than Grandal, at 27. His contract expires at the end of 2018 and is projected to earn $7.7 million next season via arbitration, which is a pretty penny for a catcher who in all likelihood will be splitting time 50/50 with Barnes. This has led to widespread speculation that the catcher would be available, with Andy McCullough of the LA Times reporting that the team “may field offers” on the catcher.
There is a case to be made that Grandal is the best catcher available this winter, but it remains to be seen how much the Rockies are willing to complete a major deal with a division rival for one season of him.
J.T. Realmuto has a little bit of everything in his repertoire. Going back to his days as a three-sport star in high school in Oklahoma, the Marlins catcher has always been considered one of the most athletic competitors in his field. The converted shortstop is widely recognized as such at his new position, backed up by Statcast data. He threw out 32 percent of would-be base thieves in 2017, slashing .278/.332/.451 and hitting a career-high 17 home runs. He’s also been durable, ranking 2nd in the National League in games played at catcher in back-to-back seasons. Additionally, he is under team control through 2020, his age-29 season, which falls in line with the contention window for the Rockies. If that isn't intriguing enough, he is still pre-arbitration, meaning his small contract would give the team more financial flexibility to fill other gaps, such as the bullpen and first base.
Obviously, this is contingent on Miami being willing to deal the up-and-coming catcher. With the ushering in of the Derek Jeter and Co. era, it remains to be seen how extensive the franchise’s fire sale will be, but the new ownership has already publicly stated that they are hoping to cut their payroll in half for the upcoming season. Depending on what they get in the imminent trade of NL MVP Giancarlo Stanton, the team could be propelled into a full rebuild. If that becomes the case, Realmuto immediately becomes more valuable to the Marlins as a trade piece, and perhaps more valuable on the market than even Stanton, than keeping him on the roster in waiting for the next competitive team in Miami.
The Rockies need a catcher, and there are options out there. While Tony Wolters and Tom Murphy have given the team two potential lights, the tunnel to them is still long, and the spot needs to be filled adequately in the meantime. A return of Jonathan Lucroy is the ideal, but the Rockies are ready to win now and, with a core of young talent, for the foreseeable future. It is not the time for half-measures, and Colorado has a real opportunity to solidify a weak spot on a team that figures to be fighting all the way through September.