The hot stove season is officially here, and among the 121 major league free agents - including seven Dodgers - as of 6 a.m. on Thursday are eight catchers, headlined by former Dodgers backstop Russell Martin.
Dodgers catchers hit just .181/.283/.261, a .250 wOBA, with seven home runs, 30th among 30 teams in baseball in batting average, 29th in OPS, OPS+ (60), slugging percentage, wOBA and wRC+ (59), tied for 27th in home runs and 26th in on-base percentage.
They allowed 86 stolen bases - just below the major league average of 92 - and threw out 38 runners, a 30.6-percent rate that ranked eighth in the majors. But even adding in catcher defense - however rudimentary our measuring tools might be - the two primary backstops in 2014 - A.J. Ellis and Drew Butera - combined for between 0.0 (Baseball-Reference) and negative 0.2 (FanGraphs) Wins Above Replacement.
Ellis is widely regarded as a true leader of the pitching staff, taking on coach-like level of responsibility in game planning, but even though he is eligible for salary arbitration it is hard to see him getting a raise on $3.55 million after hitting .191/.323/.254 in 93 games in his third season as the Dodgers' starter.
The question is, do the Dodgers bring in a replacement for Ellis, who turns 34 in April? Or do they look to add a backup who might play more than once per week.
Here are the nine free agent catchers, beginning with a pair of old friends. Though remember this comment from Andrew Friedman about the free agent market in his introductory press conference.
"If we ever have to go out to the free agent to constantly rebuild, it's not a viable business model. It's not a viable situation for us to be competitive year after year," Friedman said. "It's important for us to embrace the financial advantage that we have. We're not going to shy away from it, but we're still going to maintain some of the disciplines that I feel are important in roster construction to put yourself in the best position to sustain success."
Which of these fit the Dodgers and also maintain the discipline?
Drafted by the Dodgers in 2002, Martin will be 32 in February, two years younger than Ellis. Martin had a breakout year with the Pirates, hitting .290/.402/.430. From 2011-13, Martin hit .225/.321/.395 in his three seasons after leaving the Dodgers.
Martin ranked sixth in baseball in catcher framing in 2014, adding 19.3 runs per Baseball Prospectus. In Tampa Bay under Friedman, offensive black hole Jose Molina with fifth in framing and his backup Ryan Hanigan was 18th, with the duo combining for 136 starts and 29.2 runs saved behind the plate. If Friedman wants to add a skilled framer with offensive skills, there is no better fit than Martin.
The red flags with Martin are that he will almost certainly cost a draft pick, a lock to turn down a $15.3 million qualifying offer from Pittsburgh; plus the inherent risk of committing long term (four years or more, most likely) to a catcher with that much mileage. Martin has averaged 119 starts and 1,065 defensive innings behind the plate per season in his nine-year career.
The Dodgers drafted David Ross in 1998 and he left after 2004, and for the last decade has been one of the great backup catchers in baseball. Ross hit .184/.260/.368 with seven home runs in 50 games for the Red Sox in 2014, and even in limited duty rated 15th in catcher framing with 10.5 runs saved. If the Dodgers go for a backup, they would be hard pressed to beat the 38-year-old Ross.
A.J. Pierzynski will be 38 and is coming off a season that saw him hit .251/.288/.337. If anything, he seems best suited for a backup role, though it might be fun to see a reunion of Pierzynski with trainer Stan Conte.
Wil Nieves, who has never caught Mat Latos, is 37, coming off a year that saw him hit .254/.270/.344 while catching 34 games for the Phillies. He is rated 2.1 runs above average as a framer.
Wil Nieves and Drew Butera meet at home plate (Photo: Hunter Martin | Getty Images)
Gerald Laird turns 35 in a few weeks, and hit .204/.275/.257 in 2014, catching 48 games for the Braves. He was rated low as a framer, 9.5 runs below average.
Humberto Quintero spent most of 2014 in Triple-A before catching all of three games and seven innings in September with the Mariners. If anything, a minor league deal for the 35-year-old seems appropriate.
Ryan Doumit hit .197/.235/.318 in 2014 and will be 34 next season, but he only caught two games for the Braves this season. His inclusion on this list is suspect.
The conclusion here: while there might be eight free agent catchers to choose from, there are really only two to consider, and both were drafted by the Dodgers.