Only two teams remain in the postseason, which leaves the fans of the other 28 teams mostly looking towards the Hot Stove League. With that in mind, it is time to peek at the free agent market with a look at the backstops.
The big name here is Brian McCann. The 30-year-old is also one of the youngest potential free agent catchers with only Jarrod Saltalamacchia coming in under 30. McCann was limited due to injuries and struggled to hit for average for the second consecutive season but actually managed to show more power per plate appearance than ever, posting the highest HR/FB ratio of his career (16.3%). Given the context of his career and absent a move to a better home run hitter’s park, this will probably regress. Otherwise, McCann is generally an unchanged player possessing above average plate discipline skills. McCann has noticeably lost speed and given little change in where he hits the ball (a 22% line drive rate to boot), that may be the main culprit in the decline of his batting average. McCann now owns a career .289 BABIP. A slight rise from his .261 BABIP performance back towards career norms could once again make him a .270s hitter
Moving on, we come back to Jarrod Saltalamacchia. This season, Salty received the most playing time of his career and responded with his highest ever batting average. While not the power peak of 2012 in which he hit 25 homers, this could well be a career year given the fluky-looking .372 BABIP and nearly 30% line drive rate. That combination most assuredly will result in a regression given Saltalamacchia’s penchant for striking out nearly one-third of the time. The .240 batting average range should be expected, and given his history it could be even worse. By the same token, Salty is capable of an uptick in power but that won’t offset the loss in batting average. Don’t get caught paying for his 2013 performance next year.
Former top prospect Dioner Navarro came back from the dead with the Cubs, hitting .300 and mashing 13 homers in 266 plate appearances. Navarro has frustrated many in the past due to his lack of results despite good plate discipline and modest power potential. Like many catchers, Navarro is not the fastest of runners, so a repeat .300-plus batting average may be a difficult feat. It should be noted that Navarro’s 25% line drive rate and nearly 19% HR/FB rates are fairly deviant from the rest of his career and should regress, though it will be interesting to see what will happen over a larger sample. Unlike many other catchers here, Navarro is unlikely to be a bargain as some owners will undoubtedly chase into his potential value by extrapolating what the righty could have accomplished with more plate apperances. While admittedly it is tempting to chase that potential, it is playing with fire given no prior precedent for such an offensive outburst.
A.J. Pierzynski will turn 37 before the year ends and even though he had a .297 OBP this year, he may be one of the better free agent options. The lefty remains an aggressive contact hitter with mid-teens or better home run power. Pierzynski continues to show off his remarkable durability, compiling his highest plate appearance total since 2009 with 529 in 2013. Provided a starting job, Pierzynski is still a $10 to $15 player in single league formats for 2014 and may not command as much given his age and a possible move away from Arlington, so he could be a bargain.
It feels like yesterday that I was writing a prospect profile of Carlos Ruiz, but he’ll be 35 prior to opening day. Ruiz missed time due to suspension this year as well as a hand injury. The now not so surprising power displayed in 2012 evaporated. Ruiz also was not the disciplined hitter he had been in the past, playing a bit like A.J. Pierzynski minus the power. It remains to be seen what capacity Ruiz will play in next year, but if given the opportunity to start, he has the skills to hit in the .260 to .270 range or better with mid to high single-digit HR power. Keep your expectations low and you may get a bargain.
John Buck was the buzz of the early season with his hot streak. The 33-year-old will continue to gain employment but will likely increasingly be used as a backup as he enters the latter years of his career. The book on Buck is well known as a hitter with legitimate 20-homer power, but because of his aggressiveness is very prone to peak and death valley streaks. Buck does not have much of a career platoon split. He simply struggles to hit for average against all pitching and is a career .230s hitter against lefties and righties alike. The best type of job he can hope for is as a stop-gap much the same to the one he fulfilled with the Mets, but his power and occasional hot streaks keep him on the fantasy radar as a second catcher in deeper leagues.
Not too long ago, I would have expected Kurt Suzuki to be right behind Brian McCann on this list. Instead, he is a catcher with an expensive option that will likely be bought out. The righty enjoyed promising campaigns in 2008 and 2009 and continued to be a very durable starter for the A’s through 2011, but despite maintaining mid-teens home run power and a contact- oriented approach, Suzuki’s ability to hit for average and get on base fell to unacceptable levels and he's now endured three straight seasons of hitting in the .230s while seeing his OBP fall to .309 for his career. The result has him back on a back-up career path and potentially even less playing time than in 2013 (316 plate appearances), especially since his power has dried up. The first season of a .245 BABIP contrasted against his career suggested a rebound, but now Suzuki has produced .240s BABIPs in three of the past four years. A rebound, barring a resurgence of power, seems unlikely even though age is on his side.
Of the remaining catchers, Brayan Pena is worth mentioning as an aggressive contact hitter who has value as a $1 catcher when he hits for average. In order to do that, his BABIP has to be above .300, which is a difficult feat for a slow-running singles hitter. A return to the .250 range is a distinct possibility.