Catcher is arguably the most demanding position on the diamond. A backstop needs to have a working relationship with each member of the pitching staff, keep everyone’s strategy and arsenal straight, play psychiatrist when his pitcher is struggling, know the opposing hitters’ tendencies, he needs to help control the run game, and he needs to squat behind home plate to call, receive, and frame more than a hundred pitches each night. Oh yeah, and he has to be able to hit worth a lick, too.
Milwaukee’s catching unit was in total flux at the beginning of last season after both Jonathan Lucroy and Martin Maldonado left the organization via trade. Most expected former top prospect Andrew Susac to move to the top of the depth chart, but longtime minor league journeyman Manny Pina wound up breaking out and taking most of the reps at the position during the regular season.
After 11 years in the minor leagues with five different organizations, 2017 was the first time Pina had made an Opening Day roster. Pina split duties behind the plate with Jett Bandy early in the year, but as the season wore on he found himself in the lineup with more regularity, and with good reason. In 359 plate appearances for the Brewers last year, Pina slashed a rock solid .279/.327/.424 with nine home runs, including a couple of dramatic ones on Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. His 94 wRC+ as a measure of total offensive output was well above the league-average for backstops. Pina was terrific defensively, too. He threw out 36% of would-be base thieves and picked off another seven runners on the basepaths from behind the plate. According to Baseball Prospectus’ catching metrics, Pina graded out positively in terms of throwing and blocking, although his pitch framing came in a few runs below average. On the whole, Pina was worth somewhere between 1.7 and 2.6 wins above replacement in less than 400 plate appearances, depending on which WAR metric you prefer.
According to manager Craig Counsell, Pina’s stellar performance last season has earned him a spot on the squad to begin 2018. The club is not pursuing other outside catching options (including a reunion with Lucroy, who is a free agent), so two out-of-options holdovers will be competing for the other catcher spot - the aforementioned Bandy and veteran Stephen Vogt. One of those players will presumably fill a role spelling Pina a couple of days each week in a 70/30 or 60/40 timeshare, while the other figures to hit the waiver wire before the start of the regular season.
Bandy, who will turn 28 this spring, was acquired in a swap with the Angels during the 2016-17 offseason that sent Martin Maldonado and a minor league pitcher Anaheim’s way. The org was quite high on him when he arrived, with both manager Craig Counsell and GM David Stearns praising his defensive ability, untapped power potential, and clubhouse presence last spring. Jett made the Opening Day roster and got off to a hot start in 2017 before hitting the skids in May and June and ultimately getting optioned to the minors. He would find his way back to the big leagues later on in the season, but ended the year with a paltry .207/.287/.349 slash with six home runs in 188 plate appearances, which translated to an abysmal 66 wRC+. He was no defensive ace, either - Jett nabbed only 17% of attempted base stealers and received negative run values for his blocking, throwing, and pitch framing from the folks at BP.
Bandy’s exodus to the minors was prompted by the claim of Stephen Vogt off of waivers from Oakland on June 25th last year. Vogt was an All-Star for the A’s in 2015 and 2016 but a poor start by both he and the team in 2017 prompted Oakland’s front office to move on and take a look at some younger players. Vogt’s left-handed bat was rejuvenated by his move to a contender, and in 45 games and 129 plate appearances after being picked up by the Brewers, he hit .254/.281/.508 with eight home runs (97 wRC+). Defensively, though, there was plenty to be desired from the vet. Vogt’s arm behind home plate looked exceedingly weak by the eye test, and he caught only 14% of the runners attempting to steal on him between his time in Oakland and Milwaukee. In terms of blocking and framing, however, he graded out quite well; his +6.5 framing runs were the highest total of his career.
Vogt was given a take-it-or-leave-it deal in arbitration for a non-guaranteed sum of just over $3 mil, which was roughly $900K below his arb projection by MLB Trade Rumors. The 33 year old decided to sign but knows that nothing is assured to him this spring - he can get cut before the start of the regular season and will be owed only a portion of the contract in the form termination pay. This winter he focused on working with weighted balls in an effort to get his mechanics and arm strength back on track so that opposing teams will no longer run wild on him. It sounds like defensive improvements are what Counsell will be looking for most out of Vogt this spring.
In the Minors
Jacob Nottingham is the other catcher on the 40 man roster, added this winter in order to be protected from the Rule 5 Draft. Counsell has praised Nottingham’s development as a receiver, but he’ll need to continue making stride with the bat in order to make an impact in the big leagues someday. Last season in Biloxi, he batted .209/.326/.369 with nine home run and seven steals (103 wRC+) in his age-22 season.
Beyond Nottingham, upper-level catching depth includes Christian Bethancourt, who signed a minor league deal during the offseason; Tyler Heineman, who was acquired in a minor trade with Houston last spring and was the Sky Sox regular catcher in 2017; and Dustin Houle, who re-signed on a minor league contract after getting drafted by Milwaukee in 2011 and spending seven years in the org. Further away prospects include Max McDowell, Mario Feliciano, KJ Harrison, and Payton Henry.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs, Baseball-Reference, and Baseball Prospectus
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