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Milwaukee Brewers free agent targets: Yasmani Grandal

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Grandal is the best catcher in the game, and the Brewers should do all they can to keep him around.

MLB: Chicago Cubs at Milwaukee Brewers Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Yasmani Grandal is officially back on the free agent market, having declined his half of the mutual option with the Brewers. Because he’s the best catcher in the game, Grandal will understandably be seeking a huge payday, and he’ll have no shortage of suitors. Robert Murray confirmed as much, also noting that the division rival Reds, the team with which Grandal began his professional career, will be pursuing him.

Allow me to cut right to the chase: David Stearns can’t let that happen. He should do everything he can to ensure that Yasmani Grandal stays in Milwaukee for the foreseeable future.

Grandal, as you probably know, played a huge part in a season that resulted in a second consecutive postseason berth for the Brewers. At the plate, Yaz posted a strong 121 wRC+ while socking a career-high 28 home runs. Grandal has always had excellent plate discipline, but he took it to even greater heights in 2019. He walked in 17.2% of his plate appearances (a career-best) and drew 109 free passes overall, becoming the first Brewer to surpass the triple-digit benchmark since Prince Fielder.

Behind the plate, Grandal continued to put his elite framing skills on display. Per Baseball Prospectus, he ranked second among all MLB catchers with 19.4 framing runs, and he was first in FanGraphs’ framing stat with 17 framing runs. Grandal also ranked second in Strike Zone Runs Saved (Baseball Info Solutions’ framing stat) with 9 runs, and he finished in the 79th percentile in Statcast’s framing stat. He has long faced scrutiny for his occasional struggles with passed balls, but Grandal actually graded out positively in that department in 2019, finishing the year with 1.8 Errant Pitches Above Average Runs.

Remember how I stated earlier that Yasmani Grandal is the best catcher in baseball? That was not an exaggeration. Grandal led all backstops in the game in WARP in 2019; in fact, his 6.1 mark was a career-high. Even more impressively, he leads all MLB catchers in both WARP and fWAR since the start of the 2015 season.

The addition of Grandal completely transformed Milwaukee’s catching tandem. In 2018, the Brewers ranked 15th in catcher fWAR, with most of the load being handled by NLDS Legend Erik Kratz and Manny Pina. In 2019, with Grandal carrying much of the load while Pina served as his backup, they ranked first. His positive impact didn’t go unnoticed in the clubhouse. Early in the year, teammates were already lauding his preparation and his ability to help them get called strikes. Jordan Lyles credited him for his turnaround after being traded to Milwaukee, citing Grandal’s game calling and framing.

If Grandal departs, Pina is the obvious candidate to take over starting duties. He’s a fine catcher in his own right —he’s averaged 1.5 WARP in his last three seasons with the Brewers —but he’s no Yasmani Grandal. Beyond Pina, there’s not much, if any certainty. Jacob Nottingham hasn’t developed as hoped, and the Brewers refused to give him any playing time last season, even when Pina was dealing with injuries.

If you’re not in favor of retaining Grandal, there’s probably one factor that you’re weighing pretty heavily: his age. He’ll be 31 next season, and it doesn’t take long for Jonathan Lucroy’s sudden collapse that began at the same age to come to mind. Lucroy’s prime was even better than Grandal’s, topping out at 7.8 WARP in 2014. After a disappointing 2015, Lucroy bounced back for a 3.9 WARP season split between Milwaukee and Texas. Then all of a sudden, he flamed out. He hasn’t surpassed 1.2 WARP in a single season since that 2015 campaign, and he bottomed out at -0.2 WARP in 2019.

Our own David Gibson took a look at catcher aging curves by comparing Grandal to similarly elite backstops and discovered that most of them remained above-average players even after their primes, with Lucroy being the exception, possibly due to concussion issues. If Grandal were to follow the trend of other elite catchers, another fantastic year is in store before a transition to being “only” a good catcher in the following seasons.

On the offensive side, Grandal has an advantage that many of those other catchers didn’t: his elite ball-strike recognition. All of them have a lower career walk rate than Grandal, who has drawn the base on balls at a 13% clip or better in all but one of his eight big-league seasons. None of those other catchers ever walked at such a consistently high clip, even during their primes. The closest comparison for Grandal is Russell Martin, who has a career walk rate of 11.9%. Martin remained an above-average hitter until his age-35 season.

On the defensive side, much of Grandal’s value comes from his framing. While Lucroy seemingly lost his elite framing ability overnight, he appears to be an outlier. Baseball Prospectus studied the effects of age on framing a few years ago and found that on average, catchers experience only a marginal decline in their framing abilities as they grow older. While Grandal’s prime is likely nearing its end, his fantastic patience at the plate and elite framing ability could easily enable him to age more gracefully than the average backstop, and he ought to remain an asset for most or the entirety of a four or five year deal.

Much of the talk this offseason will likely be geared toward how David Stearns needs to upgrade his team’s pitching staff. While it’s true that this is an important goal for next season, there’s an even more important goal that needs to be accomplished before Opening Day. The 2019 Brewers had an irreplaceable asset behind the dish in Yasmani Grandal, baseball’s best catcher. Stearns and Mark Attanasio need to make sure that the 2020 Brewers have him, too.

The club is in the midst of a competitive window. Christian Yelich is putting up historic numbers and just wrapped up arguably the best offensive season in franchise history. Ownership and the front office should be doing everything possible to build the best team they can around him, and that means spending big money on elite players like Grandal. Quite frankly, if the Brewers don’t run another record high payroll again next season, they’re not handling this window properly.

Yasmani Grandal is going to get paid next season, and rightfully so. The Brewers should be the ones writing the checks.

#ReSignYaz

Statistics courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus