Catchers are not the swiftest of ballplayers, yet they’ve been moving around this winter like hot potatoes. Willson Contreras went to St. Louis as the heir to Yadier Molina’s throne. Sean Murphy, William Contreras, and Manny Piña switched places in the biggest trade of the hot stove season. Veterans Christian Vásquez, Mike Zunino, and Luke Maile changed uniforms as well. As things currently stand, more than a dozen clubs will have a new primary catcher in 2023.
The shuffle continued within the past week, with the news that three more backstops are moving teams. On December 15, the Mets signed Omar Narváez to a one-year, $8 million contract with a $7 million player option for 2024. Two days later, the Pirates signed Austin Hedges on a one-year, $5 million deal. Then, late on December 21, the Mets sent James McCann to the Orioles for a player to be named later. Hedges and McCann have already been added to the Pirates and Orioles rosters, respectively; the Mets have yet to announce Narváez.
Austin Hedges Drops Anchor in Pittsburgh
I’ll start with Hedges, whose deal was the first to be finalized. He is the dictionary definition of a defense-first catcher. Among nearly 300 active players with at least 1,200 plate appearances, he is the only one with a career batting average below .200, on-base percentage below .300, and slugging percentage below .400 — the highly esteemed .100/.200/.300 batting line. His 54 career wRC+ is the second-lowest mark among active catchers (min. 300 PA), and that number actually looks good compared to his 39 wRC+ since joining the Guardians at the 2020 trade deadline.
Thankfully, things are much rosier on the other side of the hedge. In 105 games behind the dish this past season, Hedges was worth 8 DRS and 4.4 framing runs. His pop time to second base ranked in the 64th percentile. Those numbers were even better in 2021, when he was worth 12 DRS and 5.8 framing runs and his pop time ranked in the 74th percentile. He’s done a particularly excellent job limiting passed balls, having allowed only three in the past two seasons. Hedges is also considered a talented game-caller, and his ability to work with and support a pitching staff is one of his greatest strengths.
There was once a time when Hedges’ excellent defense was enough to outweigh his dead bat; from 2017 to ’19, he was worth 5.6 WAR in 313 games, despite his 69 wRC+. Unfortunately, as his elite defense has started to slip and his offense has somehow gotten worse, he’s no longer been able to make up for his bat with his glove. Over the past three seasons, he’s been worth -0.6 WAR in 228 games:
Austin Hedges’ Last Three Seasons
On the bright side, Hedges should be due for a little positive regression going forward. His .193 BABIP in 2022 was low, even for a soft-hitting, slow-moving player. He also demonstrated enhanced plate discipline last season, swinging at fewer pitches but making more contact. As a result, he struck out less and put the ball in play more. He’s never going to be a good hitter, but if he gets his offensive numbers up just a bit in 2023, he can be better than replacement level. ZiPS projects him for 0.8 WAR next season on the back of a .184/.251/.293 slash line. Believe it or not, those are better numbers than he had in 2022.
Hedges is a good fit for the Pirates, who aren’t looking to win in 2023 but could use a veteran game-caller to work with their young pitching staff. He’ll provide some stability at a position Pittsburgh struggled to fill last season. Moreover, he’s a good enough option to start at catcher all year, but he can easily step back into a bench role if top prospects Henry Davis or Endy Rodriguez force their way to the majors.
The Pirates aren’t undergoing a complete renovation this winter, but by adding players like Hedges, along with Carlos Santana, Ji-Man Choi, Vince Velasquez, and Jarlín García, they’ve raised their floor. If enough young players take a step forward, Pittsburgh has an outside chance to make some noise in a weak NL Central. At worst, this will be a far more watchable team than last season.
Omar Narváez Joins the Mighty Mets
Narváez placed 45th among our top 50 free agents, the second-highest ranked catcher on the list. He ended up matching his average contract crowdsource estimate, taking home a guaranteed $15 million over two years. He did not, however, make nearly as much as Vásquez, the third and final catcher on our top 50 rankings. Narváez might have earned more years or dollars if he hadn’t taken a contract with a player option. By signing this deal, it seems he wants to boost his value in 2023 in hopes of securing a bigger payday for ’24 and beyond.
It’s not a bad idea on his part. Narváez had his best season in 2021, posting a 100 wRC+ alongside terrific defensive numbers. For the first time in his career, he was a true asset on both sides of the ball. He could have commanded a sizeable contract had he been able to enter free agency that winter, when the best catcher available was Yan Gomes. Instead, he took to the open market this year following a surprisingly poor offensive showing in 2022. He started off strong, batting .275/.368/.422 in April and May. Things went downhill from there, unfortunately, as he hit .148/.219/.205 in the second half and was forced to share more playing time with backup Victor Caratini. Narváez posted progressively worse numbers in each subsequent month, hardly a promising display from a player in his free-agent walk year:
Omar Narváez 2022 wRC+ by Month
Like Hedges, Narváez should expect some positive regression in 2023. From June to October, he had a .188 BABIP, far below his .302 career mark. Eventually, more of the balls he puts in play will start falling for hits. With that said, it seems unlikely he gets his BABIP all the way back above .300 over a full season. Already a soft hitter, he made less hard contact than ever in 2022. His 18.4% hard-hit rate (per Statcast) was his lowest since his rookie season, and it puts him right between fearsome sluggers Steven Kwan and Tony Kemp. His average exit velocity, meanwhile, positions him among the bottom 1% of hitters, sandwiched between notorious power bats Molina and Victor Robles.
To make matters worse, Narváez’s sprint speed was down too, dropping to the second percentile; it took him an extra fifth of a second, on average, to reach first base than it did last year. Thus, Steamer has him projected for a .236/.314/.354 slash line with a .281 BABIP. It’s not quite the offensive heights of his peak, but it’s still much better than he did in 2022. His projected 96 wRC+ is above average for a catcher, and his projected 2.0 WAR would net him a meaningful raise next offseason were he to opt out of his contract.
On the defensive side of things, Narváez continued flashing the leather in 2022. From 2018 to ’19, he graded out as the worst defensive catcher in the sport by DRS and framing runs. Since joining the Brewers, however, he has shown tremendous growth, transforming into one of the best framers in the game. Indeed, Milwaukee has proven to be a mecca for pitch framers in recent years. In addition to Narváez, the Brewers helped Piña and Caratini become strong framers, and they also prioritized great framers in free agency, including Yasmani Grandal and Erik Kratz. The Brewers lead the sport with 29.5 framing runs since 2020, and Narváez is responsible for 20.2 of them. He has ranked among the top ten framers in each of the past three seasons:
Top Ten Pitch Framers by Season
The Mets already have a strong framer on the roster in Tomás Nido, and he and Narváez could combine to give the Mets the best framing tandem in the league. The two should also make for a fine offensive platoon; the left-handed Narváez has better career numbers against righties, and the right-handed Nido prefers to face southpaws:
Career Platoon Splits
|Player||wRC+ vs. RHP||wRC+ vs. LHP|
Narváez would also make for a good pair with Mets top prospect Francisco Álvarez, another righty who profiles as a terrific hitter but a suspect defender. If/when he forces his way to the majors, the left-handed Narváez will be a better partner for him than Nido, potentially freeing him up to be a trade chip at the deadline.
It’s easy to overlook the Narváez signing considering everything else the Mets have done this offseason. But while he’s not quite Justin Verlander, or Kodai Senga, or Carlos Correa (or whomever else the Mets have signed by the time you’re reading this), Narváez makes New York a better team. In the highly competitive NL East, every advantage counts.
James McCann Looks for a Fresh Start in Baltimore
With Narváez in the fold, the Mets found themselves with a surplus of backstops, so they sent McCann (and $19 million) to the Orioles late on Wednesday night. McCann was expendable, and Billy Eppler needed to expunge him from the roster to free up a spot for his replacement. The Mets are still figuring out how to pare down their jam-packed 40-man roster after such an eventful offseason.
Just two years ago, McCann was a major signing for New York — the first of the Steve Cohen era. To say the deal hasn’t worked out as hoped would be an understatement. He has been worth a mere 0.8 WAR over the first two years of his contract, and he spent several months of the 2022 season on the injured list. A different team might have felt inclined to give him another shot out of pride or penny-pinching, but this Mets front office has no more patience for mediocrity. They saw a chance to improve behind the plate, and they took it.
The Orioles, meanwhile, seem content to remain mediocre for at least another year. After a 2022 season in which they finished only three games back of a postseason berth, their biggest move so far this winter was signing Kyle Gibson to a one-year, $10 million contract. According to Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic, Baltimore intends to use McCann as a backup for Adley Rutschman, as well as a designated hitter and possible first baseman against left-handed pitching.
Anyone who has even casually glanced at McCann’s offensive numbers should be surprised by that statement. He’s been a defense-first catcher since his early prospect days and has recorded only one above-average offensive season. Over the past two years, he has hit .220 with a 73 wRC+. He strikes out a ton, doesn’t hit for much power, and his walk rate is middle-of-the-road on a good day:
James McCann (2021-2022)
To be fair to the Orioles, McCann does perform much better with the platoon advantage, posting a 110 career wRC+ against southpaws. He struggled against lefties in his injury-shortened 2022 season, but the year before, he finished with a 108 wRC+ against same-handed pitching. That isn’t exceptional — the average right-handed DH has a 114 wRC+ against left-handed pitching over the past five years — but Baltimore would surely be happy with that level of production from its new pickup. As a team, the Orioles hit just .224 with a 90 wRC+ against lefties last season.
McCann has taken quite a tumble over the past few years, going from an All-Star and coveted free agent to a burden for the Mets and a backup catcher for a middling Baltimore squad. On the bright side, the Orioles will grant him a little more margin for error, and he’ll strive to return to form in 2023. If nothing else, they should have one of the best defensive units in the sport covering home plate for the next two seasons.