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Examining potential Guardians catcher targets at the Winter Meetings

Upgrading from Austin Hedges offensively without losing too much defensively is the goal

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MLB: Los Angeles Angels at Oakland Athletics Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

As we further consider potential upgrades the Guardians could make to their 2023 roster, we know the first position of need mentioned by Guardians General Manager Chris Antonetti when asked about the roster is catcher.

Currently, the Guardians’ roster has only two catchers: 22-year-old Bo Naylor and 24-year-old Bryan Lavastida, who, collectively, have 23 major league plate appearances and one hit.

On Sunday, the Guardians added Meibrys Viloria, who will be 26 years old in 2023, on a minor-league deal. As a left-handed batter who showed solid defensive skills in 2022, putting up three defensive runs saved (DRS), 1.3 framing runs above average (FRAA), and an above-average pop time of 1.93 seconds (anything below two seconds throwing to second is above average), Viloria makes sense as a potential major league backup catcher option, especially if the Guardians think Bo Naylor could use some more development in Triple-A. However, it is still possible the team sees Bo Naylor as a player who should be in the majors, splitting time with a veteran and learning the ropes in the big leagues under a willing mentor. Certainly, Bo’s 151 wRC+ in Double-A and 131 wRC+ in Columbus in 2022 were very encouraging signs for his future, and he has learned Spanish, as first reported by the Athletic’s Zack Meisel, and become respected as a handler of pitching staffs in the minors.

I think we can operate under two basic assumptions when speculating on the Guardians’ potential approach to the catching market. First, they likely want Bo Naylor to be the team’s young, cost-controlled, starting catcher of the near future. Second, they surely realize that it would be unwise to expect a 22-year-old with almost no major league experience to be the starting catcher for a team with a division title and World Series aspirations.

I believe the Viloria signing, while simply a minor-league deal, may indicate they would prefer letting Bo see more time in Columbus to develop before putting him in either a part-time or full-time role in the majors. With those beliefs in mind, let’s look at some options that should be available as the Hot Stove gets cooking this week:

Option 1: Sean Murphy, Right-handed, 28 years old, Athletics, under team control through 2025

122 wRC+ (career 116 wRC+) and 5.1 fWAR in 2022, 1 DRS, 8.7 FRAA, 1.90s pop time in 2022
Steamer projection for 2023: 118 wRC+ and 4.3 fWAR in a full season of plate appearances

We begin with the obvious candidate for the Guardians to target in a trade.

As a right-handed hitter who put up a 147 wRC+ against LHP in 2022 (114 against them in his career, overall), Murphy makes a ton of sense as a puzzle piece for the offense the Guardians are assembling. He is an elite defender as well, something the team clearly values. Murphy also went to college in Dayton at Wright State, as Tom Hamilton gushingly reminds Guardians fans anytime the team plays the Athletics.

For what it’s worth, former Cleveland beat writer Anthony Castrovince reminded MLB fans that the Guardians-A’s talks were fairly advanced last summer, and predicted that Cleveland and Oakland would get a Murphy deal done. In a thin field of available catchers and at a time where great defensive catchers who can hit are rarer than hen’s teeth, Murphy will not come cheaply. The Cardinals, Rays, and Guardians would figure to be the highest bidders for his services, as recently corroborated by Mark Feinsand, and the Guardians may have to give up multiple top 5-10 prospects to secure him. Castrovince also suggested that the sticking point, so far, may be Cleveland’s willingness to part with one of their top three pitching prospects — Daniel Espino, Gavin Williams, and Tanner Bibee.

I suspect Jon Morosi’s tweet describing the Guardians as one of the most active suitors for Murphy whom the Athletics hope to deal by the end of the week of the Winter Meetings was a not-so-subtle reminder from the A’s to all teams that if anyone wants to beat Cleveland’s offer, this week is the time to do so.

Murphy is 6-foot-2, so I suspect he would be capable of playing first base if need be, and his bat plays at DH, especially against lefties. Additionally, if Bo shows himself to be ready by 2024, Murphy could, of course, be flipped to recoup some of the prospect value expended to acquire him. But, you can also never have too much great catching, as catchers experience a number of injuries in any given year.

I think Murphy is the kind of player that the Guardians could give up Tanner Bibee and George Valera to acquire, and I would be fine with it. But, I do know that any time I discuss actual prospects to include in the deal, someone gets upset at me about the kind of players it would take to get him. So, hopefully, they get a deal to bring Murphy to Cleveland so we can have some fun debates ... and see a good hitter play the catching position for us for once.

Option 2: Danny Jansen, Right-handed, 28 years old, Blue Jays, under team control through 2024.

140 wRC+ in 2022, 98 wRC+ for his career. 5.4 DRS, -1.4 FRAA (but 9.2 above average for his career), 1.94s pop time in 2022.
Steamer Projection for 2023: 468 PA, 120 wRC+, 2.6 fWAR

Reports seem clear that Toronto plans on dealing one of their three catchers, and that Jansen would be their preference to move. Admittedly, this possibility entirely depends on what Toronto is targeting in their return. Unlike the Athletics who are clearly rebuilding with the desire to be competitive starting in 2024 and beyond, the Blue Jays are in win-now mode and will be likely looking for starting pitching, relief pitching, and left-handed hitting.

Cleveland could certainly provide value in all three of those areas, but reports (from Jim Bowden, so take it with a grain of salt) indicate that Cleveland prefers to discuss Alejandro Kirk and Gabriel Moreno from Toronto. Could this be the Guardians attempting to lower the price for Jansen? Jansen only has 1,079 major league plate appearances, so there is a real possibility that 2022 was an offensive breakout season for him and his .255 batting average on balls in play and .368 expected weighted on-base average don’t indicate any unusual amount of luck helping him achieve his best hitting year to date.

I wonder if a deal built around Aaron Civale or Zach Plesac and either one of Cleveland’s young relief pitchers like James Karinchak or Enyel De Los Santos or one of the Guardians’ young left-handed hitters like Will Brennan or Will Benson would be enough to get Jansen if Cleveland is truly interested in him.

Option 3: Tom Murphy, Right-handed, 32 years old, Mariners, under team control through 2023.

106 wRC+ for his career (123 wRC+ against LHP for his career), 1 DRS in his last full season in 2021, -1.3 framing runs but 1 FRAA overall for his career, 2.04s pop-time in 2021.
Steamer Projections for 2023: 245 PA, 106 wRC+, 1.1 fWAR

The “other” Murphy is certainly available since Cal Raleigh emerged in 2022 and the Mariners acquired a capable backup catcher from Arizona in Cooper Hummel this offseason. However, Murphy underwent shoulder surgery in June, so there are certainly questions about whether or not he will be recovered in time for the 2023 season and how he will be affected by the surgery. Notably, it was his non-throwing shoulder, which would help ensure that his already below-average pop-time should not be affected.

In a vacuum, acquiring a veteran on a one-year deal who can hit LHP would surely be Cleveland’s preference if they fully believe in Bo Naylor’s future value, so I wouldn’t rule out a trade for a different Murphy than the one we thought.

Option 4: Mike Zunino, Right-handed, 32 years old, free agent

Played only 36 games with a hurt shoulder in 2022, 134 wRC+ and 4.5 fWAR, 7 DRS, 8 FRM, 1.93s pop-time in 2021.
Steamer Projection for 2023: 313 PA, 86 wRC+, 1.7 fWAR

Another player recovering from surgery, Zunino underwent thoracic outlet syndrome surgery in August but is expected to be ready for spring training — if the medicals check out, Zunino certainly has the defensive prowess that the Guardians love and also sports a 101 wRC+ against LHP for his career (88 wRC+ overall). While acknowledging that health is the big question mark, if the Guardians miss out on Sean Murphy and Jansen, I wouldn’t be surprised to see them pursue a one-year deal for Zunino to allow him to prove his health while Cleveland develops Bo Naylor for full-time duty in 2024.

Additional options to keep in mind

Alejandro Kirk: 24 years old, Right-handed, Blue Jays, under team control through 2026 After questions about how Kirk would fair defensively as a “bad-body” 5’8” catcher, Kirk had an elite year defensively, in framing and pop-time (1.93 seconds), as well as putting up a 140 wRC+. Questions remain of how long he can last at catcher, however, unless he loses a little more weight, but the bat seems legitimately good. It would require a huge return to acquire such a young player coming off of such an amazing year, so it seems unlikely he is moved.

Gabriel Moreno: 23 years old, Right-handed, Blue Jays, under team control through 2027
If Kirk would be expensive to acquire, one would have to assume Moreno would be even more so. Moreno was FanGraphs’ third-ranked prospect overall in 2022 and projects to be both an excellent defender and a great hitter. Personally, I can only see Moreno coming to Cleveland if he is part of a trade where the Blue Jays acquire Shane Bieber or Triston McKenzie, and even then, Cleveland would probably have to add to the deal to get it done.

Christian Vázquez: 32 years old, Right-handed, free agent
Vázquez is a great defender with a career 92 wRC+ against LHP (84 overall). In a different offseason, I could totally see Cleveland signing Vázquez to a one- or two-year deal, but with the scarcity of catching in the current market, I suspect he will actually exceed MLB Trade Rumors’ projection of three years, $27 million, and I doubt Cleveland would even offer him that kind of deal at his age.

Jonah Heim: 27 years old, Right-handed, Rangers, under team control through 2026
With the latest rumor from Buster Olney that, for some reason, Texas is considering acquiring James McCann from the Mets, speculation has begun that Heim might be available. As an elite defender projected for a 100 wRC+ in 2023, I’m not sure why the Rangers would prefer McCann, but, if they do, I imagine Cleveland and others will be calling about Heim. Perhaps the Rangers would like to improve their roster in other areas without spending more deGrom-type money, and Heim would certainly be one of their best trade chips to do so. Again, though, the Rangers are in win-now mode, as are the Guardians, so it’s difficult to see how Cleveland’s extensive prospect capital would help them get a deal for Heim done.

Donny Sands: Right-handed, 26 years old, Phillies, under team control through 2027
Tres Barrera: Right-handed, 28 years old, Nationals, under team control through 2027
Sands and Barrera are backup third catchers on their current rosters. It’s difficult to say how Cleveland may view either, defensively, but both could be the kind of players who help bridge to Naylor with 80-90 wRC+ abilities if Cleveland wants to swing a trade and pair one of them with Viloria for a year.

Austin Hedges: Right-handed, 30 years old, free agent
It’s impossible not to love Hedges’ personality and elite defensive ability (his framing, especially makes my heart soar), but also very difficult to love the 45 wRC+ he put up in his time with Cleveland. I suspect that if all else fails, pairing Hedges with Viloria and then Bo, at some point, will be the Guardians’ backup option, unless someone jumps in to sign Hedges before then. When Hedges is on, I always feel like he’s capable of putting up 70 wRC+, but it never lasts, so I’m hopeful that the Guardians are planning to move on from Hedgey.