As spring training finally arrives at our doorsteps, I wanted to take a look at the few spots on the Guardians’ roster where there is a position battle. Why not start with the most exciting position in baseball? Backup catcher!
While you may sense the sarcasm — given that starting Guardians catcher, Mike Zunino, is coming back from thoracic outlet syndrome surgery — backup catcher may actually be more significant than in prior years.
Catchers are prone to injuries due to the physically taxing nature of the position, anyway, so a solid backup is certainly a need on any team with playoff aspirations. If you’re a mediocre 81-81 team like Cleveland in 2008, you should absolutely give your backup catcher appearances to a 36-year-old with an elite mustache named Sal Fasano. If your plan is to keep the Chicago White Sox at bay for another AL Central title, you probably need to upgrade at the plate even if upgrading from Sal’s soup-strainer is nigh impossible.
The Guardians currently have four primary candidates for the backup catcher position. Let’s consider their statistics so we have a sense of who might be the favorite for the spot and what improvements we could watch for in spring training to recognize movement in the backup catcher leaderboard.
Below, you will see pop-time, exchange time, and arm strength. For context, the average pop-time for catchers in MLB is 2.01 seconds, the average exchange time is 0.73 seconds, and the average throwing speed on tosses to second base is 81.8 mph.
Cam Gallagher, 30, RHH
Notes: Career 76 wRC+ (52/86 vs. LHP/RHP), 19.4/7.7 K/BB%, career 11 defensive runs saved and (DRS) 10.1 framing runs above average (FRM) in 1136 innings, 4 catcher earned run average (rCERA). 2.04 average pop-time to second base on throws, 0.73 average exchange time (lowest in 2022 at 0.68), 78.5 mph average on throws.
Analysis: Cam Gallagher had the dubious distinction of being Salvador Perez’s backup catcher since 2018, and was added to the Guardians organization on a minor-league deal in January.
The draw to Gallagher is obvious — he has been a good defensive catcher for his career and you can rely on him to handle your pitching staff well and prevent balls in the dirt from reaching the screen. However, his pop-time isn’t great and his arm isn’t particularly strong, so I do wonder how well he will handle the run game, particularly with the new pickoff rules and larger bases.
Gallagher is also not a particularly good hitter, though his career 86 wRC+ against RHP actually makes him a decent pairing for Mike Zunino, offensively, since Zunino hits lefties much better than he does right-handed pitching. Choosing Gallagher as the backup would require a roster move, obviously.
I think Gallagher is a depth piece who will only make the Guardians roster if Zunino isn’t ready for Opening Day or if he gets injured.
Meibrys Viloria, 26, LHH
Notes: Career 50 wRC+ (48/51 vs. LHP/RHP), 33/8.7 K/BB, career -1 DRS and -5.1 FRM but 3 DRS and 1.3 FRM in 2022, 0 rCERA. 0.74 average exchange time. 1.96 average pop time, 83 mph average on throws.
Analysis: Meibrys Viloria is a younger catcher with some interesting defensive tools, especially in the run game where his good exchange time, above-average pop-time, and strong arm should help with teams trying to take an extra base. He took some significant steps forward as a defender in 2022 in 156 innings, so the Guardians may have seen something they can maximize there.
As a left-handed hitter, Viloria seems like a good placeholder for Bo Naylor should the Guardians decide that Bo needs a little more “seasoning” (let the reader understand) in Columbus. However, he has been essentially half of an average major league hitter for his career and there’s not a lot to dream on in the underlying metrics — in all but one season, he’s consistently outperformed his expected weighted on-base averages (xwOBA).
Viloria would also need to be added to the 40-man roster.
Bo Naylor, 23, LHH
Notes: OPS vs RHP/LHP in the minors in 2022: .896/.797. Steamer: 106 wRC+, 26.4/11.1 K/BB, ZiPS: 85 wRC+, 30.2/10.5 K/BB. 2.01 pop time, 0.78 exchange, 82.6 average mph on throws.
Analysis: When the Guardians did not find a way to land Sean Murphy in a trade, it became clear that they believe in the long-term value of Bo Naylor as a major-league player. It makes sense because his numbers in the minors make him seem like a reasonable bet to be a 15-homer/15-steal player, which is pretty darn rare for a catcher.
Naylor’s minor league season in 2022 as a 22-year-old was tremendous and his rosy projections reflect that reality. In an ideal world, he would be a partner to split time with Mike Zunino for the majority of the 2023 season. However, Chris Antonetti and Mike Chernoff both mentioned to the media this offseason how half a season of Triple-A isn’t much for a young catcher like Naylor.
Charitably, I would certainly remind everyone that catcher development is complicated so none of us fans and amateur analysts can say for sure that Bo is ready for the majors on Opening Day. Cynically, I can’t help but wonder if keeping him in the minors until a Super 2 deadline passes will be a motivating factor to leave him in Columbus for a bit.
I think Naylor and Zunino will each be catching three games a week for the Guardians by June, but we will likely see one of these other three options for the first two to three months of the season.
Bryan Lavastida, 24, RHH
Notes: OPS vs. LHP in the minors in 2021 and 2022: .954 and .747. Steamer: 87 wRC+, 22.4/7.9 K/BB%, ZiPS: 79 wRC+, 24/7.4 K/BB%. 1.97 pop time, 0.68 exchange time, 78.1 average mph on throws.
Analysis: Bryan Lavastida was the major-league backup for the Guardians while Luke Maile recovered from an injury to begin the 2022 season, so it certainly could happen again, especially as he is already on the 40-man roster.
Lavastida had a difficult year plagued by injuries for the Guardians, but it’s important to remember how young of a player he still is. I was especially interested to see some solid pop and exchange times for him in his limited opportunities with Cleveland.
Also, as Cleveland continues to look to improve against left-handed pitching, Lavastida seems capable of offering a solid effort there, making sure they don’t lose much when Zunino isn’t available to face a lefty. However, I do wonder if the team will feel his 2022 start with the major league team may have harmed his development and so will want to avoid the same path in 2023.
Unless Viloria shows something special to the team during spring training, I suspect that Bryan Lavastida will start as the backup catcher to Zunino until Bo Naylor comes up. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if an old hand like Gallagher gets that first look instead, or if Viloria does as a left-handed stand-in for Bo (these two would, as mentioned above, require a difficult move to get them on the 40-man, however).
I’ll be looking forward to seeing how Lavastida, Naylor, and Viloria hit major-league quality pitching in spring training and may even get the stop-watch out to clock some of their attempts to control the run game.
No matter the spring training results, however, I believe the Guardians should absolutely prioritize winning as many games as possible this season by getting Bo Naylor on the major league team as soon as possible without hurting his development