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Hot Stove Preview: Top Free Agent Catchers Available

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Continuing our position-by-position preview of the free agent market this offseason… let’s talk about catchers. If you missed the previous installment which looked at pitchers, click here.

1. Matt Wieters

Wieters could have become a free agent after last season, but he chose to accept the Orioles’ $15.8 million qualifying offer. Players typically haven’t accepted QO’s, so it was a bit of a surprise when Wieters did. He was, however, coming off of a shortened 2015 campaign due to Tommy John surgery and likely felt he could reestablish his value heading into a weaker free agent market.

Unfortunately for him, he didn’t have the best season. The switch-hitting backstop hit a meager .243/.302/.409 with 17 home runs and 66 RBI in 464 plate appearances. The Orioles certainly don’t want to pin their 2017 hopes on catching prospect Chance Sisco, so there’s a very high probability they make a $17.2 million qualifying offer to Wieters (assuming the new collective bargaining agreement doesn’t change the QO system). Wieters could again accept and again attempt to build up his value. But he’ll be 31 years old in May and might not ever live up to the offensive promise he had when he debuted in 2009. With Wilson Ramos injured, he’s very clearly the best free agent catcher on the market and as such, this is likely his best opportunity to sign a lucrative contract.

Though Wieters is only average with the bat, he still has 20-homer potential and is a good defender. He’s a good fit for a lot of teams out there. It wouldn’t be surprising if he’s able to command a four-year deal, but a three-year deal in the $50 million range is a safe bet.

2. Wilson Ramos

The Ramos story is a sad one. He was in the midst of a career year this year, which would’ve led to big bucks in free agency, but he suffered a freak injury near the end of September. Ryan Zimmerman made a poor throw home in an attempt to nail a runner, so Ramos jumped and landed awkwardly. He immediately pointed at his knee and needed help getting off the field. Ramos was diagnosed with a torn ACL and meniscus and underwent surgery last month. As a result,  he’s expected to miss 6-8 months, which puts him on track for a mid-season return.

Nevertheless, Ramos’ agent Wil Polidor told the Washington Post last week that he is still seeking a four- or five-year contract. The $17.2 million qualifying offer could be a wrench in his plans, however, assuming the Nationals make one. If Ramos rejects it, then the team that signs him would have to forfeit its highest available draft pick. For most, that means a first-round pick. For the 10 teams with the worst records in baseball this past season, it typically means a second-rounder. QO penalties have been a detriment to free agents as teams have been hesitant to part with them. For example, former teammate Ian Desmond didn’t sign until the end of February due to this.

Another wrench is that Ramos might have to move from behind the plate sooner rather than later due to the injury. He would have to learn a new position which would cut into his value, or become a DH, limiting his market to American League teams.

Ramos, 29, hit .307/.354/.496 with 25 doubles, 22 home runs, and 80 RBI in 523 plate appearances. That production might be too good for teams to pass up even knowing that Ramos won’t be ready to contribute until the summer.

3. Jason Castro

Castro, 29, has put up subpar numbers in three straight years for the Astros. He doesn’t hit for average, strikes out a ton, doesn’t walk, and doesn’t hit for enough power to make up for it. His best slugging percentage over the past three years was the .377 mark he put up this year.

Still, in this market, Castro will look pretty good, especially once Wieters and Ramos are off the board. In our new age where every team uses analytics, it’s tough to see teams wanting to commit to him beyond two years and it seems doubtful he’d have enough leverage to negotiate a third.

4. Geovany Soto

Soto is an interesting name. The 33-year-old played in only 26 games for the Angels and had his season end abruptly in August due to a right knee injury. When Soto did play, he hit .269/.321/.487 with five doubles and four homers in 86 plate appearances. Soto will come cheaply and might be a good gamble for smaller-market teams looking to strike lightning in a bottle.

The quality really starts to drop off beyond here. The best free agent catchers after these three are Kurt Suzuki, Nick Hundley, Chris Iannetta, Alex Avila, Carlos Ruiz (if the Dodgers decline his option), A.J. Ellis, and Dioner Navarro. They will all likely serve in back-up roles and as such, the contracts won’t be eye-popping. You’ll thank me for not wasting your time having written about them.

Nationals back off of minor league stipend cut

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Yesterday it was reported that the Washington Nationals would cut the weekly stipend paid to their minor leaguers from $400 a week to $300 per week through the end of June.

For frame of reference, MLB had agreed to pay all minor leaguers $400 per week through May 31. Several teams have agreed to extend that, with the Royals and Twins agreeing to do it all the way through the end of August. The Oakland A’s decided to stop the payments in their entirety as of today. The Nationals were unique in cutting $100 off of the checks.

The A’s and the Nationals have taken a great amount of flak for what they’ve done. The Nats move was immediately countered by Nationals major league players announcing that they would cover what the organization would not.

The A’s are, apparently, still sticking to their plan. The Nats, however, have reversed course:

One can easily imagine a situation in which Nats ownership just decided, cold-heartedly, to lop that hundred bucks off of each minor league check and not worry about a moment longer. What’s harder to imagine is what seems to have actually happened: the Nats did it without realizing that anyone would take issue with it, were surprised by the blowback, and then reversed course. Like, what kind of a bubble where they living in that they did not think people would consider that a low-rent thing to do?

In any event, good move, Nats, even if I cannot even begin to comprehend your thought process.