So the Twins have a problem. For the first time since A.J. Pierzynski first established himself as a regular, the club lacks an entrenched stalwart behind the plate. As discussed earlier this week
, the solution might be in-house, but that's far from guaranteed.
The timing of the announcement regarding Joe Mauer's position switch at first struck me as odd. Just three weeks earlier Terry Ryan had stated that he was planning around Mauer being a full-time catcher, while also reinforcing the dubious notion that the choice was ultimately up to the player. Why change course so quickly?
As much as they tried to emphasize that the decision was in Mauer's hands, the Twins faced circumstances that forced a quickened verdict. His concussion symptoms had lingered into October
, further cementing the reality that returning him to any sort of regular catching duty was an unacceptable risk.
That the public announcement coincided so closely with the start of free agency is a sure sign that Ryan plans to actively seek a backstop on the open market. There's an interesting crop at the position this year, including numerous realistic targets for the Twins.
Let's take a look at a few that stand out as likely suspects:
The Reunion: A.J. Pierzynski
The Twins have apparently been feeling nostalgic of late; earlier this week, they signed Jason Bartlett
to a minor-league contract. In that spirit, signing Pierzynski would be a logical progression.
Whereas Mauer's plight is hardly unique for catchers past 30, Pierzynski has been an exception to the rule. He's a brat on the field, earning him scorn from many opposing (and especially former) fans, but Pierzynski has been crouching behind the plate regularly for 12 seasons -- never missing more than 34 games -- and has shown no signs of wear. In fact, he had a career year in 2012 at age 35 and blasted 17 homers in 2013.
Pierzynski makes sense for many reasons. He's familiar, he's an experienced veteran who hits from Josmil Pinto's opposite side, and he won't require a long-term deal. He will, however, require a generous salary commitment, because while I'm sure the wave of boos raining down during every visit to Target Field have made his heart yearn for Minnesota, he's probably not too enthused about going from a team that made the playoffs to one that has lost 95 in three straight seasons.
The Power Bat: Jarrod Saltalamacchia
One of the main complaints about Mauer's move to first base is that, as a guy who has topped 13 homers just once in his career, he doesn't provide the pop you'd like to see at the position. This overstated issue could be offset by the addition of a legitimate home run threat behind the plate, and Saltalamacchia -- who has hit 55 homers with a .457 slugging percentage over the past three seasons -- definitely fits that bill.
Coming off a career year for the World Champion Red Sox, the 28-year-old Salty is the second best offensive catcher on the market behind Brian McCann, and he figures to command a sizable sum. As such, it's hard to see the Twins ponying up unless they really lack confidence in Pinto. Nonetheless, Darren Wolfson of 1500 ESPN reports
that the club has expressed "preliminary interest" in the slugger.
The Grizzled Vet: John Buck
In my hypothetical offseason blueprint for the Handbook, Buck is the catcher I had the Twins signing. Not because he was my ideal choice, necessarily, but because he's a guy I could easily see the team pursuing, and it's a choice I could get on board with.
Unlike Pierzynski or Saltalamacchia, Buck would not come aboard with the expectation of starting full-time. He's spent much of his career as a part-time player or backup, hitting .234/.301/.400. At 33, Buck has caught more than 1,000 MLB games and has a good defensive reputation. Although he's not a great hitter (.215 average and .661 OPS over the last three years) he does bring some power to the table. He has reached double digits in homers in four straight seasons.
In short, Buck is a guy who would fit as a backup or -- in a short-term pinch -- as a starter. And he won't cost much.
The Framer: Jose Molina
Advanced statistics have lagged behind in terms of evaluating defense, and nowhere has that been more true than at catcher. Strides have been made in recent years, though, with one of the most notable being Mike Fast's study on pitch framing
that assigned a concrete value to the aptitude of different catchers to strategically receive deliveries and help their pitchers get strike calls. At the top of the list: Jose Molina.
Of course, Molina is also a terrible hitter, with a career OPS checking in at .627. Still, if Fast's research is to be believed, Molina's framing proficiency saves his team an average of 35 runs per 120 games played. That helps offset the lacking offense considerably.
The Twins are probably less inclined than the forward-thinking Rays, who employed Molina in 2013, to lend credence to a Baseball Prospectus study. However, the ability to influence borderline pitches would have to appeal to a club that largely tends toward hurlers who live and die around the edges of the strike zone.