November 30, 2023

Marlins exploring market for catching upgrades

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Marlins catchers were the least productive group of backstops in the National League last year, batting a combined .200/.272/.298. Jacob Stallings and Nick Fortes caught every inning for Miami in 2023, but Stallings was non-tendered last week as the Fish look to turn the page and bring in a more productive all-around option. Newly hired president of baseball operations Peter Bendix addressed the need when chatting with reporters — link via Jordan McPherson of the Miami Herald — plainly stating that the Marlins need catching help this offseason and that adding multiple catchers to bolster the organizational depth would be “ideal.” He added that the Fish are open to both trades and free-agent options at the position.

That’s not necessarily an indication that the 27-year-old Fortes is on borrowed time with the organization. While he hit just .204/.263/.299 in 323 plate appearances last year, Fortes grades out as a superlative defender and has multiple minor league options remaining. Depending on the magnitude of the seemingly inevitable catching additions Miami makes, he could be in a timeshare, a strict backup role or even retained as depth in the upper minors.

Also on the Marlins’ 40-man roster is 24-year-old prospect Will Banfield, the No. 69 overall pick in the 2018 draft. Banfield went through Double-A for a second time in 2023, turning in a respectable .258/.302/.472 slash with 23 home runs. He rarely walks and might never be reliable enough to post even an average on-base percentage in the big leagues, but Banfield had a power breakout in ’23 after being labeled a glove-only catcher throughout most of his time in the minors. He’s not yet on the 40-man roster and is eligible for the Rule 5 Draft, but if he goes unclaimed he could be in line for his big league debut at some point in 2024.

Still, it’s clear that Bendix and his staff will need to bring in catching help at some point. The free-agent market isn’t especially deep at the position. Mitch Garver is the top offensive option available, though he’s coming off several injury-shortened seasons and might be used in more of a hybrid catcher/DH role wherever he signs. Alternatives include Gary Sanchez, Victor Caratini and Tom Murphy. There are several glove-first options available (e.g. Austin Hedges, Roberto Perez), but their generally lackluster offensive track records would only position Miami to find itself with subpar production similar to that which they endured in 2023.

The trade market could feature a few more interesting alternatives. There are some notable change-of-scenery candidates like San Francisco’s Joey Bart and perhaps St. Louis’ Ivan Herrera, neither of whom has a path to regular at-bats thanks to the respective presences of Patrick Bailey and Willson Contreras. The Twins are looking to scale back payroll and had a breakout 2023 showing from Ryan Jeffers, which likely makes veteran Christian Vazquez available. He’s still owed two years and $20M. Vazquez had a tough year at the plate in 2023 but was only a bit below the league average at the plate from 2019-22. That, of course, is simply a speculative handful of names rather than any kind of comprehensive rundown of potentially available names.

In terms of payroll, the Marlins might not have much space with which to work. Roster Resource currently projects them at just over $96M — about $14M shy of where they wrapped up the 2023 season. But in addition to help at catcher, the Marlins could also stand to explore upgrades at shortstop and in the outfield, to say nothing of some moves to deepen the rotation mix.

While the starting staff has long been a strength in Miami, it’s not quite as robust as it once was. Sandy Alcantara will miss the 2024 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Pablo Lopez was traded to the Twins in last winter’s Luis Arraez deal. Top prospect Jake Eder went to the White Sox in exchange for Jake Burger. Fellow prospects Max Meyer and Sixto Sanchez have been injured. The Fish still have a talented rotation group — Jesus Luzardo, Eury Perez, Braxton Garrett, Edward Cabrera, Trevor Rogers — but they’re not as flush with arms as they once were. That’s significant both because it creates a possible need to add to the group and also reduces the ease with which they can trade from their stock of arms in order to address other deficiencies, such as the glaring need at catcher Bendix recently referenced.

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