I know he wasn’t playing very well to start the season, but I think we all miss Travis d’Arnuad. After a breakout 2015–.340 OBP, .485 slugging percentage, and 4.0 WARP in just 67 games–the Mets’ newest star incurred yet another injury. This time? A strained rotator cuff in his throwing arm, an injury that undoubtedly wrecks his ability to throw and may have played a part in his offensive malaise to start the year. Now, I’m not an alarmist by nature–I live on the suburbs of the fictional Panic City–but d’Arnaud has proven a lack of ability to stick behind the plate over the last seven years, incurring a laundry list of maladies ranging from knee, arm, concussion, and back issues. This guy can’t really stay healthy.
And that’s a real shame, because d’Arnaud played at an MVP-caliber level last season. Four wins in about half a season of work is nothing to sneeze at. He has the rare combination of defensive chops (his pitch framing is very good) and legitimate offensive ability that makes one say things like “poor-man’s Russell Martin” and “bankrupt-man’s Buster Posey.” He’s that good, when not falling apart at the seams.
Of course, this shouldn’t be such a big deal. Before the last couple of seasons, the Mets looked to be one of the deeper teams in baseball behind the plate. Not only did they have a top prospect in d’Arnaud, but another in the wings in Kevin Plawecki. Despite his being a product of the University of Florida, I shared much of the scouting community’s excitement about Plaw, who looked to have one of the better offensive skillsets among catching prospects. Unfortunately, catcher development is anything but a straight line, and Plawecki possesses an OBP of .288 and a SLG of .281–that’s a .242 TAv–in about 300 plate appearances in the major leagues. There are no sure things.
So, with Plawecki’s dismal offensive output and d’Arnaud’s dismal injury record, perhaps it’s time to ask the question: do the Mets need to go out and acquire another catcher?
In a perfect world, perhaps the answer is yes. The Mets certainly should be in “win-now” mode, as the team has one of those rare championship windows built around their stellar pitching staff. A strong veteran backstop could help bolster the team’s strength in pitching, while providing better-than-average offense when it comes time to cycle through the lineup. When and if d’Arnaud is healthy, a second starting-caliber hitter–especially a right-handed one–could spell Travis but also Lucas Duda or Michael Conforto as needed.
But it’s not a perfect world. The Mets are a team where it also doesn’t make sense to spend a great deal on a full-time catcher, because the team’s farm system is dry and the cash flow is, well, uncertain. This is certainly not a position to rob Peter to pay Paul, especially when it comes to a position where there are warm bodies like Plawecki and Rivera in the wings.
The other tough thing is to identify potential catching targets. A quick skim of team rosters and transactions relating to catchers so far this season shows a barren wasteland, where simply possessing the tools of ignorance can find one a worthwhile big-league job. In addition to d’Arnaud, Devin Mesoraco, Roberto Perez already going down with injury, you can find plenty of examples where (1) a team’s starter is terrible or (2) a team’s backup would be no upgrade at all, even over the current version of Kevin Plawecki. To wit:
- The Minnesota Twins just called up former Met Juan Centeno, because starting catcher John Ryan Murphy has been horrible.
- The Red Sox demoted top prospect Blake Swihart to Triple-A and told him to start learning the outfield, in favor of offensive cipher Christian Vazquez.
- The Cleveland Indians traded for Chris Giminez, because they trust him more than former Mariner Adam Moore in the absence of Roberto Perez.
- A.J. Pierzynski starts for the Braves most days.
Even plenty of good teams have a dearth of catching talent.
There are really only a few options for the Mets to “upgrade” at catcher, and those options may be a little steep. The team could target Ryan Hanigan of the Red Sox, who will ostensibly be available once Swihart gets his feet back under him. But Hanigan hasn’t been a very good hitter at all recently (.242 TAv in 2015), so he’s no upgrade over Plawecki from that standpoint, though he may provide superior defense.
This leaves the Mets with really two options: spend big (in dollars and in prospects) for a short-term catching fix like Jonathan Lucroy or Derek Norris–both of whom are scuffling–to fill the void while d’Arnaud is out and upgrade the bench when he’s not … or do nothing at all, and hope that it’s not just a game or two that separates them from a spot in the playoffs. And that’s an awfully tough risk to take.
No, I’m just not sure it’s realistic to expect the Mets to address their weakest position, unless it becomes clear that d’Arnaud’s arm injury is something that could prevent him from returning to the position even after the next month or two. Kevin Plawecki may have been a disappointment to this point, but half the catchers in baseball seem to be screaming disappointments. The position is, for lack of a better term, weak-ass. Right now, all big-league catchers are hitting .235/.308/.366, which makes Plaw’s .176/.333/.176 line look almost normal. Factor in that he has proven to be a reasonable defensive catcher (with a 12.1 FRAA last season in the majors), and still possesses some offensive upside … and the best feasible replacement for Travis d’Arnaud may be his actual replacement.
Did I mention that Plawecki is 23rd in the league in WARP right now, among catchers? Because he is, even despite that icky slash line. He rates higher than Chris Iannetta and Yan Gomes and Matt Wieters and d’Arnaud. Rene Rivera is 30th in the league among catchers. They both could, conceivably, be starters in this catching-poor world we live in.
Baseball is so weird. Catchers are even weirder. Lets not freak out just yet, even if Plawecki seems allergic to hits. Good help is hard to find.
Photo Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports