Catcher has been an oft-cited area of need for the Brewers over the last several seasons, starting with the trade of Jonathan Lucroy and leading to plenty of speculation over names like J.T. Realmuto, Wilson Ramos, and, in some sectors… Jonathan Lucroy. More recently, some of this speculation has turned to free-agent-to-be Yasmani Grandal and whether his disastrous October could significantly hurt his value on the free agent market. Is there a bargain to be had? (It won’t; there isn’t.)
Yes, Grandal or Realmuto would represent significant upgrades. But in the meantime, David Stearns, Craig Counsell, and the rest of the Brewers staff have been able to squeeze great value out of the current crop of time-shares and journeymen. Looking beyond the major league roster, catcher is a position full of surprising contributors up and down the organizational ladder. What follows is an overview of some of those contributors, as well as some brief notes on their outlook for the 2019 season and beyond. Upgrading would be nice; staying the course is probably fine, as well.
Major League Options
Player Name: Plate Appearances, Batting Average / On Base Percentage / Slugging Percentage, Wins Above Replacement Player (WARP)
Manny Piña; 337 PA, .252/.307/.395, 1.7 WARP
For the second year in a row, Piña handled the lion’s share of catching duties for Milwaukee. He continued to be a steady performer, offering tolerable offense and sturdy defense. His offensive production fell off some, relative to his breakout 2017 campaign, thanks to a slow start and a dip in Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP). Piña turned it on in the second half, hitting .295/.328/.429 after the break even as he lost playing time to immortal folk hero Erik Kratz.
With just over three years of service time on his major league clock, Piña is controllable for three more seasons through the arbitration process. He’ll be 34 by then, so it’s likely that someone else will have wrested away the bulk of available playing time behind the dish. Still, he handles a pitching staff well, and figures to get plenty of turns through the order in 2019 barring a major roster shakeup.
Erik Kratz; 219 PA, .236/.280/.355, 1.4 WARP
Erik Kratz came to the Brewers via a surprise trade with the Yankees, and wasted little time in endearing himself to fans and teammates alike. Though he didn’t bring much of a big league résumé into Milwaukee, he performed quite well in limited time, making up for his anemic offensive output with superlative glove work (11.1 Adjusted Fielding Runs Above Average in fewer than 500 defensive innings!).
Kratz elected free agency when he was removed from the Yankees’ 40-man roster prior to the 2018 season. He re-signed with New York before his trade to Milwaukee, but finished the year with fewer than six years of big league service time to his name. He can be controlled via arbitration for the 2019 season, though at age 39, he may have retirement (or a late career surge as a knuckle-balling reliever) on his mind. I’m not betting on a return, much as my heart hopes otherwise.
Stephen Vogt; Did Not Play in Majors (Shoulder Surgery)
All-around good guy Stephen Vogt was limited to 9 plate appearances for the Biloxi Shuckers in May before undergoing season-ending shoulder surgery. It was the second major shoulder operation of Vogt’s career; his big league future is in jeopardy. I’m not aware of any public information on his rehab, but Vogt could be controlled via arbitration in 2019 if he’s able to work his way back to the ball field.
For his career, Vogt is a .251/.310/.416 hitter, good for a strong .267 True Average (TAv). He’s below-average with the glove, though, and struggled to throw out base runners even before re-injuring his throwing arm. He’s well-loved among his teammates, but Vogt’s path back to the majors may be as a reserve first baseman or a DH.
Jacob Nottingham; 196 PA, .281/.347/.528 in Triple-A
Public opinion of Nottingham was fairly sour heading in to the year, and it’s not too difficult to see why: A .209/.326/.369 slash line in your second year of AA isn’t going to win over many casual fans. Biloxi is a run-suppressing environment, though, in a tough league for hitters. So that same ugly triple-slash translated to a barely-above-average.264 TAv. This year, with much better baseball-card stats courtesy of Colorado Springs, Nottingham’s TAv in the minors was all the way up to .282.
Expecting that kind of production in the big leagues, at least at first, is probably foolish. In his (very) limited time in Milwaukee, Nottingham compiled just 24 plate appearances and looked a tad over-matched at times, striking out on eight occasions. He also drew four walks, to his credit, and the sample size is far too small to be seriously examined. Most excitingly, Nottingham can seriously hurt a baseball when he finds one in his sweet spot, to the tune of 450+ feet. He’s made tremendous strides with the glove over the last few years, transforming himself into something approaching an average defensive catcher. Couple that with league-average-or-better offense at the position, and he still has the ability to produce sneaky value for the Brewers over the next six seasons. (Catchers in 2018 batted .232/.304/.372, so Nottingham doesn’t have to turn into Pudge Rodriguez to give the Brewers a boost.) I’m hoping he piles up a couple hundred big league plate appearances next season.
Jett Bandy; 216 PA, .292/.353/.510 in Triple-A
Bandy broke camp with the Brewers, but failed to impress. He hit .188/.268/.266 with shaky defense in 24 games before being removed from the roster and passed over on waivers. The 28-year-old came alive in Triple-A, but he’s reaching do-or-die status as a major league contributor. He’ll have to contend with at least two of the above names on the depth chart, and will likely struggle to find big league playing time should he remain in the Brewers organization. Still, he’s youngish enough and talented enough that he has a chance to shed his current quad-A label and become a solid backup with some pop.
Prospects and Depth
Christian Bethancourt; 418 PA, .297/.328/.506 in Triple-A
Brought in on a minor league pact, Bethancourt played very well in his return from the pitcher’s mound. He has soft hands behind the dish, and a good arm. He also hit a bit in Colorado Springs, with 20 home runs and a nifty .271 TAv. One knock on his offense: He gave away plenty of walks as a pitcher, but largely refuses them as a hitter.
Bethancourt was brought into the organization on a minor league pact. There will be plenty of plate appearances available for catchers in AAA next year, but it’s no guarantee that Bethancourt will be making the move to San Antonio along with the rest of the organization’s most advanced minor leaguers. Plenty of rebuilding clubs may take a roll of the dice on the former top prospect.
Dustin Houle and Max McDowell, Advanced A & Double-A
These two are the same age, and at about the same stage developmentally. Houle was drafted out of high school way back in 2011; McDowell followed from college in 2015.
Houle is a big-bodied catcher without a true carrying tool. He’s got a decent arm and is fairly strong, but the lack of a hit tool cramps his game power. He’s a nice organizational depth piece, but something very strange will have happened if he sees major league time in 2019.
McDowell has a bit more upside, with a strong throwing arm, decent athleticism, solid glove, and some untapped raw power. He flashed a nice bat in Wisconsin in 2016, but his hit tool hasn’t progressed much as he’s moved up the ladder. He’s got a chance to turn into a light-hitting backup at the highest level.
Mario Feliciano; 165 PA, .205/.282/.329 in Advanced A
2018 was basically a lost season for the 19-year-old, who battled back from an arm injury to play in 42 games for the Carolina Mudcats. He started slow in June, showed signs of life in July, then cratered in August. It was a disappointing year for a player who impressed in 2017 as one of the youngest prospects in the Midwest League. Ultimately, though, I see little reason to dampen long-term expectations. Catching at Class-Advanced A is an almost laughable challenge for a 19-year-old. He should return for another round in 2019, and I expect him to play pretty well. Keep in mind that the Carolina League is hard on hitters, so his stat line may not be all that impressive. The fact that he’ll be there at all, though, at 20 years old? Impressive. The defense could use some work, and he has plenty of time for that. Meanwhile, he could develop into a .270 hitter with a line-drive approach and average power.
Feliciano is currently playing in the Arizona Fall League to make up for some of his lost time this year. It’s not working, though: He’s only worked his way into two games, with one single in four at bats.
Payton Henry; 389 PA, .234/.327/.380 in Advanced A
Henry had a rough April and a tremendous May, followed by an acceptable June and July and a ghastly August and September. He’s a bat-first prospect with plus raw power, but he struck out in about 32 percent of his plate appearances. He needs to work on his receiving and his arm if he wants to stay behind the plate; he becomes a much less exciting prospect if he moves to first base or an outfield corner.
Finally, backstops David Fry and Robie Rojas are due a mention here. Fry hit .315/.406/.563 while playing catcher, first base, and third base for the rookie league Helena Brewers. He drew 29 walks and struck out just 42 times in 261 plate appearances. Rojas, a 38th-round pick in 2017, spent plenty of time on the 7-day Disabled List and was relegated to the minor league taxi squad. He managed just 66 plate appearances on the year, including 13 at Triple-A, and hit surprisingly well in a (very small) 13-game sample in Carolina. All together, he had a line of .304/.409/.393.
Fry’s rookie league stats, while nice, are by and large worthless, and I have no idea what to make of Rojas at this point. But I’ll be curious to see what the organization does with both of these prospects in 2019.