Phillies Nuggets with Tim Kelly

The Phillies have been curiously quiet on the catcher’s market

Andrew Knapp struggled for much of the 2018 season. (Ian D’Andrea)

Though Philadelphia Phillies general manager Matt Klentak may have checked in on Miami Marlins star catcher J.T. Realmuto this offseason, the Phillies never seemed likely to ultimately land the All-Star. They did, however, appear likely to add a backup catcher behind Jorge Alfaro, something they’ve yet to do.

Much of how the rest of the Phillies offseason plays out is dependent upon whether the Phillies ultimately land Bryce Harper or Manny Machado. If the Phillies sign Harper, it could force them to decide whether Aaron Altherr or Nick Williams will remain on their roster for 2019. If the Phillies sign Machado, it would affect whether they pursue free-agent third baseman Mike Moustakas and the future of Maikel Franco.

Beyond the obvious trickle-down effects signing Harper or Machado would have, there’s some evidence that the Phillies may be more motivated to spend on remaining free-agents if they land one of the two 26-year-old superstars. For example, Bob Nightengale of USA Today and Jon Heyman of MLB Network both floated the idea of the Phillies pursuing Dallas Keuchel and/or Craig Kimbrel after they secured either Harper or Machado.

In theory, signing Keuchel, a former Cy Young Award winner, or Kimbrel, this generation’s best closer, shouldn’t really have much to do with whether the Phillies land a star position player. But Keuchel and Kimbrel are both in their early 30s. Signing either to a multi-year deal would signal that the Phillies plan to compete in the postseason immediately. Without Harper or Machado, that isn’t as likely. So it makes sense that the Phillies pursuit of either Keuchel or Kimbrel could be contingent upon adding an in-prime superstar to the middle of a lineup that struggled to produce runs in the second-half of the 2018 season.

At the same time, whether the Phillies ultimately sign Harper or Machado, they figure to make incremental improvements in 2019. They signed veterans Andrew McCutchen and David Robertson to lucrative free-agent contracts. The Phillies acquired Jean Segura, a two-time All-Star, from the Seattle Mariners. Rhys Hoskins is moving back to first base. Manager Gabe Kapler believes Scott Kingery will make great strides offensively in 2019. And new pitching coach Chris Young thinks that even though the trio of Nick Pivetta, Zach Eflin and Vince Velasquez all posted ERAs north of five after the All-Star Break, the experience of having pitched in a semi-pennant race will help them moving forward.

So another area where the Phillies could seemingly make an incremental improvement, one that wouldn’t break the bank, is backup catcher. Even after Wilson Ramos hit .337 in 89 at-bats following his July trade to the Phillies, the club didn’t seem to make much of an effort to retain him. Ramos ultimately signed an affordable two-year/$19 million contract with the division rival New York Mets. Letting Ramos walk signaled that the Phillies still believe that Alfaro, acquired in the July 2015 Cole Hamels trade, will be their long-term catcher. And perhaps he will be, given his tremendous raw power and historically strong throwing arm.

But there’s a reason the Phillies traded for Ramos when he became available last July. For as high as Alfaro’s upside is behind the plate, he still made 11 errors in 2018. Alfaro remains just as raw offensively. He had a .406 batting average on balls in play in 2018, a sign that when he made contact, really good things happened. The problem, as evidenced by his .262 batting average, is that he simply didn’t put the ball in play enough. Striking out in 36.6 percent of his plate appearances played a large role in that. Suffice to say, the Phillies would be smart to have an insurance option behind Alfaro.

Andrew Knapp was the club’s backup catcher prior to Ramos’ arrival, which pushed Alfaro into that role when Ramos was healthy enough to play. The 27-year-old had a rather disastrous offensive campaign in 2018, hitting just .197 in 187 at-bats. To a degree, though, that’s part of the life of a backup catcher. Without regular at-bats, it can be hard to get in a rhythm offensively. You get the sense that based on the .257 batting average that Knapp posted in 171 at-bats in his rookie season of 2017, he could still be a serviceable offensive player. The problem is, he had six passed balls and -9 defensive runs saved in 392.2 innings behind the plate in 2018. In addition to being a net negative offensively in 2018, he was a net negative behind the plate as well.

The feeling you are left with when watching Knapp is that he might not be a catcher. He’s played a bit of first base and even saw a brief look at third base in Triple-A in 2018. Maybe he would be better served as a utility player that can move around the diamond. That, of course, doesn’t help the Phillies at the backup catcher position.

Prior to his decision to return to the Atlanta Braves, where he spent the first nine seasons of his career, Brian McCann drew interest from the Phillies, according to Jim Salisbury of NBC Sports Philadelphia. McCann signed with the Braves a few days after Thanksgiving. The calendar has now flipped to February of 2019, and it’s been crickets in regards to the Phillies activity on the catcher’s market.

It stands to reason that some catchers still remaining on the free-agent market could be holding out for starting jobs, but for as much as the Phillies may be hoping that Alfaro breaks out in 2019, there will be at-bats to go around.

Martin Maldonado, a 32-year-old that won a Gold Glove Award in 2017, remains a free-agent. He had 373 at-bats in 2018, which he split between the Los Angeles Angels and Houston Astros. He hit .225 in those at-bats with nine home runs and 44 RBIs. He would seem to represent an obvious defensive upgrade over Knapp, while providing some pop.

Matt Wieters may feel overqualified for this role, and perhaps he is, though he hit .238 in 235 at-bats for the Washington Nationals in 2018. He only allowed two passed balls in 559.1 innings behind the plate in 2018, which means he’s another option that would be a defensive upgrade over Knapp.

The San Francisco Giants could still bring Nick Hundley back to back-up catcher Buster Posey, though 26-year-old Aramis Garcia hit .286 with four home runs in 86 at-bats in 2018, so that may be an area the Giants could get younger (and cheaper) at. Hundley, 35, hit .241 with 10 home runs and 31 RBIs in 2018. He’s been a mixed bag defensively in recent years, but he has some pop and made just $2.5 million in 2018.

Other qualified backup catching options that remain free-agents are A.J. Ellis, Devin Mesoraco and Rene Rivera. The Phillies briefly employed Ellis in 2016, as he came to Philly when the club sent franchise icon Carlos Ruiz to the Los Angeles Dodgers in August of 2016. The Phillies reportedly had interest in bringing Ellis back for the 2017 season, though he ultimately signed with the Miami Marlins. Ellis will be 38 in April, but he has a tremendous reputation around the league, with future Hall of Famer Clayton Kershaw crying when Ellis was traded to the Phillies.

Knapp still has three remaining minor league options, so while signing a veteran catcher may push Knapp back to Triple-A, the Phillies wouldn’t have to expose him to waivers. It still feels like backup catcher is a box that the Phillies have to check off before the 2019 season begins. So it’s curious that things have been so quiet.


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