In the recent roster breakdown series, I didn’t discuss the catcher position, in part because there’s little doubt about who will start next year.  There’s every reason to expect that Miguel Montero will return to form next year, and even if he didn’t, he’s unlikely to be so bad that the team would think about punting his significant contract ($50M over the next four seasons).

When Miggy went down with injury in July, Wil Nieves stepped up to get the majority of starts in his absence; the temporary backup catcher was Tuffy Gosewisch.  When Montero is healthy, the D-backs play their backup catchers less than most teams; in 2013, Montero caught 1,006.2 innings to Nieves’s 380.2 and Tuffy’s 107.2, but in 2012, Montero caught a higher proportion (1,190 innings, to a total 243.2 for Nieves, Henry Blanco and Konrad Schmidt).

The D-backs do not have a lot of catching talent behind Montero.  Stryker Trahan was Jeff Wiser’s top prospect with the Missoula Osprey this season, and he is still on the team’s short list of prospects — but he is several years away from sniffing the bigs, in all likelihood.  The backup catching solution is unlikely to come from within the organization; the team could re-sign Nieves or bring in another free agent.

The team could also turn back to Tuffy Gosewisch, but Tuffy did little to work his way into the team’s plans for next season — in 47 plate appearances, Tuffy had 8 hits and no walks, good for a weighted on base average of .171.  In terms of creating runs, he had a -6 wRC+.  That’s 106% worse than the league average, and while that’s an extremely small sample, Tuffy has never set the world on fire with his minor league numbers.  2013 was his best minor league season (103 wRC+ in 272 PAs), but he was well below that mark in his only other full season at AAA, and the only other season in which he was an above-average hitter was in 2010 for the Phillies’ AA club.  In my meager opinion, Tuffy did do well defensively in his limited time with the club.  But he’s just not the answer by way of backup.

So will the team turn back to Wil Nieves?  Nieves did a very good job of filling in for Montero this year, hitting .297 with a .303 wOBA.  Most of Nieves’s hits were singles (ISO .072) and he rarely walked, and so he slotted in somewhat below average as a hitter (86 wRC+).  Nieves no longer has the reputation of being a big asset defensively, but he’s not a liability there — so what you end up with is a catcher at replacement level (-0.1 WAR in 2013).  That’s replacement level at catcher, not at backup catcher — meaning Nieves was something of an asset in 2013.  At $800,000 in salary, Nieves earned his paycheck, and given that he’ll be a year older (he turned 36 last month), he could probably be re-signed at a similar level.

One thing limiting the leverage Nieves has in negotiations is that he was really bouncing around professionally, even last year.  After being designated for assignment on August 1, 2012 by the Rockies, Nieves cleared waivers.  When he did not agree to an outright assignment to the minors, Nieves was put on release waivers, and was claimed by Arizona.  In the offseason that followed, Towers non-tendered Nieves (the speculation was that he planned on picking up Eli Whiteside on waivers from the Yankees) before signing him a week later at his $800k salary.  In other words, it wasn’t too long ago that the D-backs demonstrated through their actions that they were willing to opt for marginal candidates over Nieves.

Whether it’s Nieves or another candidate, the backup catcher for the D-backs will likely be a free agent signing, with some scant possibility that one could added via trade, perhaps as a minor addition to a bigger deal.  I think Arizona is unlikely to stretch for someone like Geovany Soto, and Tampa Bay is unlikely to sever ties with Jose Molina.  Other candidates could get non-tendered or released by other clubs, but veterans who might be willing to take a backup role include Ramon Hernandez, Dioner Navarro, Miguel Olivo, Brayan Pena, Humberto Quintero, Kelly Shoppach or Yorvit Torrealba.  It’s still a strong bet that Nieves will get re-signed, although you can be sure that Towers will be scanning the market for other possibilities.


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