Mets C Travis D'Arnaud had Tommy John surgery this past April, which means the starting catcher job for 2019 is wide open.
D'Arnaud, who will be 30 years old in February, is expected to be out through the first few months of next season. He's also eligible for arbitration this winter and could end up earning as much as $4 million next season, after which he can be a free agent for the first time in his career.
My hunch is the Mets will cut d'Arnaud loose and use the saved money to hopefully help acquire a more productive, proven, everyday starting catcher. Even if cut, I expect d'Arnaud will sign a lesser deal to remain with the Mets, with whom he can continue his rehab with trainers he knows in St. Lucie.
In either case, after spending each of the last few winters writing endlessly about whether d'Arnaud would be the answer at catcher for the Mets, we officially know he is not.
Following d'Arnaud's surgery, the Mets explored the trade market to bring in someone new, specifically circling back with the Marlins about J.T. Realmuto, who Sandy Alderson was interested in acquiring the previous winter.
Instead, with back-up catcher Kevin Plawecki also on the DL, Alderson pushed his luck with rookie Tomas Nido and veteran Jose Lobaton, both of whom would have otherwise never been promoted.
The decision may have cost the team their season, frankly. In addition to hitting a combined .157, Nido and Lobaton also seemingly had a major impact on the pitching staff's poor performance in April, during which the they went 7-8 with a 4.80 ERA to end the month after starting 10-1 with a 2.91 ERA under d'Arnaud and Plawecki.
"I don't think there's any connection at all," former Mets 1B Keith Hernandez said at the time.
However, the trend continued, as the staff went 8-16 with a 4.58 ERA through most of May. And, once Plawecki returned from the DL, the staff returned to form by lowering their ERA by a full run.
Plawecki is an interesting case because nearly every successful catcher in history didn't blossom until their late 20s and having at least one or two seasons under their belt as a team's starting catcher.
In 2016, talking specifically about d'Arnaud, Hall of Fame catcher Mike Piazza told me that to be a successful hitter as a catcher you must first establish a routine and consistent relationship with the pitching staff.
"It can be difficult for a young catcher to know how to manage everything on his plate," Piazza explained. "He has so many new and different things being thrown at him each spring, he doesn't have a lot of time to focus on his own game."
Feb. 2016: Mike Piazza at Mets camp in St. Lucie. Credit: Matthew Cerrone, SNY
By comparison, Piazza said, other position players typically spend all of spring training focusing on their own needs, such as their batting stance, their fielding and their health and conditioning. On the other hand, the catcher has to re-learn everyone on his pitching staff, work on game-calling, do oppositional research with the pitching coach, and perform countless other unique tasks.
This is why, based on Piazza's point of view, it often takes a young catcher several spring trainings before the above becomes routine and automatic and a point of confidence, only after which can he put the needed time and energy in to improving his own game.
"I had a staff that would kick my butt if I went out there after I grounded into a double play and I wasn't focused on calling the game," Piazza said when talking about game preparation.
The point is, at 27 years old, having spent most of this past season as the team's starting catcher with a group of starting pitchers that he's known for years, maybe 2019 is the season Plawecki will blossom into the catcher the Mets always hoped he could be...
Remember, labeled by scouts as an "offensive catcher," Plawecki was considered the second-best catching prospect in baseball as recently as four years ago, according to more or less every every published top prospect list at the time. In fact, he was gaining so much hype in Triple-A that Sandy Alderson and his front office were reportedly considering dealing d'Arnaud the following winter.
In the 72 games played in 2018 after he returned from the DL, Plawecki produced at a rate likely to net him 1.0 WAR over the course of a full season, which this past year would had him middle of the pack among starting catchers in the National League. If he is primed for a breakout season, his next stop will be to become a Buster Posey, Salvador Perez-like, roughly 2.0 WAR-level backstop, but that feels very unlikely for him even if he can elevate his game.
The point is, coupled with having average skills behind the plate, I'm more than fine having him be a 1.0 WAR catcher that the staff likes to throw to so long as the rest of the lineup is improved. Otherwise, if the Mets make no other significant additions to the roster, catcher will continue to be an issue.
Along those lines and as noted above, the Mets (among other teams) have talked multiple times with the Marlins during the past year about the potential of trading for Realmuto, who is is arbitration-eligible the next two years and able to be a free agent after the 2020 season.
Similarly, the Royals reportedly talked to multiple teams during the past year about trading catcher Salvador Perez, whose 1.7 WAR were mostly the result of his terrific fielding and 27 home runs. Perez will soon be 29 years old and is due $40 million the next three seasons, which means he will likely cost less in trade to acquire than Realmuto, who is younger, less costly and twice as productive.
The best every day, free agent options this winter will be Wilson Ramos and Yasmani Grandal.
Ramos, who will be 31 years old next year, could be the better fit of the two if for no other reason than he has eight years of experience calling games in the NL East. Unfortunately, like d'Arnaud, Ramos is no stranger to injury. He has recently dealt with a chronic hamstring issue, as well as on-and-off knee pain.
According to the New York Post, team sources said the Mets engaged the Rays in trade talks this past summer, but instead dealt Matt Harvey to the Reds for Devin Mesoraco.
Ramos started hot and made the All-Star team with the Rays to start this past season. He was eventually dealt to the Phillies, with whom he hit .337 with a .396 OBP and .483 SLG in 33 games. Overall, he hit .306 with 15 HR in 111 games between the Rays and Phillies, while also drawing on-record compliments from his pitchers about his framing, game-calling and command behind the plate.
"Every time I am behind the plate, I try to help my guys on the mound," he said when in New York in September. "I love when we put zeroes on the scoreboard. That is my priority."
MLB insiders feel Ramos is worthy of a two-to-four year deal paying him $8-12 million per season. Of course, he's just two years removed from rejecting a seven-year deal to stay with the Nationals.
The other intriguing trade candidate will be Rangers C Robinson Chirinos, who is expendable, productive and earning just $2.3 million next season before becoming a free agent. The concern is that he'll be 34 years old, he strikes out a ton and, despite 12 years as a professional, has never played in the National League.
If the Mets don't sign Ramos or Grandal, or trade for Realmuto or possibly Perez or Chirinos, the Mets may as well go with Plawecki, because the other available options and in-house candidates are all somewhat similar.
In the end, though, I'd like to see an upgrade at catcher more than any other position. I hate to ignore Plawecki, who I like very much, but at this point I'd prefer he remain the backup to a more commanding, more experienced catcher -- even if it means trading prospects or giving a long-term contract to make it happen.
The starting rotation in Queens is too talented and too important to the team's success for their catcher to be anything other than the same...
Matthew Cerrone (Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | Contact) is lead writer of MetsBlog.com, which he created in 2003. He also hosts the MetsBlog Podcast, which you can subscribe to here. His new book, The New York Mets Fans' Bucket List, details 44 things every Mets fan should experience during their lifetime. To check it out, click here!