If you are aware of Tony Wolters, it’s probably for one of two reasons: (1) You are an absolutely enormous baseball nerd and keep tabs on all the back-up catchers around the league, and/or (2) You remember that he was the guy who got the game-winning 13th inning hit against the Cubs in the 2018 Wild Card Game against the Rockies.
But NOW you can be aware of him for a different reason – he’s likely to be the Cubs’ new back-up catcher:
Hearing veteran catcher Tony Wolters will likely head to the Cubs after opting out of Pirates contract
— Jon Heyman (@JonHeyman) March 31, 2021
With Austin Romine (knee) still out for an undetermined length of time, the Cubs were down to bringing up youngster P.J. Higgins (who did not play last year) to be the back-up catcher, or finding someone who became available in the waning days of Spring Training, which always happens. You’re not going to find a stud at that time of year, but you can usually find someone. Jonathan Lucroy became available. Tony Wolters became available.
And it sounds like the Cubs are going with Wolters as the guy behind Willson Contreras.
Wolters, 28, was never much of a hitter in his time with the Rockies, sporting a 57 wRC+ (though the slash line looks a lot better because of the Coors adjustment (.238/.323/.319)). He has intermittently been an exceptional catcher, though, with mostly great defensive years and a couple superlative framing years, too. His metrics were way down in 2020, but it’s so hard to know what to do with so few appearances. It seems unlikely that he lost it at 27, so the hope is he’s still a great defender/framer this year at age 28.
You’re probably wondering how the Cubs are landing on a guy who couldn’t make the Pirates, but it’s pretty easy to explain. For one thing, again, this isn’t true free agency – the guys who are available right now are not going to be your tip-top choice back-up catcher, so you kinda take what you can get. But for the other thing, the Pirates have a good young starter in Jacob Stallings, and then they were choosing between Wolters and Michael Perez for the back-up spot. If they chose Wolters, it would cost them $1.4 million in the big leagues. If they chose Perez, it would cost them the big league minimum. So, yeah. It was close enough – Perez is the same age as Wolters but comes with much more offensive upside (the glove is questionable) – that it’s not weird that the Pirates would choose Perez to save the money.
As for Wolters, your hope is that the glove is what it has been, in which case the drop-off from Romine might not be all that significant overall. Romine can be a much better bat if he’s healthy, but Wolters doesn’t strike out a lot, takes a lot of walks, and has a not-brutal career line against righties: .240/.322/.325. Like all Rockies hitters, he has perverse home/road splits (.273/.357/.369 at Coors, .203/.289/.268 away from Coors), but as we’ve seen with hitters who leave Colorado, that doesn’t always tell you exactly what’s going to happen. Wolters definitely benefited from the artificially inflated BABIP you get at Coors, but you don’t know to what extent he got hammered by the Coors hangover effect when going on the road.
You know what? I’m not gonna get too deep on that stuff, because the bat is almost certainly going to be rough either way, and in a back-up catcher, you’re mostly looking for a premium glove if you can get it. Wolters has, for most of his career, definitely been that guy. So I’m pleased with this pick-up, given the Cubs’ limited options. Although Wolters’ deal with the Pirates was a minor league pact, his big league rate – $1.4 million – was almost the same as what the Cubs agreed to pay Austin Romine this year ($1.5 million). That is to say, they weren’t that far off from each other in the free agent back-up catcher tiers.
As for Higgins, this is probably a huge disappointment. But the flip side is that, because of the shut down last year, he might be best served playing more regularly anyway. There could come a time when he does come up to be the back-up catcher – he could have a league-average bat, add some versatility, and maybe the glove rates out as at least average, too. But the Cubs evaluated the situation and determined now was not yet that time.