The Cubs Have Reportedly Discussed Free Agent Catchers Christian Vazquez and Omar Narvaez

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The Cubs Have Reportedly Discussed Free Agent Catchers Christian Vazquez and Omar Narvaez

Chicago Cubs

A majority of our early offseason attention has been gobbled up by the Cubs’ need to add impact starting pitching and the desire to add one of the big four free agent shortstops — that’s probably not changing anytime soon. But after yesterday’s deadline, the Chicago Cubs are officially without catcher Willson Contreras for the first time since 2015, and that needs to be addressed.

Fortunately, the Cubs aren’t starting from scratch: the presence of Yan Gomes and P.J. Higgins provides a useful combination of veteran experience and positional flexibility behind the plate. There is real value there, and if the Cubs entered the season with just those two guys, they’d probably be … all right. It wouldn’t be an immediate disaster. HOWEVA, Gomes, 35, is an offensive liability that isn’t getting any younger, and Higgins is probably best seen as a depth piece, stashed in Triple-A Iowa, for the inevitable rainy day. Concerningly, there’s virtually no depth behind these two, so an injury to one, especially Gomes, could leave the Cubs in a horrible position.*

*Miguel Amaya may eventually become a factor, but with so much missed developmental time (which goes double for a young catcher), you just cannot count on him playing a significant role for the Cubs in 2023.

And remember, the Cubs have gotten a TON of value out of their catchers over the last eight seasons (6th in WAR, 3rd in wRC+), and I’m sure they’d prefer to keep that up, even if focusing more on the defensive and game-planning/calling side of things.

Recently, we discussed a number of high-quality trade targets available this winter, from the A’s Sean Murphy to the Blue Jays trio of young backstops (Danny Jansen, Gabriel Moreno, Alejandro Kirk). But there’s also free agency. And while a reunion with Contreras, the top free agent catcher, seems incredibly unlikely, there are two other quality, two-way catchers in the tier just beneath him. And both were just connected to the Chicago Cubs.

Take it away, Sahadev Sharma and Patrick Mooney of The Athletic:

The Cubs are expected to add a veteran catcher — names such as Christian Vázquez and Omar Narváez have been discussed internally — who will share the catching responsibilities with Yan Gomes next season.

There’s actually a lot of information there, despite being a small snippet of a longer piece.

The way I see it, (1) the Cubs are expected to add a catcher this offseason, (2) that catcher is likely to be a “veteran” who can share responsibilities with Gomes (which makes a trade for a solo starter like Murphy or the younger Blue Jays guys less likely), and (3) the Cubs are discussing both Christian Vázquez and Omar Narváez internally.

Of the total list of free agent catchers available this offseason, I’d argue that those two are the most attractive options behind Contreras, perhaps in a secondary tier of their own with everyone else falling in beneath them.

Christian Vázquez

Vázquez, 32, spent the first-half of his season with the Red Sox, where he slashed .282/.327/.432 (110 wRC+) before being shipped to the Astros after Dusty Baker and Jim Crane nixed the Willson Contreras deal. Some serious overlap there, eh?

Vázquez struggled offensively down the stretch for the Astros, but that sample was barely over 100 PAs, and he has more good offensive production than bad over the last four years. He’s not Willson Contreras at the plate (nearly no one is), so get that out of your head, but he’s not a total zero offensively, and not just “for a catcher.”

He was also particularly strong against left-handed pitching in 2022 (130 wRC+), though Gomes has the same lefty/righty preference, so maybe you can’t quite perfectly optimize there.

Defensively, Vázquez rates out *extremely* well, ranking 5th in Defensive Runs Saved (11), 13th in framing (4.9), and 9th in overall defensive rating among all catchers (14.4).

Expand that filter for the duration of his career (2014-2022), and you’ll be even more impressed:

  • DRS: 51 (3rd in MLB), behind only Martin Maldonado and Buster Posey
  • FRM: 60.5 (4th in MLB), behind only Mike Zunino, Posey, and Yasmani Grandal
  • DEF: 119.3 (4th in MLB), just ahead of Yadier Molina and behind only Zunino, Maldonado, Posey, and Grandal

And if numbers don’t really do it for you, consider that he was the type of catcher the Houston Astros though they could incorporate at mid-season, in the middle of a pennant race, to work alongside Martin Maldonado, who’s also known for his work behind the plate.

I’m a big fan.

Christian Vázquez comes in as the 46th best free agent according to FanGraphs, with a projected contract in the two-year, $16-$18M range. That’s an EASY decision if you ask me, and makes me suspect he might get even more.

But we know he’s not the only option.

Omar Narváez

Narváez is a really interesting play. For a while, before the Brewers, he was considered an offensive-first catcher, and for good reason. In 2017 (101 wRC+, 3.6 DEF), 2018 (121 wRC+, -5.2 DEF), and 2019 (120 wRC+, -8.5 DEF), that’s exactly what he was. A plus at the plate, a negative behind it. But during his first year in Milwaukee, he made huge strides defensively, seemingly at the expense of his offensive production.

Just check this out total defensive change:

Defensive Runs Saved, FRM

2017: -7 DRS, -1.8 FRM
2018: -14 DRS, -10.0 FRM
2019: -18 DRS, -10.4 FRM

***Joins Milwaukee***

2020: +2 DRS, +3.9 FRM
2021: +3 DRS, +8.8 FRM
2022: +1 DRS, +7.5 FRM

I mean wow. That is wild. But again, whatever focus(?) or time(?) that improvement required, seems to have sapped his offensive ability: 2020 (60 wRC+), 2021 (100 wRC+), 2022 (71 wRC+).

But there’s a big BUT. Narváez is a left-handed hitter, who has handled righties (106 wRC+) a lot better than lefties throughout his career. So at least offensively, you might envision or a more obvious platoon with Gomes. The question is whether you believe the changes he made with the Brewers can/will carry forward. Because if they don’t, and his offensive production continues to dive, then what are we really left with?

Omar Narváez comes in as FanGraphs 45th best free agent this offseason, one spot ahead of Vázquez, with a projected contract of two years and $14-16M. So these are effectively two VERY close decisions.

Personally, I think Vázquez is the better play, but I can very much see the angle on Narváez (Brett: especially since we don’t have a great sense for how good each guy is at the “soft factors” of being a team’s catcher, and part of the whole run-prevention apparatus). And ultimately, either guy would be just fine with Gomes behind the plate. I’m very happy to see the Cubs are taking this seriously and shooting for the two best free agent catching options besides Willson Contreras.

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Author: Michael Cerami

Michael Cerami covers the Chicago Cubs, Bears, and Bulls at Bleacher Nation. You can find him on Twitter @Michael_Cerami