Just a few weeks after declaring they felt comfortable with their catching contingent, the Angels have changed their tune. They are in active pursuit of a new catcher to pair with Max Stassi, a move that comes on the heels of their decision to move on from Kevan Smith. General manager Billy Eppler said Monday at baseball’s winter meetings that he has homed in on six to seven potential targets, including two on the trading block.
New Angels manager Joe Maddon appeared to be instrumental in shifting the team’s focus.
In his first news conference since being introduced at Angel Stadium in October, Maddon espoused the virtues of having a solid backstop. Like Mike Scioscia and Brad Ausmus before him, Maddon is a former catcher. He believes catchers provide the foundation for a team’s pitching staff.
“You don’t really have good pitching staffs without good catchers,” Maddon said. “It’s almost incongruent.”
The Angels are in desperate need of improved pitching after posting one of the worst earned-run averages in franchise history in 2019. It stands to reason they must also upgrade the position charged with handling that staff. If that means sacrificing offense for a solid defender who can call games well, the Angels’ most visible leaders are all for it.
“A lot of the catchers that we’re talking to, there’s one common denominator — they’re defensive-oriented,” Eppler said. “At least in my history being around a lot of defensive-oriented catchers . . . their defensive acumen really locks them in with pitchers early. They really know how to study them and know how to get through to them and know how to speak their language.”
Several free-agent catchers have already signed this offseason, including Yasmani Grandal, Travis D’Arnaud, Stephen Vogt and Alex Avila. A few proven catchers remain on the market, including former Angel and Gold Glove winner Martin Maldonado and former Minnesota Twins catcher Jason Castro.
Possibilities on the trade market include the Cincinnati Reds’ Tucker Barnhart, who is 28 and has two years and a team option remaining, and the Chicago Cubs’ Willson Contreras.
Contreras, 27, would be a great fit because he caught for the Cubs four of Maddon’s five years in Chicago. But Contreras, eligible for arbitration for the first time in his career, would likely cost the Angels several prospects because he is under team control through 2022 and he batted .272 with 24 home runs last season.
All share one commonality: They are considered above-average pitch-framers, according to advanced metrics.
“Really the best catchers are the ones that can go 0-for-4 and catch a shutout and are absolutely thrilled,” Maddon said. “They’re more concerned about their guy than they are about their hitting and stuff.
“I think he’s the middle linebacker. He’s the play caller. He’s got to have a great mind. He’s got to have great recall. He’s got to be open-minded. He has to have creativity. He’s got to know when to go off script.”
It all points to the Angels changing their script in making the acquisition of a proven catcher a priority.