The top prospect designation is a curse as often as it is a blessing. The same goes for the star rookie label, and Gary Sánchez knows it well. While he has established himself as a serviceable big league catcher over the past six years, he still plays in the shadow of his star-making rookie and sophomore campaigns. And though he’s had his ups and downs, he’s been a solid player in the years following his lone Silver Slugger season. Since 2018, he ranks 10th among active catchers with 8.6 WAR; since 2021, he’s 14th with 4.6. Yet his reputation remains that of a disappointment. His struggles are amplified, and his successes are overlooked.
Sánchez went unsigned during the 2022–23 offseason, finally earning a minor league deal with the Giants on the second day of the regular season. After a month at Triple-A, he opted out of his contract, signing a new minor league deal with the Mets shortly thereafter. And although he did make his way onto New York’s active roster, his stay in the majors was brief; after three games, he was designated for assignment. It wasn’t until late May, when the Padres scooped him up off waivers, that Sánchez finally found a path to regular playing time.
Yet it’s not as if he had a terrible season the year before. In 2022, he ranked sixth among primary catchers in games played and 20th in innings behind the dish. By our calculation, he was worth 1.3 WAR, 22nd among catchers. That didn’t turn any heads, but 1.3 WAR was more than 12 teams got from the catching position in 2022. And it’s not as if he was due for regression. Despite his low .290 wOBA, he had a .321 xwOBA — slightly higher than league average, and significantly better than average for a catcher. While his power numbers were down, he tore the cover off the ball, posting hard-hit and barrel rates in the 92nd percentile. Heading into his age-30 campaign, his 50th percentile ZiPS projection for 2023 was 1.7 WAR. If you presume a win is worth about $8 million in free agency, that projection translates to $13.6 million on a one-year deal.
So why did Sánchez have so much trouble finding a new home for 2023? Clearly, his skillset was underrated around the league; 11 catchers signed for more money that winter, yet only one, Willson Contreras, ended up producing more WAR. But the bigger problem was that only a handful of teams needed new catchers for 2023, and those that did just went in different directions, leaving Sánchez without a market.
Now 31 years old, Sánchez is coming off a better season than he had in 2022, albeit a shorter one. His 111 wRC+ ranked 11th among primary catchers (min. 250 PA), and his .340 xwOBA was his highest mark since 2019. With 1.7 WAR, he provided the Padres with more value than 14 teams got from their catchers all season. But once again, it looks like he’ll have trouble finding a new team. As was the case last winter, the problem isn’t that he wouldn’t make any clubs better behind the plate, but that almost every team has a sufficient catching situation in place, and most of them might be happy with what they already have — or at least happy enough that they’re not going to mess with their plans for a marginal upgrade.
It’s a strange position for Sánchez to be in. He’s either the best or the second-best backstop on the market, depending on how much of a catcher you think Mitch Garver really is. He ranked 35th on our Top 50 Free Agents list, and Ben Clemens predicted he’d sign for one year and $10 million, a perfectly reasonable estimate given the thin catching market and his performance in 2023.
This chart breaks down the projected catching situation for all 30 clubs (per Roster Resource). I’ve separated the teams into three tiers based on their catching situation. The lines between the categories are, by force of circumstance, a little fuzzy, but they get the job done:
The Catching Landscape for 2024
The three teams with the most glaring need behind the plate are the Red Sox, Rays, and Marlins. Boston has a couple of cost-controlled, young-ish catchers on the roster in McGuire and Wong. A year ago, I might have said the Sox should just give those two a chance, but that’s exactly what they did in 2023, without much success; their catchers combined for just 10 home runs, a 78 wRC+, and 1.0 WAR. They don’t project to be much better in 2024, either. Unfortunately for Sánchez, Boston’s needs also make it the most obvious landing spot for Garver. With Wong, McGuire, and Masataka Yoshida on the roster, the Sox don’t need a full-time catcher or DH. What they could use, however, is a big bat for the middle of the order who can split time between those two positions.
The Rays have a slightly more promising tandem behind the plate in Pinto and Jackson, but neither has a stranglehold on a starting job, and Jackson isn’t even on the 40-man roster. This is the Rays we’re talking about, though, and it’s hard to imagine they’ll spend on Sánchez.
The Marlins seem to be the next most logical fit. Their projected starting catcher, Fortes, is a standout defender, thanks to his excellent blocking and above-average framing skills. That said, his offense was a dumpster-fire disaster last season, and that’s putting it politely. Only two NL hitters (min. 300 PA) had a lower OPS than his .562: his teammates Joey Wendle and Jean Segura. It comes as little surprise that the Marlins “remain open to finding a catcher who would start or share time with [Fortes],” as recently reported by the Miami Herald’s Barry Jackson and Craig Mish. But the name Jackson and Mish mention is former Cardinals backup Andrew Knizner. If that’s the market the Marlins are shopping in, Sánchez probably isn’t in the budget.
After the Red Sox, Rays, and Marlins, well… that’s pretty much it, in terms of teams with regular playing time to offer. The Cubs and Rockies could use an upgrade, but they’re likely to stick with the veterans they have who are still under contract. Meanwhile, the Pirates, Reds, Nationals, Athletics, and Angels don’t project to get much production from their catchers, but they’re all counting on promising young backstops to take a step forward in 2024.
If Sánchez is willing to take a back seat, there could be a spot for him in Milwaukee or Arizona. The Brewers and Diamondbacks each have an excellent young catcher, but their backup situations are bad, to say the least. What’s more, each could use more offense, and both teams should have reps to offer at DH. The big question is if either team would be willing to spend on Sánchez instead of cheaper backup options like Yasmani Grandal, Martín Maldonado, Tom Murphy, Austin Nola, or Eric Haase.
Other teams that might have had a spot for Sánchez entering the offseason have seemingly already filled that hole. His former team, the Padres, were the only club formally linked to him this winter, but they recently acquired Kyle Higashioka from the Yankees to work alongside former top prospect Luis Campusano. Meanwhile, the Astros recently signed Victor Caratini to a two-year deal, and the White Sox scooped up Max Stassi from the Braves. Are any of Higashioka, Caratini, or Stassi better than Sánchez? Not necessarily. But after investing in those backstops, it’s hard to imagine the Padres, Astros, or White Sox would pursue another catcher.
Indeed, that sums up the problem Sánchez is facing. Plenty of teams could use an upgrade behind the plate, but do they want that upgrade badly enough to spend eight figures on another catcher? In truth, the Red Sox are the only team I can picture making that kind of offer, but they’re not going to make it without any competition. Thus, the best pure catcher available this winter could wind up waiting, waiting, and waiting before signing another low-value deal. It’s a thin market for catchers, but it’s also a thin market for catchers. Sánchez could be in for another long wait.