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One of the best catchers in baseball has been a key acquisition for the Brewers.
Yasmani Grandal has been one of many victims of the current troublesome state of free agency. The Cuban catcher was one of the best at his position, yet he was not able to find a contract that would pay him fair value, and as a result, he had to settle for a one-year, $18.25 million deal with the Brewers. The deal includes a mutual option for 2020, but I am going to go out on a limb and say that it will not be exercised.
FanGraphs started incorporating pitching-framing into their WAR model this season, so that is the one I will refer to in this article.
The Brewers obviously had a great season last year, but they did not get much production from their catchers, who combined to hit just .238/.294/.363. Their 76 wRC+ was tied with the Royals for 22nd best in baseball, but thankfully they were able to add defensive value to make up for the lack of offense. Combining for 1.9 WAR is not much, but at least it led to their catchers ranking in the middle of the pack instead of the bottom ten.
General Manager David Stearns is a smart man, so he knew that the Brewers were very much set up to regress after their magical 96-win 2018 season. Thankfully, a great option presented itself during the winter.
From 2016-2018, Grandal led all catchers in fWAR. He hit .239/.332/.467 during that time with a 12.1 percent walk rate. His 116 wRC+ was virtually tied with Buster Posey and slightly ahead of J.T. Realmuto. Gary Sánchez and Wilson Ramos were better offensively, but they had ~300 fewer plate appearances. Yes, he was entering his age-30 season, but he merited at least a four-year, $100 million contract. If I were a GM for a contending team with a need at catcher, I would have paid far more if required.
Unfortunately, competitive teams seem to no longer want to spend money to make their teams better, even if the front end of the contract makes an ugly back end easier to swallow. Grandal had a qualifying offer attached to him, too, so he had that working against him as well. I understand that Grandal had a rough postseason, especially defensively, but I highly doubt that is what kept teams from throwing a bunch of money at him, regardless of what they might say publicly. Teams are smart enough these days to know not to put weight in such small sample sizes.
Grandal, unsurprisingly, was one of the best catchers in baseball this year. The switch-hitter has hit .248/.381/.470 and walked a whopping 17.1 percent of the time. Only Mike Trout has walked at a higher rate among qualified hitters! His 122 wRC+ ranks third among catchers with at least 350 PA, and the two catchers ahead of him, Willson Contreras and Omar Narváez, have far, far fewer plate appearances. His 5.0 WAR ranks second only behind J.T. Realmuto, whose 5.6 WAR is partially the result of a great improvement in his defense and pitch-framing.
Obviously Christian Yelich is the best player on the team, but Grandal is in second place by a wide margin over the next best position player by WAR. Mike Moustakas has done well, but he has not cracked 3.0 WAR. Keston Hiura has raked at the plate this year, hitting .302/.370/.579, but he is not good defensively at second base and has missed a lot of time due to injury.
The Brewers are currently three games behind the Cardinals, and though they still have a small chance at the division, it is not likely with just a week left in the regular season and no head-to-head match-ups. However, they are three games up on the Cubs for the last Wild card slot and just one game behind the Nationals for the first slot. Things are looking pretty good for the Brew Crew to make the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time since 1982, and they have a good shot at hosting the wild card game.
We will have to see how the final standings look in a week, but Grandal taking the place of a replacement level catcher or even an average catcher this season could end up being the difference between the Brewers being in the playoffs or being on the outside looking in. If the team actually ends up hosting the Wild Card game, the Grandal signing will be the biggest reason why.
Stearns deserves credit for seizing the opportunity and convincing ownership to actually spend money, but Grandal on a one-year deal, even at $18.25 million is not right. Hopefully he will be able to do better this winter.
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Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.