With just a few weeks until pitchers and ... uhh ... catchers ... report, no position on the San Francisco Giants is as big of a question mark as the catchers. Catcher, singular? Who knows.
So it’s only fair that we kick off our season previews by discussing the state of the position.
Players who played catcher for the Giants in 2022
Joey Bart — 93 games
Austin Wynns — 57 games
Curt Casali — 39 games
Michael Papierski — 4 games
Andrew Knapp — 3 games
Yermín Mercedes — 1 game
Ford Proctor — 1 game
Roster locks for 2023
Other catchers on the 40-man roster
Blake Sabol, arguably
Players in the system who might factor into the position
Brett Cumberland, if [redacted] really hits the fan
Patrick Bailey, if [redacted] really comes together
The catcher position was quickly thrown into disarray at the start of the month. In a span of a few days, the Giants designated Austin Wynns for assignment, were linked to former All-Star Gary Sánchez, and then had President of Baseball Operation Farhan Zaidi publicly state that the team was unlikely to make any more Major League moves at the position.
The dust settled a bit when Wynns cleared waivers and was outrighted to AAA Sacramento. For all intents and purposes, nothing has changed, the Giants just now need to find a roster spot to clear if they plan on entering 2023 the way they exited 2022: with Wynns as the backup.
Still, with pitchers and catchers reporting in just 20 days, it’s a bit jarring to look at the 40-man roster and see that there’s only one catcher ... with no plans to add to it.
Despite being the lowest impact position on the team, per ZiPS projections (which peg the Giants for just 1.3 WAR at the position), the Giants have three major storylines from three major players at backstop.
The first is Joey Bart. The lack of moves at the position — combined with trading Curt Casali last year, and subjecting Wynns to waivers — certainly point towards the team giving Bart the keys to position for this year.
But what will they get in return? Bart’s 2022 was a play in three acts. Act 1 covered Opening Day through June 4. He hit 14-90 with 4 home runs, 1 double, 15 walks, and 49 strikeouts, for a not-so-pretty .596 OPS. After recording just one extra-base hit from the start of May until that June cutoff date, Bart was sent back to AAA to work with coaches.
Act 2 took place when he returned, and ran from July 6 through the end of August. This time he hit 33-118 with 4 doubles, 6 home runs, and just 38 strikeouts. He sported a .792 OPS. He looked ready to hold down the position.
Until Act 3 took place for the entirety of September. Perhaps the league caught up to Bart. Perhaps he ran out of steam. Perhaps it was merely variance. Whatever it was, he ended the year hitting just 10-58 with 1 double, 1 home run, and a whopping 28 strikeouts, resulting in a .480 OPS.
When you account for his quite good but not great defense, Bart went from a serviceable catcher, to a very good one, to a very bad one. Which of those will he be in 2023? There are reasons for optimism and pessimism. The easiest case for the former is that Bart hits the absolute snot out of the baseball, and those hitters are always on the verge of success. Fangraphs lists him as a breakout candidate for 2023, noting that last year he had one of the largest gaps in the Majors between his average exit velocity (87.1 mph), and his 95th percentile exit velocity (107.2 mph). There are a lot of hard hit baseballs hiding in that bat.
The easiest case for pessimism is that he struck out a whopping 38.5% of the time last year, which was third in the Majors among hitters with at least 250 plate appearances. He made that number more digestible by sporting an 8.9% walk rate, but looking at his AAA numbers and previous years in the Majors only leads us to think that walks will come down but the strikeouts might not.
Either way, Bart is, as the kids say, the main character at the position. He’ll start twice in every three-game series. And by the time the season ends, I suspect we’ll have a good feel for whether or not he’s the long term answer at the position.
The second storyline is Blake Sabol, the third overall pick in this year’s Rule 5 Draft, whom the Giants then swung a trade for. If you’re new to the delightfully whacky world of Rule 5 Drafts, I’ll skip to the important part: despite having options, Sabol cannot be optioned by the Giants. He must spend every day of the season on the 26-player active roster (except for when he’s on the Injured List), or else he’ll be returned to the Pittsburgh Pirates in a gift basket with an apology note.
If you want to be excited about Sabol, there’s this: he spent a month in AAA last year and hit .296/.426/.543 (157 wRC+), with a 16.8% walk rate. He’s a wildly intriguing left-handed bat, and if the Giants had come about him honestly rather than through the same means that brought them Forever Giants Connor Joe and Dedniel Núñez, I’d be pretty excited about him.
But the cold water with Sabol is ice cold. He has all of 101 plate appearances in AAA, which followed a 124 wRC+ season in AA. One of the worst teams in the Majors decided not to add him to the 40-man roster to protect him from the Rule 5 Draft. He’s listed as an outfielder, and didn’t start catching until 2021, with scouting opinions of his defensive ability at the position ranging from “he can’t play at the Major League level” to “lol no.”
On a worse team than the Giants, Sabol would make so much sense, either as a throw-him-in-the-deep-end-of-the-pool catcher or, ideally, as a do-everything utility player who is the emergency third-string catcher. But the Giants don’t have the roster space for the latter, so Sabol’s path likely starts and ends with proving in Spring Training that he can competently field the position. The one big upside of Wynns being outrighted is that it makes it a lot easier to start the year with Sabol as the backup catcher. It doesn’t burn three 40-man spots on catchers, and if the Giants decide the Sabol experiment is bad — which is the expected outcome with any Rule 5 draftee — they can send him to Pittsburgh and plug Wynns into the vacant 40 and 26-man spot.
Which brings us to our third storyline: Wynns. The lovable veteran made a lot of fans last year, particularly within the Giants rotation. Pitchers loved throwing to him, and the results were generally good when they did. Our feelings about him are probably not entirely commensurate with the 93 wRC+, mediocre defensive stats, and 0.4 fWAR that he put up, which represented the best hitting season of his career by a mile, and the first time in his life he had put up a positive fWAR figure. Wynns is a good guy to have around, and the Giants can do a lot worse, but he looks a lot better as the backup catcher to Buster Posey than to Bart. Still, if he breaks camp with the team, no one will be complaining. If backup catcher is your biggest problem, you’re in great shape, and the Giants are not in great shape.
Beyond those three, the Giants are short on storylines. Ricardo Genovés, who is somehow still only 23, got some AAA seasoning last year, and his glove certainly looks MLB caliber, but hitting .233/.320/.349 (70 wRC+) in Sacramento and .203/.286/.374 (81 wRC+) in AA doesn’t suggest that he’s ready to contribute. Patrick Bailey won a Minor League Gold Glove last year, but scouts thought his hitting wasn’t as good as his numbers, and his numbers weren’t even particularly notable (113 wRC+), and that’s before accounting for the fact that he was a 23-year old in High-A. Both of those guys could become factors if they have exceptional seasons, and history tells us there will be a few randos here and there, which may or may not include Ford Proctor, who is still in the organization but no longer on the 40-man roster.
In summation, the catcher position might be the most interesting or least interesting position on the Giants this year, depending on your point of view. And it might be entering 2024, too.