The Arizona Diamondbacks were never likely to sign Yasmani Grandal, but nobody expected him to sign for a one-year, $18.25MM contract either.
I have to imagine that when most fanbases – the Arizona Diamondbacks‘ included – saw that Yasmani Grandal signed with the Brewers for one-year, $18.25MM, barely more than the qualifying offer amount, there was some serious head-scratching.
It’s the most shocking contract of the offseason by a fair margin. Perhaps Grandal should have accepted the supposed four-year, $60MM that the Mets offered him, but if that’s the only significant offer he received, the market did not play out as expected. So why not?
What’s Wrong With Grandal
Grandal is suffering from an unfortunate case of bad optics, coupled with a free market that’s gone tepid. He booted some balls in the playoffs, and worse, he was benched two World Series runs in a row.
He was also the primary catcher on back-to-back World Series teams. Some playoff miscues shouldn’t (entirely) erase his considerable regular season accomplishments. The playoffs are notoriously fickle, the regular season less so – just ask Clayton Kershaw.
In the regular season, when trends and averages play a much bigger role, he’s a stud: look at his defensive metrics, look at his isolated power and walk rates, look at rate metrics like wRC+. Grandal has been a great catcher. And importantly, there aren’t many of them.
Only four catchers in the entire league accumulated more than 2.0 fWAR last season: J.T. Realmuto (4.8 fWAR), Grandal (3.6 fWAR), Willson Contreras (2.6 fWAR), and Yadier Molina (2.2 fWAR). Grandal is only 30-years-old, still touching the tail end of his prime, so why the heck did he settle for a one year deal?
The loss of a draft pick might have affected his market, but that’s barely a data point as it didn’t affect the market for so many others. Time will tell what happens with A.J. Pollock, but he will be a great counter case. If he ends up signing for big money, that will tell us a lot about how this market of major league clubs values the catching position.
Grandal’s free agency next season, of course, should settle the qualifying offer question, as when he hits the market a year from now he will be completely unrestricted (though a year older).
It might not be the draft pick specifically, but it stands to reason that Grandal’s market was limited because there aren’t enough buyers. There are simply too many teams right now who aren’t even in the conversation for significant free agents. We’re seeing this in the markets for Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, two monster free agents who are struggling to drum up enough interest to get the mega 10-year deals they seek (deserve?).
But Grandal isn’t seeking a 10-year deal. I can’t help but wonder how many teams, like the Diamondbacks, didn’t even reach out to Grandal because of a rebuild. Even his previous team, the Dodgers, never truly seemed interested in a reunion, which, of course, was another of the bad optics issues confronting Grandal.
But the Dodgers lack of interest is only part of Grandal’s optics problem. There’s also his playoff performance, noted above, and there might be a third issue: considering he led the league (among catchers) in games played last year with 140, it is reasonable to be concerned about his productivity going forward.
Not many guys catch 140 games behind the dish anymore. That should be a plus in Grandal’s favor – unfortunately, a market that doesn’t want to spend money finds reasons not to spend money.
Still, catcher is a bereft position league-wide, and Grandal does almost everything well, including hit for power, which almost no catcher does.
What’s Wrong With Catchers?
This got me thinking, if Grandal played any other position, would he have generated more interest on the market? Below is the list of Top-4 players by position (by fWAR) in 2018, as well as the fWAR sum for each positional grouping.
**Some caveats: I gave each player credit only for the position where they recorded the most innings in 2018, so even though Pham would have landed third on the left fielders list, and he started in left over 30 times, he still only counts as a centerfielder because that’s where he saw the most innings.
**Secondly, this uses fWAR, far from a comprehensive way to judge player performance, but still one of the few catch-all metrics we have. For simplicity’s sake, let’s roll with it and just remember we’re dealing with an incomplete data set.
So how, exactly, does the second-most productive player at a position of such positional scarcity receive so little interest on the free agent market? That seems like a market inefficiency, no? Why didn’t anyone besides the Brewers sweep in to exploit it?
Catchers not only finished last on this list in total fWAR, but last by a good margin, 5.7 fWAR less than second-to-last finisher First Base, and a full 15.2 fWAR less than Third Baseman.
Part of this stems from the physical toll it takes to play the position. Most teams, as a matter of necessity, split up playing time much more between their catchers than between the starter and backup at any other position.
There’s an argument to be made, as well, that the positional scarcity makes catcher a less pressing upgrade than other positions, where the potential of high-end players appears much higher. Still, as the Washington Nationals have proven the last couple of seasons, receiving zero offense from a single position can be detrimental to the cause.
That assumes, of course, that “the cause” for a professional baseball team is to win. If the Diamondbacks really believe they are going to compete this year (and they keep saying they are), then it seems ridiculous not to have checked in on Grandal.
Did the Arizona Diamondbacks screw up?
Perhaps the Goldschmidt deal came together too quickly, because part of what made that deal work was the inclusion of Carson Kelly. Kelly’s value is almost exclusively tied to the position he plays: catcher.
There is something broken in the mechanism of player evaluation if a team like the Diamondbacks can trade away a star player in Paul Goldschmidt – playing another position facing some scarcity, btw – for a return featuring Kelly.
At the same time, Grandal signed for a portion of what he should have earned on the open market. Grandal’s power alone (.225 ISO) makes him a unicorn. His isolated slugging is more than .100 points higher than all but 4 other players at the position. That’s insane.
I don’t know what happened to Grandal’s market. Maybe he hates puppies. Maybe he smells bad. I don’t know.
I also don’t know what the Diamondbacks could have done about it after they already traded for Kelly. They could swap Kelly elsewhere, sure, but what is his trade value like on his own? If it’s not so great, then why did the Diamondbacks just trade their best ever player for him?
What I do know, is that two years in a row now, the Milwaukee Brewers are lapping the league in an area where only kingpins like the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox have been known to dominate: free agency. The Diamondbacks are supposedly not rebuilding. In which case, they should have checked in on the second-most productive catcher in the game.
Or maybe they are rebuilding because they’re too strapped for cash to appropriately add to the roster. But did they even check in on Grandal? Or is GM Mike Hazen as shocked as I was that he signed for so cheap?
The Arizona Diamondbacks do not appear to have a grasp on the big-picture view of where this league is going. But given the details of Grandal’s deal as reported by Fancred’s Jon Heyman, I’m not sure there’s a team besides the Brewers that does.