The Tony Wolters catching era is over. After four years with the Rockies, the front office decided to non-tender him last Wednesday. (For more on what he, David Dahl and Chi Chi González meant to the club, check out Joelle Milholm’s Friday Rockpile.)
With Wolters gone, there’s now a big mustache-sized hole behind the plate. After Elias Díaz re-signed with the team last week, he figures to be Wolters’ heir apparent, especially since he seemed to unofficially take over the starting role late last season.
But even with Díaz, the Rockies don’t have much proven depth at catcher. The last time I checked, you need a couple dependable catchers on the 26-man roster and then some more at Triple-A in the event that they are needed. So what do they currently have?
Like I said above, Díaz will most likely begin the season as the catcher getting the majority of the starts. In 2020, Díaz slashed .235/.288/.353 in 68 at-bats which isn’t a glamorous overall line. However, in the 15 games he started, Díaz batted .268/.317/.411 in 56 at-bats. This might suggest he’s better than his overall numbers if he gets to see the ball enough. Of course all 2020 stats come with the disclaimer that the season was so short and the sample size of most players isn’t enough for judgement. That’s most likely why the Rockies brought him back for what everyone hopes will be a full season.
There’s no definitive metric of measuring a catcher’s ability, but if you look at pitch framing, Díaz was just as good as Wolters in 2020. Both held an identical 47.2% called strike rate on non-swing pitches just outside the zone, according to Baseball Savant. That number is about a full point behind the league average of 48.3%. Wolters did offer above-average pop time (1.97 seconds in 2019), but Díaz had a better average time in both 2017 and 2019.
If Díaz can maintain his offensive numbers as a starter and play average defense, he’ll have a lock on the Rockies’ starting catching job.
As of now it looks like the departure of Wolters lines up Nuñez to get a good share of games in 2021. The 25-year-old out of Elk Grove, California found himself as an odd man out last year, even as the Rockies carried three catchers for the entire season. Now with both Wolters and Drew Butera gone, Nuñez has his biggest opportunity to stick on the major league roster. He made his debut back in 2019 and went 7-for-39 (.179) in 16 games.
With Nuñez you can expect some left-handed power and an on-base percentage that’s 80-plus points higher than his batting average. While in Albuquerque in 2019, he showed improved power, hitting 17 home runs and batting .244/.362/.559 in just over 200 at-bats. Defensively, he’s been scouted as an above-average catcher.
You may have missed this, but about a month ago Briceño was signed to a minor league deal with an invitation to spring training, according to MLB.com’s Thomas Harding. Originally signed by the Rockies as an amateur in 2009, Briceño now comes out of the Angels organization with some major league experience. He went .239/.299/.385 in just over 100 at-bats in 46 games in 2018. Since then he’s only appeared in two more major league games.
The 28-year-old is looking for an opportunity to get back to the majors and prove himself. It’s possible that if he’s lights out in spring training or in Albuquerque, he could get the nod over another catcher. Otherwise he’s expected to be a solid depth piece and possibly come up in case of injury.
We now know the Rockies are looking to save money, so you can shut down any hope for a proven everyday catcher. It’s much more likely they look to add another catcher by way of a minor league deal. Options could include guys like Chadwick Tromp, Cameron Rupp, and my personal favorite, former 31st rounder Jett Bandy! There’s also 37-year-old Drew Butera, if they really want to stay “loyal.”
It seems the Rockies are ready to hand over the keys to Díaz and Nuñez together. Both aren’t completely proven so if the Rockies make no additional signings at catcher, they’ll be showing a lot of trust in them.
Personally, I’m going to guess they begin the year with Díaz and Nuñez. They will hope one or both sticks and will adjust accordingly from there. What do you think of them? Should the Rockies bring in a proven veteran? Sound off below!
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Matt Holliday expresses his confidence in Nolan Arenado’s ability to maintain his Hall of Fame pace if he were to change teams. Holliday also shares his own experience in playing at and away from Coors Field.
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