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Wolters solidifies post as starting catcher for Rockies, but who will back him up?

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Veterans Elias Diaz and Drew Butera will battle prospect Dom Nunez for time behind the plate

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Despite many write-ups—from MLB.com, from the Denver Post ($), and from the Athletic ($),—about how much the Rockies needed to go out and get a free agent catcher, like every other position, they didn’t make significant changes over the offseason. No trades or free agents. Instead, the Rockies went to arbitration and told Tony Wolters, the catcher who started 112 games last year (tied with Yorvit Torrealba for second most games caught in a season by a Rockies catcher) and improved his batting average nearly 100 points, that he wasn’t worth the $2.475 million he asked for. The Rockies won, and Wolters will earn $1.9 million this year. The deal is still about a million dollars more than Wolters made in 2019 when he took over the starting role after Chris Iannetta was designated for assignment.

Iannetta left the Rockies as the organization’s leader in games started (579) and played (820) at catcher. He was also making more than double what Wolters will get this year.

This season, the Rockies have started spring training with two catchers on the roster, with Dom Nuñez joining Wolters. There are four other catchers who got invites to spring training as well: former Rockie and veteran Drew Butera, Elias Díaz (who has spent the last three years sharing time behind the plate for the Pittsburgh Pirates) and Rockies minor league prospects Chris Rabago and Brian Serven.

Last year, Purple Row’s Renee Dechert put forth the argument that the catching crew was more than capable of getting the job done for the Rockies. Since 2019, the personnel may have changed, but Bud Black’s approach to catchers has not: He most values their defensive skill and ability to work with pitchers, and he prefers that they have significant MLB experience. The Rockies catchers at spring training reflect that.

The starter

Wolters is the man behind the plate. He is tasked with guiding the pitchers (many of whom need bounce-back seasons) to finding more success in 2020. He is a good defensive catcher who also gets a lot of praise from the pitchers about calling games and knowing the staff well. “He probably has a better idea about pitching than I do,” Jon Gray recently said. Wolters is also well-liked in the clubhouse, a quality of debatable worth, but I think matters a lot, especially for a catcher.

After coming up in Cleveland’s system, the Rockies claimed Wolters off waivers in 2016 and he was the Opening Day catcher for the Rockies in 2017. He then grabbed fan fame for his 13th-inning, go-ahead single up the middle that led Colorado to a Wild Card win over the Chicago Cubs in 2018.

Wolters, who entered spring training without the mustache this year, earned the #Don’tDashontheStache nickname because he ranked fourth in the National League after throwing out 23 would-be base stealers. He also ranked 11th in the NL in caught stealing percentage (34%), according to Baseball Reference. Additionally, he only had four passed balls. Baseball Savant puts Wolters at 15th overall in the majors with a pop time of 1.96 seconds (from the time the ball hits Wolters’ mitt to the glove of the infielder trying to tag out the runner). However, when it comes to pitch framing, Baseball Savant shows that Wolters doesn’t generate extra strikes, as he ranks 62nd overall. Offensively, Wolters, a lefty, hit .262/.337/.329 with 17 doubles, 42 RBI, 36 walks, and 68 strikeouts.

The backups

Butera, who is entering his 10th MLB season, is a veteran who could backup Wolters and has the advantage of knowing the system and the pitchers. In Baseball Prospectus: The Essential Guide to the 2020 Season, Darius Austin writes of Butera, he “has made a career of hanging on to a major-league spot as a backup catcher.” All indications are he will continue his career with the Rockies.

He played 16 games with the Rockies in 2019 before the organization let him go to free agency and then eventually re-signed him on a minor league deal this offseason. This is a common pattern for the Rockies—signing mediocre veterans who have experience with the organization. A right-hander, Butera played very well, especially offensively, in Triple-A last year, but hit only .163/.229/.233 in 43 at-bats with the Rockies. He was decent defensively, throwing out 33% percent of runners, which amounted to two in his small sample size.

In January, the Rockies picked up Díaz to add more depth after the Pirates non-tendered him. Díaz, a 29-year-old righty who comes with a recommendation from former Rockies and Pirates manager Clint Hurdle, has more offense, especially against lefties, as he hit .307/.333/.448 in the last two seasons in 172 plate appearances. Overall in 2019, he played in 101 games, hitting .241/.296/.307 with two homers and 28 RBI, but isn’t highly regarded as a defensive catcher (he led the NL in errors at catcher with 12 and was tied for 10th in passed balls with eight). He does rank sixth in pop time at 1.93 seconds but is behind Wolters at No. 63 in pitch framing. He also threw out 11 runners (26%), which was good enough for 11th overall.

Depth options

With Nuñez, 25, as the only other catcher on the 40-man roster right now, he is still in the running for a backup role. He has been a promising prospect since 2013 along with Tom Murphy, who has found his home and is now thriving with the Seattle Mariners, but he’s been inconsistent in the minors. Nunez enters 2020 ranked No. 24 on Purple Row’s PuRP list.

After hitting .244/.362/.559 in Triple-A in 2019, Nuñez, a left-handed hitter, finally got the call up to the majors on August 13 and homered in his first game. He struggled after, finishing the year with a batting line of .179/.233/.410 in a small sample of 43 plate appearances. While he has potential, the signings of Díaz and Butera aren’t good signs that Nuñez will keep his roster spot since he has three options left. He’s likely to start the season in the minors, but a breakout spring changes everything.

On the farm

Rabago, a 26-year-old UC Irvine product, was drafted by the Rockies in 2013 in the 13th round. He played 46 games in Double-A Hartford last year, hitting .207/.331/.310, and 14 games for Triple-A Albuquerque (.259/.298/.407). This is Rabago’s third non-roster spring training invite, and he figures to stay in the minors again this season to continue developing behind Nuñez.

Serven, 24, split time in Class-A Advanced Lancaster (.268/.326/.488) and Double-A Hartford (.202/.286/.364) in 2019. The Rockies drafted Severn in the fifth round in 2016 and he figures to continue to develop in the minors this year.

Arvincent Perez, a 26-year-old out of Venezuela, played 59 games with the Yard Goats in 2019 and hit .258/.268/.328. There are no high-ranked catchers in system and the Rockies might be wise to draft high in this area this year.

Other options

Well, hmmm. We could always bring back Iannetta. Oh wait, he signed a minor league deal with the New York Yankees (A.K.A the Rockies East). Jonathan Lucroy? Signed a minor league deal with the Boston Red Sox. Russell Martin? He’s still a free agent. Maybe after spring training and the dust settles on rosters, there will be more options in veterans who didn’t secure 40-man roster spots if the Rockies decide to add another catcher.